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LETTER: Celebrating student activism

Students in the Thomson Student Centre at Memorial University in St. John’s for general union meeting Tuesday, Nov 12, 1972. – The Muse
Students in the Thomson Student Centre at Memorial University in St. John’s for general union meeting Tuesday, Nov 14, 1972. – The Muse - Contributed

On Nov. 14, 1972 at 1 p.m., over 4,000 students at Memorial University of Newfoundland attended a meeting at the Thomson Student Centre regarding the decision of then President Lord Stephen Taylor to abolish the collection of Council of the Students’ Union (CSU) fees.

The university annually collected these fees on the CSU’s behalf and transferred it to them. Students were so angry that they decided to occupy the Arts and Administration Building in a revolt against the administration.

Taylor was said to have stated that the students were incompetent and incapable of properly using the money from the fees. The students felt that the administration had no right to meddle in the internal affairs of the CSU.

It is stated at the time in the student newspaper, The Muse, that Taylor’s decision was “to change the structure of the union from a compulsory one to a purely voluntary one. However, no students were consulted on the change, and this is the major point of dispute between the students and Taylor.”

According to MUN publication The Gazette, Bob Buckingham, who was a student activist at the time stated, “we wanted to stage a demonstration against this so we obtained the home phone numbers of every student, because it was midterm break and most were not in town. A committee of four of us called each student to inform them of our plans.”

According the “Celebrate Memorial” book, then-acting CSU President Wayne Hurley demanded a referendum be held on the matter and that any change be delayed until after the results of the referendum. He considered the Board of Regents’ decision to abolish the collection of fees to be an attempt by the administration to weaken the CSU.

“Our protest and issues were basic principles of participatory democracy and the right to have input into the decision-making process that had impact on our lives,” Buckingham said in “Celebrate Memorial.”

During the occupation, no faculty or administration services took place. The protest lasted for 10 days and ended when the administration and the CSU accepted the appointment of an independent arbitrator and the Board of Regents reversed its position.

A referendum was held in February of 1973 and students voted in favour of CSU fees.

Those students involved risked everything, according to The Gazette: “the occupation was not without its risks. Buckingham explained that, had the demonstration been unsuccessful in achieving its goals, he would likely have been suspended from the university and have his degree nullified.”

“Student activism at MUN in the late 1960s and early 1970s had its roots in the ‘student power’ movement and the general youth rebelliousness of the era,” Buckingham stated in “Celebrate Memorial.” “It was a time of heady rebelliousness in an intellectual environment that encouraged a challenging of the status quo and a questioning of rigid bureaucratic regulation.”

This act of rebellion against autocracy was — and still is — an example of strength in numbers. Students more often than not lack power but, when mobilized with leadership, they have the ability to retake it.

Matt Barter,
St. John's

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