Classroom warriors: Victoria’s high school activists

The Martlet | January 31, 2002 | Circulation: 17,000

On January 23, thousands of high school students across B.C. walked out of class to protest the unresolved labour dispute between teachers and their employers – and it wasn’t the first time they’ve made headlines.

In December, the Martlet went behind the scenes to find out how strong high school activism is in Victoria and whether it is here to stay.

*

December 15

“Are all the speakers coming?” someone asks.

“Yeah, all the speakers are confirmed.”

“Does anyone have any cool slogans to chant?” asks someone else from across the room.

It’s the night before a protest. A final planning meeting is held in classroom 202 at Victoria High School. All but three of the 17 people spread around the room are high school students. A plastic container is passed around the room and students crunch on broccoli as they discuss the final details of the anti-Liberal demonstration the next afternoon. These high school students are significant voices of opposition in B.C. and they are building a network of activists in high schools around Victoria that will carry on into their post-secondary education and throughout their life.

*

Hilary Gibson-Wood sits on the floor in the hallway with her back against the gray school lockers. A grade 12 students at Oak Bay Secondary, Gibson-Wood is wearing white sneakers, jeans and a jean jacket, and she has a small nose stud. For all intents and purposes, she’s an average student hanging out in the hallway.

But Gibson-Wood is one of the many high school students in Victoria who have taken an interest in activism. In November she started a petition opposing the B.C. government’s decision to drop the minimum wage by $2 an hour for the first 500 hours of work. The training wage, which took effect on Nov. 15, has caused an outrage both among unions and students. Within a week she had gathered 700 signatures on her “Six Bucks Sucks” petition.

“It’s a full-time job,” she said. “I want to help other people. I’m not just doing this because I think it’s wrong. I’m doing it because other people will be affected.”

When you talk to high school activists in Victoria, a few issued emerge over and over again: the $6 training wage, the government’s threat to end the post-secondary tuition freeze, the teachers’ job action and the war in Afghanistan.

There is a constant interplay between regional issues, such as minimum wage, and global ones like the war. At Esquimalt Community School students are speaking out on both. Jenny Vermilyea, a grade 12 student, is part of ESCAPE – Esquimalt Students Care About Peace and the Environment. For her, global issues are the most important.

“I’ve always been concerned about the oppression the First World countries put on the Third World countries,” Vermilyea said. “The media pressures us into thinking the oppression doesn’t exist. I want to do something that makes a difference. The worst thought for me is to just participate in a society that oppresses so many people.”

Vermilyea attends weekly meetings at Victoria High School – meetings that reflect a growing network of high school activists. This network took form around the time Hilary Gibson-Wood started her petition in November. She connected first with students at Esquimalt, and soon a broader coalition had taken shape. Although older groups such as the Victoria Labour Council and the Victoria Peace Coalition attend meetings, Gibson-Wood said the student coalition remains a student endeavour.

“Its core has always been high school students,” she said. “It’s pretty cool that that’s where it came from. We’re leading the way. We’re the ones who are organizing all this stuff.”

Jim Herring of the Victoria Labour Council is surprised at the level of political activism in high schools.

“I’m really impressed with their energy and their capacity to organize,” Herring said. “They’re out there ahead of the unions. They’re one of the first identifiable sectors of the working class to take action on this.”

Another school with a thriving activist scene is Lambrick Park Secondary, where a group of students known as Tribal Activist Group (TAG) organized an “info fair” at school and invited campaign groups from the community to set up display tables on issues ranging from human rights to homophobia. Students wandered around the fair, asked questions and lapped up whatever was free – stickers, condoms and action postcards. The activist group had its own bake sale table in one corner, selling cupcakes and pink triangle-shaped ginger snaps. “They’re vegan gay pride cookies,” one student said proudly.

Students were inspired to start TAG after several teachers took them to the Walk for Global Justice last April. Although the activist fair was TAG’s first large event, the group is well known in the school for establishing Lambrick Park’s recycling program and putting up provocative posters to raise awareness about war, homophobia and sweatshops.

“We are all really close friends,” said TAG activist Sarah Pawliuk. “It seems we get frustrated at the same time when we see some of our classmates being completely apathetic, and teachers as well.” For Pawliuk, activism came easily to her. “I’m very energetic,” she said. “My energy just likes to be channeled.”

Setting up TAG would have been tougher if it hadn’t been for the support of Anne Young, a special education teacher who took on TAG as an extra-curricular project.

“I think that for activism in general we need to start with kids,” she said. “They have so many wonderful ideas. Whenever they say they’ll do something, they do it.”

Young makes no secret of the fact that TAG inspires her.

“It makes me feel hopeful,” she said. “I’m more optimistic about what might happen with the world. I’m a bit discouraged about politics in general at the moment. It’s really hard to raise awareness, really. To have kids starting to do that at the school is amazing.”

Young started a similar group in the 1980s when she worked at Oak Bay Secondary, although it didn’t last. Will activism ever become ‘mainstream’ in schools?

“I sure would like it to be,” she says. But it’s obvious that for Young this may be a distant hope. “People have to care enough to make a difference. It’s getting out of your own life – the nine-to-five existence – and actually being willing to do something.”

At Esquimalt High School, however, activism is in fact on the curriculum. Anita Roberts teaches Cultural Studies to student in Esquimalt’s gifted program, Challenge. She teaches kids to examine their own culture critically and learn that there are alternative perspectives on consumerism, capitalism and corporate culture.

Roberts, like Young, is inspired by her students.

“Everywhere you look there’s something horrible going on,” she said. “Every year I see students who take things into their own hands. I know things will be okay.”

Esquimalt’s Challenge program has always promoted student political activism. In 1994 students in the Challenge class stages an illegal tree-sit protest in front of the legislature buildings and used class time to prepare for it.

One thing that varies from school to school is how students and teachers have reacted to the swell of student activism. At Lambrick Park’s activist fair, for instance, students were excited about what TAG was doing.

“I think this is really cool,” said Laura Smith, a grade 10 student. “We’ve never seen anything like this. It lets students be aware of the things that are happening in the world.”

But the response has not always been positive.

“We get called communist hippies all the time,” said Andrea McGavin, a TAG activist. “When you stick your neck out and talk about things people don’t want to hear, there’s going to be a reaction.”

Lambrick Park principal Steve Murphy said he is supportive of TAG, but admitted several teachers complained that the activist fair was too biased. “Some teachers say if you’re presenting an issue on forestry you should probably have the opposing view.”

One of these teachers was Mark Schippers, who teaches geography and environmental leadership. He was concerned that the groups TAG invited to the info fair, such as the Sierra Club, were extreme to one side. “This is dangerous when you’re in a school-type environment. There has to be a balance. That’s why I caution them, and I play the devil’s advocate to get people thinking. I try to spice up discussions and debate.”

Although some students admit it’s difficult to be the focus of classroom debates, they can understand why there has been a negative reaction. Sarah Pawliuk believes that because TAG suddenly confronted many issues at once the school was caught off guard.

“All of a sudden there’s these students educating each other,” Pawliuk said. “It’s all at once, it’s every issue. I think it’s a normal reaction. From the teachers’ point of view, maybe they’re concerned about where we’re going to go with this. It’s not like a sports team, where it’s really predictable.”

Responding to criticism and attacks is one thing Anita Roberts tries to teach her students at Esquimalt.

“You don’t go into activism thinking everyone will agree with you,” she said.

Roberts is no stranger to such reactions. When she was in high school, she was arrested for spray-painting anti-war slogans on a nuclear warship. In her experience, high school activism is not new at all.

“It seems to come in waves,” Roberts said. “When I was in high school, it was anti-nuclear work. Then it was South Africa. When they hit that grade 11/12 age, developmentally they start to look outward, towards the world. They start to take it into their hands. They take on the world.”

*

December 16

After much planning, the day of the students’ anti-Liberal rally arrives. At 3:30, a crowd of about 100 assembles in Centennial Square. I walk through the crowd, trying to find the high school students I have been following over the last week.

First I find Andrea McGavin and Sarah Pawliuk, from Lambrick. They proudly show me their matching super-hero costumes – black capes with “Refuse” and “Resist” painted on the back.

“We’re a corporation crime-fighting duo,” Andrea says with a grin.

Closer to the front of the crowd, Esquimalt student Jenny Vermilyea holds a pompom made from shredded garbage bags. She’s a ‘radical cheerleader,’ out to build the crowd’s energy – an energy that fills the air.

I wonder why these kids do it? What gives them hope?

Vermilyea gives me a revealing answer.

“A lot of times when I think about it, I think there isn’t a lot of hope in our society. At the same time, I don’t want that to prevent me from doing what I think is right and important. The only thing that gives me hope is that it’s critical that I have hope, and that I do in my life what makes a difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big difference or a little difference.”

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