The Mood On Campus
Students are nervous and uncertain. Jobs are their goal, but they also just want to have fun.
On the surface, Canadian university students arrived on campus this fall prepared to be greeted by the traditional rites of autumn. There was the usual crush in school bookstores to buy expensive textbooks, some students drank too much beer and shouted themselves hoarse during Frosh Week, and Queen ’s beat McGill 44-30 in the resumption of an old football rivalry. But beneath the veneer of normalcy, the current generation of students has its own distinctions. When University of Ottawa students chanted anti-Brian Mulroney slogans at an outdoor campus rock concert in September, they were not protesting against war or poverty, but against a new three-per-cent government tax on their student loans. Faced with a shrinking Canadian economy that may not be able to accommodate them after graduation, students are nervous and uncertain. To examine the attitudes of undergraduates, Maclean’s Ottawa Correspondent Bruce Wallace visited 10 universities to talk with students during the early fall semester. His report:
By the fourth quarter of the 1991 football season opener at Queen’s University, the chanting in the home team’s student section had slackened, perhaps because the ban on bringing liquor into the stands had allowed the effect of pre-game drinks to wear off. Organizers had billed it as the “Kill McGill” game, and Queen’s fans had dutifully splashed purple surgical dye over their faces and hair. But on the hot September afternoon in Kingston, Ont., the students’ behavior is, for the most part, carefully correct. “This is pretty lame,” acknowledges Stephen Delroy, 21, as he prepares to join in the ritual storming of the field at game’s end. A third-year engineering student, Delroy credits the rough hazing his class received in first year for building school spirit and close ties to his fellow classmates. But this year’s restrained celebrations reflect the attempt by Canadian university administrators to exorcise the sexist chants and public lewdness from Frosh Week, not only at Queen’s, but at universities across the country.
“These frosh don’t know what they missed,” says Delroy, gesturing to a group around him, including a young woman with the words “If you can’t please me, don’t tease me” written down the back of her blue overalls. Then, he excuses himself to join the Queen’s students who are crossing the field to taunt the McGill fans. But when police and security staff intervene 10 minutes later to end the demonstration of school pride, there are only a few muttered protests before the students politely disperse. Like stereotypical Canadians, they are obviously prepared to play by the rules.
But they are also part of a generation of students who appear to regard their undergraduate years as a time and place to skirt the harsh realities of the “real world.” A four-year university path will, they clearly hope, arm them with some marketable skills and get
them over the hump of the current economic recession. “We’re in no rush to get out in the working world, because there is nothing out there,” says Charlane Sureras, a fourth-year psychology major at McMaster University in Hamilton, as she thumbs through a hockey magazine in a campus bookstore. Sureras says that she plans a career in art therapy after graduating next spring. “Summer jobs give you a taste of the real world,” she adds. “And by fall, most students are ready to get back to the easy pace of school life.”
That is much the same message as Amy Wilson, editor of The McGill Tribune, one of two campus papers, sent to returning students in her first editorial of the school year. Headlined “Majoring in frivolity,” Wilson’s essay noted that university “beats a real job.” And after citing the year’s turbulent social and
political events, such as the Gulf War and rising unemployment, the 23-year-old Waterloo, Ont., native writes that it is “a relief to get back to school just to shut out the violence and anger and whirlwind of events.” In an interview with Maclean ’s in the Tribunes basement offices, the cheerful Wilson noted that few university students are weighed down by social and political problems. Most would rather party than protest, she says, adding: “Everyone believes we are young enough to have the luxury to indulge in ignorance.”
But students cannot—and do not—isolate themselves from the problems afflicting the outside world. They must worry about finances, about marks, about getting a job. On the social level, there is the terror of AIDS. And the brochure image of graceful, tree-lined campuses with their ivy-covered academic buildings clashes with the fact that universities are also plagued by sexual harassment, date rape and sexual assault—and by an ugly backlash against those who fight against those offences. As well, campuses are not immune to the rising ethnic and racial tensions in the country. And students attending urban universities can scarcely fail to see the crumbling city landscape around them or to note the growing number of homeless in the streets.
Indeed, there is no shortage of causes—only of rebels. To be fair, Canadian university students have almost always been narrowly focused in their view of the world. Much has been made of the radical social movements on Canadian campuses during the 1930s Depression. But Toronto’s York University education historian Paul Axelrod estimates that just five per cent of the student body at the time was politically involved. Even the more resounding activism of the 1960s, Axelrod says, has been exaggerated and mythologized to a degree over the years. Declares Axelrod: “During the Sixties, universities continued to carry out their main function of training people to take on middle-class occupations, as they always had.” And the 1960s generation benefited from unique conditions for protest: a healthy economy, which removed long-term job security as a concern, and the Vietnam War, which offered a common issue to rally around.
No such shared causes exist on today’s campuses. The protests against last winter’s Gulf War mostly lacked punch, and were often countered by other organized groups of students who favored UN intervention to liberate Kuwait. While a peace camp was erected at McMaster University, yellow ribbons in support of the troops colored the campus at the University of Calgary. Said Graeme Decarie, chairman of the history department at Montreal’s Concordia
University: “Over the years, radicalism has died as students became more concerned with getting good grades and getting out of school.”
True, the September, 1991, entering class may not be as radical as the students of their parents’ era. But while they are more intent on using their education to further their job prospects, they lack the cocky assurance of their older brothers and sisters who, in the 1980s, regarded good marks and a professional degree as quick tickets on the path to corporate success.
At the University of Quebec’s concrete Montreal campus, the recent fall of business titans such as Lavalin Inc. chairman Bernard Lamarre has had a sobering effect on
students’ ambitions. “Things were going well when we started our degrees,” says Ginette Daoust, president of UQAM’s student accounting and management association, who is in the last year of her business degree program. “But the fall of the big jet set makes us more nervous and insecure about the future.” Others have softened or changed their ambitions once in university. Says Ottawa native Deborah Trenholm, who entered the University of Western Ontario in London to study business, but later switched to political science: “More and more students decide after getting here that university should be a broader experience.”
Those students who are politically active endure some teasing. “You get tagged ‘granola,’ and people are always saying, ‘Don’t you know the [Berlin] Wall has fallen?’ ” laughed Stacy Chappel, a third-year women’s studies student at Concordia. But student activists in the 1990s are more coldly realistic than their predecessors. “We discussed the Gulf War among ourselves,” says Stéphane Chouinard, 26, a history student at UQAM, as he sat with eight others in the history students’ common room. To general laughter, he adds: “But we are not about to send a formal letter to George Bush saying that the history students of UQAM oppose what you are doing and expect a response.”
Rather than trying to clog streets with protesters singing Give Peace a Chance, student activists are setting more modest, but attainable, goals. The Concordia branch of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group, whose members research and publish information on public issues, are producing a consumer guide to ethical shopping in Montreal, and they have lobbied against the proposed James Bay hydroelectric development. “Big rallies don’t really change anything,” says Chappel, a Courtenay, B.C., native who transferred to Concordia this year from the University of Victoria. “It’s more empowering to feel that you are actually accomplishing your goals.”
Indeed, many student activists are channelling their energies into community work rather than discussing issues in an abstract academic laboratory. Concordia’s Women’s Centre is located in a ground-level office in the heart of Montreal, which makes it a walk-in haven for any women seeking advice. “It’s important for a university to be active in the community,” says Johanne Cadorette, 25, a McGill graduate who works as a volunteer in the centre, where men are not normally allowed. “You cannot be expected to fix the world if you’ve never had to deal with real-world problems and experiences.”
Many of the most radical students are those fighting against racism, sexism and on behalf of gay rights. Current Concordia student association co-presidents Charlene Nero and Eleanor Brown were elected on a platform of “Feminism works.” But feminist groups, as well as AIDSawareness activists, have also had to contend with a sometimes ugly backlash against their militancy. In a survey of Canadian university presidents conducted by two Queen’s professors in the last academic year, antipathy towards women activists was rated the second-highest non-academic concern, after that of alcohol abuse. And in September, an AlDS-awareness poster display had to be moved out of Western’s main D. B. Weldon Library after a group of students complained that the poses of gay and heterosexual couples were too suggestive. The students called in police, who threatened to press obscenity charges against the school.
Still, other students and administrators at many universities have taken steps to correct their reputation for sexist and boorish behavior. The hard-core hazings of Frosh Week, once a part of student lore at schools such as McMaster and Queen’s, were discouraged—with mixed success—this year. At McMaster, the so-called Quad Parties, formerly held in the courtyards of residence buildings, were banned after last year’s parties degenerated into brawls and arrests. “The university insisted that we take the swearing and degrading language out of our chants,” says Linell Haun, a third-year commerce student, hoarse from
cheering on her residence entry in a bed race.
Haun was orientation representative of Brandon Hall, the school’s largest—and all-female—residence, which last year was referred to in Frosh Week chants as the “slut hut.”
Says Haun: “At first, it’s offensive, but then'you realize that it is only intended in fun.” Still, she acknowledged that last year’s behavior hurt the school’s image, particularly with Hamilton residents. “Frosh Week is a worthwhile tradition,” Haun says, “if it’s given a new twist. We are worried about our image.”
Universities are also running more alcohol-free events in an attempt to curb the number of drinking-related incidents on campus. But beer advertising is still hard to avoid on campus, and school pubs remain an important
source of revenue for funding student organizations. The only visible modification to student drinking is that fewer among them are driving cars while drunk, a result of countless hours of exposure to publicservice advertisements warning against drunk driving. “Before, it was cool to say, T was plastered and I made it home,’ ” says Michelle Hughes, 24, president of the York University student council. “Now, it’s not
embarrassing at all to admit you are not going to drive drunk.”
But it is not so certain that the warnings against unprotected sex have made the same impact. Condom dispensers at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., were removed this year because the company that operated them was not making enough money. Apparently, the “safe-sex generation” has yet to emerge. “Just because you see people putting condoms in their pockets, it doesn’t mean
1 they are using them,” says Greg 3 Springer, a fourth-year business stu-
2 dent at York. “If you meet someone at a bar and there is alcohol involved,
then common sense can go out the window.”
Sadly, such grim resignation towards a more threatening world is widespread on campus. There are signs of a yearning to believe in some set of guiding principles, but no agreement on a common objective. At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., campus Christian groups are the fastest-growing clubs, according to Sheila Perret, the school’s club co-ordinator. “There is a shift away from political clubs to groups with cultural, lifestyle and spiritual interests,” she says, adding that the school’s vegetarian club is also “gaining momentum.”
In fact, there is almost a refusal by students to seek solace in a common youth culture. At campus pubs, most students are listening to music written in the 1960s and 1970s by such artists as Steve Miller and Bad Company. Says Michael McCann, a third-year Canadian history student at Western who is the disc jockey at the Spoke Tavern on campus: “Kids prefer to hear older music, which was written more from the heart, than listen to Nineties bands, which seem to be proud of the fact that they lip-sync their songs and rely on beautiful women in their videos.” But that habit leaves students with fewer cultural touchstones to call their own. “It’s sad in a way,” says the bearded McCann. “I often wonder, if we have a reunion in 20 years, what music will we play?” Lacking anchors or anthems, the current student generation seems sure to be haunted by uncertainty.