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Youth Activism in the 1960s and Today

From time immemorial, youth have provided the catalytic energy and risk-taking behaviour for any social movement worth its name. When triggering events occur for the movement, it is invariably young people who are the first responders, pouring into the streets and demanding change.

The sixties

The Canada of the 1960s was very different than today. Following World War II , there had been a massive expansion of the university education system and tuition was inexpensive. It was a time of economic boom and an expanding middle class, and young people did not worry, generally, about finding work or supporting themselves. What we did worry about was the nuclear bomb, war and economic inequality. We were the children of people who had fought in World War II and we were inculcated with the values our parents thought they had fought for: freedom, democracy, justice, peace. Our mothers — forced out of the workforce after the war — poured their longing for relevance into us, and we thought we had a mission to rebuild the world.

In the summer of 1965, I was working as a researcher for the Organizing Committee of the Company of Young Canadians in Ottawa. Sent out to interview executive directors of national voluntary agencies like the YMCA about what they thought young Canadians should do, I soon found myself in the offices of the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA) in Toronto talking to Arthur Pape. SUPA was at the time the centre of Canadian student organizing against the war in Vietnam (like SDS in the US). Formed in 1964 out of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarm-ament (CUCND), it had three key thrusts to its work: mobilizing against the war, organizing in communities left out of the prosperous society, and consciousness raising. I fell in love with the movement and all it stood for: participatory democracy, racial equality, Third World liberation, peace and social justice. After a SUPA gathering at St. Calixte, Québec, in September 1965, a weekend of intense political discussion, training in community organizing and youthful exuberance, I quit the CYC and went to work with the SUPA-sponsored Kingston Community Project (KCP) as a community organizer. My real education began.

The KCP had been started by 10 Queen’s University students in spring 1965, but they were graduating and most were leaving Kingston. Dennis McDermott, Myrna Wood and I replaced them. Building on their contacts, we set out to know the community by knocking on doors and listening to problems. Over the next few years, the Project became a project of Kingston youth and their allies, who set up a number of youth drop-in centres and a community information service (which predated legal clinics). We organized with low-income tenants and later with other tenant organizations around the province (where we achieved reforms to the Landlord-Tenant Act and rent control), and we published our own newspaper, This Paper Belongs to the People. The KCP continued into the early 1970s.

It was a tumultuous time. The language of freedom, self-determination, social justice galvanized people all over the world in many interrelated movements free schools, Québec sovereignty, racial equality, free love. Research into power structures grew apace, as we all struggled to understand “the system” that benefited from the misery of others. Within a few short years, the movement had gained substantial public support.

As a result, by 1973 the US was being forced out of the war in Vietnam, and the Paris Peace Accord was signed; the war continued on the ground until 1975, ending with the taking of Saigon by the North Vietnamese.

But other forces were also at play. Many of the organizations we started were institutionalized as charitable organizations with professional staff and clients instead of participants. SUPA had decided to rely on the CYC to cover its volunteer costs, and, when the government realized that this would not “contain” the student radicals, they asserted control over the company and pulled the plug on some of the most progressive projects in 1971.

The New Left had also attracted the opportunistic interest of the vanguard parties of the Old Left, which saw the rebellious youth movement as a place to organize. Parts of the movement in the US and Canada, frustrated by what they perceived as “lack of progress,” advocated armed resistance and organized accordingly. Our meetings often became battlegrounds for debates couched in dogma and rhetoric that was not only incomprehensible to most of us, but drove people away.

But, perhaps most seriously, our awakening had poked the elephant, and he was angry. The repression was swift and startling. In the US, at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, protestors were gassed and beaten in front of international media. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. The Black Panther leadership was murdered or jailed, Indigenous activists occupying Alcatraz (1969–70) were forcibly removed and American Indian Movement activists were jailed and shot at Wounded Knee (1973). In Canada, our organizations were infiltrated by agents provocateurs and and activities: an end to the war in Vietnam, ban the bomb, prisoners rights, free universities, spies, and our gatherings were disrupted. In Québec, in October 1970, activists were rounded up and briefly jailed; the army moved into Montréal. In Europe, similar state violence against protesters took place. We did not know how to respond. Our attempts at consensus-building deteriorated into paranoia and shouting matches between proponents of competing ideologies. Professional non-governmental organizations began to supplant grassroots groups. We had no organizational structure to enable us to deal with the crisis in the movement. When the Paris Accord was signed ending the Vietnam war, and the key unifying demand was won, the New Left as a movement collapsed (SUPA had been disbanded years before).

However, just as the New Left built on the peace movement and civil rights movement, the energy and ideas of the New Left in Canada were transformed into movements with other names and focuses: Québec sovereignty, Indigenous self-determination and the women’s movement. A number of solidarity organizations continued to take up the anti-imperialism battles. Anti-poverty and welfare rights organizing also continued. The environmental movement grew apace.

Trudeau’s government (in response to protests and pressure on the ground) brought a number of social/cultural changes that stemmed from our demands: an end to the criminalization of birth control, abortion and homosexuality; increased transfer payments to the provinces for welfare and health care; a constitution which recognized Aboriginal rights; funding for national organizations of women, First Nations, immigrant groups, legal challenges. At the same time, these changes provided jobs and projects for the formerly youthful activists, and worked to channel our energies.

By the 1990s, these hard-won changes were being dismantled by neoliberalism.

Youth Movement Today

Youth today are faced with a very different challenge: after five centuries of colonial occupation, two centuries of industrialization and three decades of the vicious cuts of neoliberalism, the planet is in crisis. Around the world, the impacts of predatory capitalism cannot be escaped, and everywhere people are saying: “No.”

As Québec student activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said at the PowerShift 2012 conference on October 27, 2012: “The problem is not consumption, it is our economy and production. Our system is broken on a systemic level. The destruction of our environment is a natural and inevitable result. We will not get a second chance. Without radical change we will be faced with extinction. Resistance in these times is not an option, it is a duty…the choice for our generation is clear: liberty [from capitalism] or death.”

As he spoke, Hurricane Sandy was making its way toward the New Jersey shore, the Trans-Canada highway was washed out at Wawa, and Haida Gwaii was dealing with a plankton bloom brought on by geoengineering. In Chile, Spain, Greece and Italy, where unemployment might be as high as 50 percent, youth were protesting in the hundreds of thousands, as many watched their families facing hunger and deprivation.

As an example, for students in Ontario, although the numbers with university educations have increased, the cost of education has more than doubled from under $2,000 in 2000, with government covering 80 percent of the cost, to over $4,500 in 2011 with government covering 45 percent of the total. This has resulted in students working at part-time jobs and accumulating crushing debt. In 2010, student debt across Canada had reached $23 billion. In addition, universities are making up their budgetary shortfalls by privatizing and seeking enormous corporate donations, often tied to conditions restricting academic freedom. When they graduate, many students will be unable to find jobs, or will end up working in precarious jobs like at McDonald’s. This situation is repeated around the world and has been a key catalyst in the massive youth demonstrations we now see in Québec and elsewhere.

Today’s Canadian youth activists are internationalists who have learned a great deal from the inventive work of previous decades: food sovereignty work, anti-poverty activism, social economic development and worker cooperative activities, First Nations opposition to mines and other “development” projects, exchanges in solidarity work with people’s movements around the globe, ecological economics and popular education. Most youth have developed a healthy distrust of professionalized social action and development rhetoric. (For an introduction to these activities see my book Community Organizing: A Holistic Approach.)

In 2009, there was a massive youth-led movement in the lead-up to the Copenhagen summit on climate change, demanding government action on that issue. A number of young people learned that traditional means of making change — lobbying, etc. — was not enough. In October of that year, a handful of youth led a mass action in the House of Commons on the final day of PowerShift Canada, the largest youth summit on climate change in the country’s history. Youth activism surged again with the Occupy Movement a year ago, creating a new meme: “We are the 99%.” Predominately young people, the Occupiers made the impacts of the economic collapse visible to the world by tenting in the centres of cities for months. Even though their courageous stand eventually petered out because of bad weather, repression and internal strains, most of these youth have remained active in community-based activity of one kind or another. The experience built leaders.

The Québec Student strikes, the “Maple Spring of 2012,” were the next big manifestation of this surging energy. Triggered by a government decision to raise tuition fees, the youthful discontent spread to the neighbourhoods of Montréal and Québec City and grew into a fightback against neoliberalism. The result was the election of the Parti Québécois and a withdrawal of the tuition fee increase. The ability of the young students to pull off this kind of rebellion was astounding, and many lessons are to be learned from how they organized.

The growing power and sophistication of the youth movement was evident at the PowerShift 2012 conference and march in Ottawa in late October, which brought activists from the youth climate justice network together for four days of training and protest.On Facebook (November 2, 2012), CD collective member Martin Lukacs wrote this about the 2012 conference:

PowerShift’s great success was that we started to build a sort of movement monocle, through which climate change is seen not as a single issue, but a symptom, a signal of the real causes of overlapping ecological and economic crises. We are bringing environmentalism back down from its ethereal, abstract concern for the planet to where it belongs, as an underlying political imperative in toxic workplaces and progressive co-ops, on Indigenous forestry and mining blockades, along borders and in the refugee detention centres that mark them, on urban food rooftops and rural agro-ecological farms, in battles over free-trade and strikes over free-tuition — everywhere that people are resisting a political, colonial, and economic system that is at war against the earth and its occupants.

Today’s young activists — and many of their peers — identify colonialism as the root cause of the current crisis and see capitalism as its latest manifestation. They understand that a society based on economic growth is self-destructive.

They understand the need for grassroots organizing. Brigette DePape, editor of The Power of Youth, writes: “Grassroots organizing, people-powered strategies led by directly impacted communities… have been responsible for ground-breaking changes in history.” This organizing is enhanced by skillful use of social media to get stories out, reinforce participation and celebrate successes. They have their own media.

Many young people in the Canadian movement understand that Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of localized fights against predatory development for decades. The decades-long organizing of the community-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) has been very significant in developing strategy and providing the spiritual courage important to all of us. As Winona LaDuke said at PowerShift: “Let us behave as people who planned to live here for 1,000 years.”

Reading through the wonderful collection of stories of youth activism edited by Brigette DePape it is clear that these youth understand the need to work on a number of levels:

  • Debunk the myths about development, growth and progress told by the larger society;

  • Resist destructive projects like pipelines, mines and dams, through direct action where necessary;

  • Build alternatives to the current systems (as if we planned to live here for 1,000 years);

  • Heal toxic and pillaged places on land and water and in relationships;

  • Build community with one another, understand and work to deconstruct racial, ethnic and sexual oppressions and support the equality of women in all their work. As Harsha Walia puts it: “taking care of ourselves so we can be dangerous together”;

  • Integrate art, theatre, dance, music and play into all activities;

  • Involve more and more people in the movement, and organize without “taking power” as we know it. Many organizations tend to mistakenly replicate the hierarchical structures of the right. As Subcommandante Marcos has said, “We have come to realize that the problem is not that of taking power, but rather who exercises it. Our work is going to end, if it ends, in the construction of this space for new political relationships. What follows is going to be the product of the efforts of people with another way of thinking and acting.” The Québec student movement provides an example of this kind of organizing.

Going Forward

There will be no shortage of triggering events for the movement in the next few years, with growing economic chaos and climate chaos.

With these disasters will come increased state and corporate repression of dissent, as the elites that benefit from the current system act to preserve it and those of us who are enslaved to that system fight back. (See Andrew Nikiforuk’s The Energy of Slaves, 2012.)

Although there has been some excellent work done on the kind of political changes needed to create the space for change to happen, more needs to be done. We cannot completely abandon government to the corporations. Analysis is still lacking of what the transition would look like from what we have now to a more democratic politics. There is a serious danger of the movement being fractured by the same vanguardist divisions that faced the New Left. Examples of how to structure this kind of democratic organizing may be available from the Zapatistas or from the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil and/or movements in other countries.

In order to shift decision-making power from the elites to the 99%, we need proportional representation, more direct democracy, an end to tax havens, an end to corporate impunity and a change in corporate charters. Many youth are involved in the leadership of Fair Vote Canada and one of the organization LeadNow’s goals is proportional representation, but discussion of transitional political work is not a focus of the movement.

We also need to think about community organizing in the face of environmental disaster. A book written by New Orleans community organizer Jordan Flaherty, Floodline: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six (Haymarket, 2010), provides some excellent stories and ideas, as does the community organizing in communities dealing with toxics. Information about this work can be found at the website of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (www.chej.org).

We cannot let the youthful energy of this new configuration of the movement falter; our lives and those of our grandchildren depend on it. They need our money, our skills, our knowledge and our time.

Canadian Dimension January/February 2013

This article appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.

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Rick Salutin, playwright and columnist, Toronto Star

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