September has seen three large week-long campaigns on McGill’s campus. The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) organized Anti-Austerity Week, which advocated against the provincial policy of austerity. The following week, Divest McGill had its own week-long protest, Fossil Free Week, which coincided with Indigenous Awareness Week. All events sought to engage and mobilize students; however, these efforts were met with the disinterest of the vast majority of students and, so far, inaction on the part of administration. In failing to engage students, these initiatives failed in their goals of spreading awareness and provoking change.
The broader problem with student engagement in politicized topics on campus, in the case of week-long awareness campaigns, is evident on social media. A tiny fraction of McGill students were involved in these week-long protest events. McGill has over 39, 000 students, and while it is difficult to say how much participation these weeks have exactly, Facebook events provide some information. 616 people attended Fossil Free Week on Facebook, and Anti-Austerity Week had 562 attendees. All students had to do to attend on Facebook was click a button, and less than two per cent of students even bothered to do that.
The transient nature of these protests discourages student participation. It is difficult for students to focus on changing any one issue when every few days a different issue takes precedence. By the time students are made aware of the events, the week is over and it is too late to act on that insight. The goal of these events is to get students involved. Students are more likely to be motivated if they feel an issue is of the utmost importance, or when they can personally identify with the objectives of a campaign.
While the student protests of 2012 caused change at the provincial level, there is little to suggest that this month’s activities will follow in those footsteps. Unless a significant proportion of students are mobilized, the demands of a few can be easily ignored. Without sustained attention throughout the semester, students will either become disengaged from movements altogether or shift their attention depending on the loudest issue on campus. McGill administration is logically unmotivated to make long-term policy changes in response to protests that last only a week.
These weeklong campaigns do not motivate action on the part of students and administrators. Students have many time commitments, from school, to extracurricular activities, to their social lives, and do not have time to engage meaningfully with a new protest every single week. Moreover, the time that is spent on these issues may lack substance if the larger student body has been unable to fully educate themselves as to the current topic.
Taking up a new issue every few days is an ineffective means of mobilizing students, indicated by the lack of people attending these events. The McGill administration also has issues they have to deal with, from budget cuts to renovations, while attempting to ensure that McGill has a bright and sustainable future. To ensure that the administration hears students' messages, student activism must draw a larger proportion of the study body and must do so over a sustained period of time. Small, infrequent protests on a new issue every week can be easily ignored by administration and students alike. Focusing on one issue at a time, like the 2012 student protests, increases the momentum of issues as well as the participation by the student body. With improved focus, the possibility of sparking real change rises.