Remembering the parkway vigil

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on October 19, 2010

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.