Remembering the parkway vigil

Peter
Peter Jackson
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This past Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the Parkway Protest at Memorial University.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 1980, a student named Judy Lynn Ford was struck and killed by a dump truck while trying to cross Prince Philip Drive. The safety of the parkway crossings had been a simmering issue for some time. The only alternative to crosswalks was a dark tunnel located near the student residences. Not a suitable option, particularly for women.

Upon hearing of the fatality that Friday morning, several students mobilized and started crossing the crosswalk in single file, impeding traffic. As a steady stream of students joined the demonstration, it became a total blockade.

The police at first tried to break it up, but soon relented and blocked traffic at either end of the street as a safety measure. The blockade turned into a vigil that lasted through the weekend.

It ended on Tuesday when city hall pledged to build skywalks across the busy thoroughfare.

That was three decades ago.

Today, over that same spot where several of us stood with raincoats and blankets, drinking coffee and trying to stay warm in the wee hours of the night, stands the University Centre.

On either side of the parkway are various student services — the student union, The Muse newspaper, CHMR radio, the Breezeway bar, a counselling centre and a travel office. In the middle, straddling the parkway, overlooking the spot where Judy Ford lost her life, is the main cafeteria.

MUN is not the same place it was in 1980. There was no Earth Sciences building or Institute of Ocean Technology. There was no Queen Elizabeth II Library.

In that spot were a handful of rundown “temporary” buildings that housed such diverse departments as philosophy, religious studies, nursing and computer science. Even the School of Music was housed in a temporary building until the current Music Building opened in 1985.

Since 1980, the student population of Memorial University has tripled, to a whopping 17,500 at last count.

And, mirroring similar trends around the world, MUN has adopted an increasingly corporatist structure, tirelessly recruiting more students and chasing more and more research dollars. Administrative and support staff now outnumber full-time academic faculty by 2,300 to 950, not including sessional instructors and student employees.

Now the largest university in Atlantic Canada, MUN is hardly the university I attended. It has the feel of a large university, where students must find their niche or end up feeling alienated. I don’t imagine it fosters the same level of camaraderie I experienced. And student activism is not quite as de rigueur as it used to be.

Then again, MUN students still rally for social causes and for self-preservation to this day. It’s a facet of student life that will never completely die as long as young adults follow those early stirrings of political and social conscience. But I don’t expect we’ll see anything like the spontaneous uprising of October 1980 again.

Arriving at the University Centre to catch a bus Monday morning, I had opportunity to stroll through the main cafeteria. Students occupied a line of seats along the west end window, staring out at the traffic as they chatted or munched on muffins.

I wondered whether any of them knew the history behind this overhead perch. I wondered if any of them would even care.

No time to ruminate. Life goes on, and so must I. The bus was due and I had to hurry back.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: University Centre.On, Earth Sciences, Institute of Ocean Technology School of Music

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada

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  • MYLES Vardy
    April 22, 2013 - 08:56

    I remember it well. Judy Ford was from my home town, my sister baby sat her when she was little. The cause to make a safe passage across the Parkway became a passion for me and many. The wee hours of the morning, eating donuts, drinking coffee was not a joyous occasion. Rather it was a sad reflective time a time to unite on shared a common purpose involving life and death. We were fighting to makes safe passage across the Parkway for all students and professors alike. Three degrees later, When I drive under the Skywalks today I think of Judy and the cause we were successful in fighting.

  • Ashley
    November 05, 2010 - 11:05

    Thank you for writing this article. I graduated from MUN just a few years ago but I passed by the wreaths tied to the parkway fence dozens of times during my time there and always wondered about the events of that day. I staffed the MUSE for a time and recall hearing about an ill-timed article that very week (was it about traffic on the parkway?) that was to preclude this accident. I am glad the students on 1980 still think of this today. I wish the student spirit was a little closer to what it was then than it is now.

  • Susanne
    October 24, 2010 - 12:24

    Thnak-you for remembering Judy Ford. She was a dear friend of my mother.

  • Dave Moore
    October 23, 2010 - 22:37

    I remember it well. I spent a good many days and nights there during the protest. Like a lot of people, I got the news late on Friday and spent an hour or so wondering if it had been one of my friends. No name was released at first - and many of us knew female students who had reason to cross that road on that day. At the time, it all sort of fell together. My recollection was that those who started the vigil, did so as a memorial as much as a protest. So many expressed the idea that it would be vile to allow traffic back on the road so soon after just washing away the blood and body. It evolved quickly as there was talk of ending things and other voices suggesting that if we kept things visible and peaceful, then perhaps a change would be made to protect those who might use the cross-walk in future. Curious students who came to see the vigil, offered to stay while others went for dry clothes, food, coffee. The numbers grew, and by the second day, there was more will to see things change. I truly believe (in retrospect), that the city and the university administration also wanted a change, but were afraid of how to make it happen without appearing to bow to pressure or appearing to accept responsibility. The police were also very sympathetic. It was a very different time, and I think that a lot more people than just university students felt genuine empathy for the girl, her family and her friends. Perhaps like me, they also wondered briefly if it had been somebody close to them. Today, spin rules. News is instant. Nobody is given that hour or two to imagine yourself in somebody-else's shoes. To really feel that thin thread between us and the victims of tragic events. I do not think it could happen the same way today. I think that people are still people, but the walls between us are greater because we have far less time to wonder and feel connected. Spin doctors and share holders would be getting their message out before we even knew the story. For a hundred or so people who were there the longest, it was a time of great humanity. For the hundreds more who played a part, an event that maybe helped them grow a little into the people they are today. Poor Judy never knew the changes made in her name, but they far exceeded anything architectural. Since that sad day, countless others have passed in similar ways. Traffic deaths make the evening news. We see the vehicles, or hear that lives were lost, but we generally don't feel a connection to our own lives. The world would be a far better place if we did.

  • KAREN SPENCER
    October 19, 2010 - 11:12

    As a fellow MUN student of the early 80s, I thank Peter and The Telegram for remembering Judy. Although I did not know Judy personally, I have thought of her every single time I have driven that section of the Parkway for the past thirty years. And every time I pass under the skywalks, I wonder how many lives have since been saved. It is important today's students and parents know of Judy's life and legacy.

  • Ken OBrien
    October 19, 2010 - 08:46

    The fall of 1980 was my first term at MUN and I remember the vigil well. Ms. Ford was killed by a dumptruck that failed to yield after the traffic in the other lane had stopped. I believe it was a rainy day and she had her hood up as she crossed the road. Her death was quite a shock and made us wonder about the wisdom of running a four-lane highway through campus. We walked along Prince Philip Parkway, devoid of traffic, and I thought, "This protest just might work". And it did. After the skywalks were built and a fence was placed in the median, I saw some students hopping the fence to cross the road. In the opinion of many, they were morons. Thankfully, that behaviour stopped and I haven't heard of it any more. Thanks for reminding us of this painful event that led to the skywalks being built.