In the foyer of the student union building (SUB), two marble slabs with round plaques bearing the names of past Student Union Society (SUS) presidents hang under another plaque with a mission statement of sorts. It begins with “Creating a strong unified student voice.”
I have seldom glimpsed signs of such a voice at UFV, unless there is an argument to be made for unity in relative discontent, which we engage with in our day-to-day complaints about parking, registration, the odd prof or class we find unpleasant, and other accoutrements of pursuing a degree.
However, if what the plaques represent and reality are discordant, I can’t entirely blame the leaders listed there; the missing link appears to be not necessarily a failure to govern, but our failure to understand how politics — even student politics — affect our everyday lives.
In fact, student and university governments are useful, microcosmic examples of larger governmental structures. This problem with political engagement exists at every level.
Recently, it seemed there might be a change in the political tides with Canada’s election of a new prime minister. Compared with the last few elections, it seemed this time that people — encouragingly, even people in my own age group — were engaging with politics in a new way, demonstrating care about the choices they made, and following news coverage of subsequent events; it’s the first time I can remember people caring at all who was chosen for the prime minister’s cabinet, for instance, or who attended international summits on our behalf.
In the weeks before and after the election, The Cascade’s opinion section reflected the same fervent interest in the political matters of the day that flourished everywhere. But as the dust settles and the politics column returns to being picked last, if at all, from our list of story pitches, there seems to be a corresponding ebb in general political interest. Provincial and municipal matters remain uninspiring of analysis and critique.
There is something to be said for a good leader, especially one with a rockstar presence that inspires an interest in breaking through political static. Charisma is a valuable attribute when used judiciously. But I’m concerned that all the sound and fury is little more than a brief flare, and signifies nothing in terms of combatting political apathy and encouraging real, long-term engagement with government at any level. Instead, the noise becomes white noise, blinding us to our own apathy. We are complacent, we do not question government, and we don’t do sufficient, or any, research to round out our understandings of what politicians are capable of doing in our name.
SUS, for example, has the power to persistently raise concerns about parking costs and availability with the university. It can encourage student associations to consult with departments on the difficulties students have and what they need from their professors. Student unions are able to represent a unified student voice, and also fight for our interests. This month, UBC’s Alma Mater Society (a similar body) organized a short-term boycott of the university’s food services in response to international tuition hikes. But in order to fight for students, student unions need us to care about something enough to express it, and enough to act. Here, it is like pulling teeth to ask students to attend a general meeting, or even care about what that is; getting students to vote in elections for any student-funded organization on this campus is an emotionally draining, time-consuming endeavour. A government cannot represent its constituency with our persistent disinterest.
If we don’t care about politics — if we have only a vague, uninformed sense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and don’t hear about environmental decisions like the wolf cull in our own province until Miley Cyrus starts talking about it, and we do care about the burden of tuition and student loans but not enough even to sit down and write a letter expressing our discontent — then one of a few things is happening. Either we feel helpless to control our own circumstances, we feel complacent in allowing our circumstances to be controlled for us by people most of us have only seen onscreen, or we have forgotten the necessity of pushing against society. Functional discontent is essential. Society is an oppressive force: oppressive enough to maintain order, but not so oppressive as to exploit, advertently or not, its citizens. Change is essential, and as youth are most often the vanguard of change, our political participation is essential.
I hope the rockstar presence of our current federal leader does not have the unfortunate flipside of allowing apathy and political ignorance to thrive in our blindspots. Similarly, while leadership is a worthy endeavour and deserving of a lasting mark, I hope the plaques at our front door won’t blind us to the fact that the remaining space on those plaques represents a lot of work to be done, not only in terms of unity but the assertion of that voice, and productive action. Perhaps we have come a long way, but there is more to do, and there will always be more work as long as we are interested in the society’s continuation. Unless we understand politics as our way of pushing society’s boundaries to fit our changing experience of it, and then asserting our political will, the structure will always rule the people, instead of the opposite.