1996: Students take over Parkway

Students take over Parkway

Tracey O’Reilly of the Student Education Alliance, a fledgling high school lobby group which has been very active since a mass demonstration of its own this summer. O’Reilly presented a mock report card to the Tobin government giving them failing grades for cutting public exams, implementing a user fee on busses while some students can’t afford a decent lunch, the cancellation of extra-curricular activities and the utter lack of consultation with young people on the future of education in Newfoundland. “Education is essentially about options and we can never ever let the boys and girls at Confederation Building take them away,” she said.

Actor-turned-activist Greg Malone also spoke at the rally, blasting the government for its mismanagement of natural resources and its failure to provide accessible education to the young people of the province. “We give away our fish, we give away our trees, we give away our nickel, we give away our iron, we give away our hydro. About the only thing we don’t give away in this country is an education,” Malone shouted to the cheering crowd. Malone also said that the deficit crisis is a myth propagated by right-wing think-tanks like the Fraser Institute and corporate driven newspapers like The Globe and Mail, which he called “Toronto’s national newspaper.” “The guys making $6-million or $9-million a year, plus perks, are telling us that the country is in an economic mess and we’re in a financial crisis because some woman getting an extra $30 on welfare is on a spending spree that’s driving the country into the ground,” he said. “We don’t have a deficit,” Malone shouted. “We have deceit.”

After the rally about 1,500 students marched up the Prince Philip Parkway, carrying a black wooden casket with the word ‘education’ written on it, to bring their message to Confederation Building and the provincial government. But when they got there security had locked the doors, and while most students began to assemble on the steps of the building, many began banging on the glass doors demanding that security let them inside. The sounds of glass thumping soon came from inside Confederation Building, however, as a group of mostly high-school students who sneaked in through a side-entrance began to beat on a set of inner doors as they tried to meet the other protestors in the middle. Eventually a small group was let inside to place the black casket in the main lobby before quickly being escorted back outside.

The students rallied for about 30 minutes before Education Minister Roger Grimes came out to face them. But when he arrived Loyola Carey, chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Students, said it was his intention to make government listen to students for a change. “This time Mr. Grimes is coming to listen,” Carey said. “I’ve listened since I was knee high to a grasshopper and now it’s my turn to speak. Students occupied the east-bound lane of the Parkway on their way to Confederation Building. “I’m tired of hearing a lot of wind and nothing coming behind it.” Carey read a list of demands to the minister, saying students want a tuition freeze, with the eventual phasing out of tuition completely, and that students receive grants to attend school instead of loans. When Grimes was finally allowed to speak he was greeted with chants of “bullshit” from the crowd. “It’s always a positive contribution to a debate to say something like that. It’s very helpful to the discussion,” Grimes said to the crowd. Grimes eventually gave the crowd the non-committal reply it expected. “We’ve had a lot of discussions over the eight months that I’ve been education minister with your student representatives and all I can say is we’ve taken the issue seriously,” Grimes said. The education minister quickly went back inside, dodging demands from the crowd to know how much Grimes paid for his education during the days that MUN offered free tuition to all Newfoundlanders.

Carey was quite obviously not impressed with what Grimes had to say. “You ever hear the saying ‘same old, same old?'” Carey asked the crowd. “Well, add a word onto it: Same old, same old bullshit.” The majority of students then moved to occupy the four-lane stretch of the Parkway immediately in front of Confederation Building. The impromptu sit-in lasted for about 20 minutes before the crowd realized that traffic was being re-routed and quickly moved down the road to have a seat in the middle of the Parkway’s intersection with Higgin’s Line. By now the crowd was down to about 600 people, but continued to chant loudly and for more than 20 minutes backed up traffic for miles, causing some frustrated commuters to drive their cars over the curb and up sidewalks to get around the mass of protestors. The protest was part of a national week of action being organized by the Canadian Federation of Students. Students across Atlantic Canada held simultaneous, but smaller, demonstrations in their respective cities to protest government cutbacks.

Originally published in The Muse on October 25, 1996.

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