Photo by Rebecca Granovsky-Larsen
Was it something Noam Chomsky said?
Or did a profound alignment of causes push more than 100 students past University of Toronto police to a raucous, spirited protest inches away from the board of governors' monthly meeting Thursday afternoon?
"This is fucking historic," one student declared, standing on a makeshift podium inside the foyer of the meeting chamber in Simcoe Hall.
Colourful language, but this demo was an adrenaline-rusher. Separated by a wooden door and wall, the students could be heard but not seen by the largely Edwardian-like clan running the university's affairs.
The students had gathered innocently enough an hour earlier outside Hart House. A couple dozen multiplied like fruit flies as a guest lecture by Chomsky inside drew to a close.
"We don't want (Peter) Munk to have control of the school," U of T student union rep Zexi Wang shouted into a mike, as the crowd began to swell.
The Barrick Gold magnate's $35 million donation to the university and the Munk School of Global Affairs has attracted considerable attention.
Earlier, Joeita Gupta, a U of T student governor, had asked that the controversial contract outlining the terms of the Munk donation be put on the meeting agenda for review, but, as of the start of the meeting, it had not.
Some see the often-troubled behaviour of Canadian mining companies abroad as a stain on Canada's human rights happy face, and want Barrick and Munk's hands off their academics.
There's also concern that an ostensibly public university is becoming increasingly funded by large donations from powerful, private interests, with the risk of competing agendas.
Add to that the issue of tuition fees. Even while the corporate cash pours in, governors are raising the rates. Students should be psychologically numb to this, because it happens so often. But hikes are placing post-secondary education out of reach for many lacking a silver spoon.
Students at Thursday's protest effectively linked all of these issues.
More exciting, though, was the buzz that MIT linguist and long-time activist Chomsky might show up. Several times we were told he was on his way.
Soon, the throng marched across campus to Simcoe Hall, gathering on the traffic circle in front.
Then, ten minutes later, Chomsky took the microphone. While Mexico, with its strong student movement, had free tuition at one university and modest fees at others, in wealthy California, "they're in the midst of destroying the greatest public education system in the world," Chomsky said, describing Ivy League schools which cost tens of thousands of dollars per year to attend.
More than half of university funding in the U.S. comes from tuition fees, he said.
"That's a way of essentially privatizing universities and turning them into private universities for the wealthy and privileged and vocational schools for everyone else."
Chomsky urged those gathered to also keep watch on corporate funding.
"You have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that it doesn't influence the kinds of programs that are carried out," he said.
A school of global affairs that's funded by the mining industry has every reason to make mining a central part of study, Chomsky said. "And not just study. It can be activism. People who live in these communities that are being destroyed, they have no voice, they're poor, they're weak. They count on support from people do have a voice, and that could be you, for example. It brings you a lot of options. And you've got to find which ones are the right ones."
Fighting words indeed. Cheers had barely abated, and Chomsky gone on his way, when activists converged on the front doors of Simcoe Hall.
"Let's go in,'' Zexi Wang exhorted into the microphone.
But students, at this point more than 100 strong, were denied entrance.
Even though organizers, who had mobile access to a sympathetic party, inside reported that a dozen seats were empty, the governors' deputy secretary, Neil Dobbs, told them there was no room.
"Fat cats out, students in," protesters responded.
They eventually made their way in a side door, past a handful of security police, and reached the door to the council chamber where a larger phalanx of officers barred access to the governors.
"We need to be loud as they call the vote (on tuition fees)," one protester exhorted.
A few minutes later, mobile access with the insider revealed that the matter had been voted on, without discussion.
One person close to the entranceway seemed to get too close to the door. He ended up shoved against what appears to have been a table, a small amount of blood on his shirt.
After chants of "cops off campus," protesters quickly got back on-message with "Munk out of U of T."
More than an hour later, after considerable discussion, the group decided to leave in unison, "on our own terms." Commitments were made to return, "each of us with ten more people. Next time we'll be prepared for a sit-in."