Education activism in B.C.

April 21 to 27 is the Global Campaign for Education’s “action week”. The GCE has been backed by former South African president Nelson Mandela and promotes education as a universal human right, a key to alleviating poverty, and a core responsibility of the state. The Georgia Straight is highlighting some education activists in our community. All, in their own ways, have tried to advance human rights or equality of opportunity.

UBC’s Michael Byers, former student president Laura Anderson, and community organizer Mildred German aren’t afraid to challenge authority. William Ting photo.

Laura Anderson

Now a kickboxing instructor at a Surrey martial-arts school, Laura Anderson kicked up a lot of dust on campus when she was a student leader at Kwantlen University College.

Twice elected chairperson of the Kwantlen Student Association, Anderson was in the forefront of protests against tuition-fee increases and funding cuts in postsecondary education that started when the B.C. Liberal government assumed power in 2001.

“From that point forward, it was a big hack-and-slash operation right through postsecondary education,” Anderson recalled for the Georgia Straight. “The people in the student association were really galvanized around what the government was doing. Tuition fees were skyrocketing. Funding got cut. A year after, grants were eliminated. It was a terrible time for students.”

Since 2001, tuition fees at Kwantlen have increased by 270 percent, according to the September 4, 2007, edition of the KSA newsletter.

The 26-year-old Anderson related that she had a good laugh when a guy, who turned out to be a Kwantlen graduate, approached her at a friend’s recent birthday party and said that he recalled her face from a day planner that the KSA gave out to students.

“The 2004-05 day planner had me on the cover in chains because in 2003 we chained ourselves to the doors of the Richmond campus,” she said. “We were trying to draw attention to tuition-fee increases.”

Another year, according to Anderson, she and other students lived in a cardboard-and-tarp hut for 10 days to protest tuition hikes and funding cuts.

“What drove me was that I really believed that having a high-quality, inexpensive postsecondary education was important,” said Anderson, who finished an associate degree in criminology in 2003.

She remained at Kwantlen for the next four years, taking courses like horticulture. “I thought the work we were doing was really important,” Anderson said.

Her second term as the student association’s chairperson has just ended. Had she stayed longer, Anderson’s would be among the student voices speaking out against new cuts to the budgets of colleges and universities.

“The best estimate we have right now is
$41 million for the 2008-09 budget,” Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., told the Straight of the latest chops.

Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C., explained that some colleges will not be rehiring a number of instructors this fall because of funding issues.

“The premier [Gordon Campbell] says he wants to make B.C. the most literate and most educated jurisdiction in Canada, but he certainly isn’t doing that with these [budget] cuts,” Oliver told the Straight.

Throughout most of 2005 and 2006, Anderson actively campaigned against alleged financial irregularities at the KSA, whose leadership at that time consisted of individuals who belonged to the Reduce All Fees party. Anderson and her group, the Concerned Students of Kwantlen, also questioned the results of the 2005 student-association election won by the RAF. In 2006, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered a new election that was eventually won by Anderson and members of the CSK.

A post-election audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers uncovered unsupported payments and loans. Current KSA chairperson Nathan Griffiths told the Straight that the association is preparing for court action to recover monies owed to the student body. “Laura never quit,” he said. “In the end, she came out the victor.”

Anderson recalled that when the RAF slate took over, the KSA had just started work on getting a U-Pass program that would give Kwantlen students unlimited transit services at reduced rates. The project didn’t go forward under the RAF, Anderson said, adding that it remains unfinished business for the KSA.

Speaking to the Straight by phone, Ryan Ingram, a former reporter for school paper the Kwantlen Chronicle, had this to say about Anderson: “She was different from politicians in that she always spoke the way she saw it, and politicians are kind of full of doublespeak. There wasn’t a whole lot of bullshit in her.”

Anderson plans to go back to school next year, most likely at SFU, to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminology. She noted that she will take up law studies later.

As a lawyer, she said, she would be interested in doing work for nonprofit groups, environmental advocacy, or criminal law. She said that if she decides to go into criminal law, she will focus on white-collar crimes.

> Carlito Pablo


Michael Byers

UBC political-science professor Michael Byers has demonstrated a knack for identifying important news stories ahead of many media outlets. In early 2002, as a law professor at Duke University, he was expressing concerns about the treatment of U.S. prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Canadian policies regarding detainees in Afghanistan. Last January, Byers was one of the first to criticize MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates’ proposed sale of the RADARSAT-2 satellite to a U.S. weapons manufacturer. And for years, Byers has been expressing concerns about the melting of the polar ice cap and the possibility that this will set off an international competition for resources beneath the Arctic Ocean.

He told the Georgia Straight that during the post–9/11 period, he began to realize that he could draw attention to important issues before they broke into the mainstream media. “I believe that I was the first person in print to call for [Gen.] Rick Hillier to resign,” Byers said.

Citing another example, he said he read Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which led him to write a review for the London Review of Books in January 2005. This preceded a flurry of media coverage a year later about Arctic sovereignty. “You know, you can’t read something like that and not take the issue seriously,” he said.

Byers said his parents were scientists, and he doesn’t have difficulty discussing public policies in this area. He cited former University of Toronto and Dalhousie law-school dean Ronald St. John Macdonald, who died in 2006, as a mentor who influenced him to speak out on important public issues. “He was someone who cared passionately about human rights and democracy, who had engaged in many public debates on the issues of the day during his career,” Byers said.

After Byers was awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford University, Macdonald wrote Byers to say he had job security when he was still young enough not to be too cynical. “Essentially, what Ron was saying was, ”˜Use the position that you’ve achieved to put forward that idealism and to seek to reach beyond the ivory tower and apply your expertise,’ ” Byers said.

He soon got his chance when he joined a legal team that was involved in one of the greatest human-rights cases of the 20th century: intervening in an extradition case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the British House of Lords. This was significant because it upheld a principle that former heads of state can be held criminally responsible for torture and cannot claim immunity from prosecution.

“It has shaped the intellectual landscape of the early 21st century to some degree,” Byers said. Nowadays, it’s not unheard-of for former heads of state to be prosecuted, as the case against former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor demonstrated.

Byers recalled that most of the lawyers on the team were English barristers who were not accustomed to speaking to the media while a case was under way. As a result, he stepped forward as the public voice of the human-rights team and was interviewed by major media organizations around the world, including CNN and the BBC. These six months in the spotlight in 1998 were a heady experience for a young academic.

“It was sink or swim, and I managed to keep my head just above the surface,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t think I was very good at it.”

Over time, however, he developed an ease with journalists that remains with him to this day. And it has led him to take public stands on many issues, including the recent arrests of UBC students who were demonstrating against real-estate developments on campus. “I take the view that I’m not just an academic, I’m also a citizen,” he said.

Byers has also written or edited five books, including War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005) and Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007). The latter book examined Canada’s role in the world and criticized the Harper government for following the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration.

Though Byers is eager to mix it up in public, he doesn’t believe that professors have an obligation to engage with the world. He noted that academics benefit the public in other ways, such as by doing important medical research that can save lives.

“I simply take the personal view that given that my expertise overlaps with some of the big public debates of the day, and given my obligations as a citizen, that I do think it’s important for me to speak up,” he said. “I had that intensive media training during the Pinochet case, so I’m not afraid of journalists.”

> Charlie Smith


Mildred German

About two years ago, Mildred German coauthored an open letter addressed to the Vancouver school board that called for a dialogue on issues affecting Filipino-Canadian students.

German, an organizer with the Filipino-Canadian Youth Alliance, recalls that she made the suggestion after VSB spokesperson Yvonne Eamor, on CKNW, dismissed as “absolutely ludicrous” her group’s claim that there is rampant racism in the school system. No meeting has taken place so far, according to the 25-year-old activist, but she notes that she and her colleagues remain open to discussions with the board.

“The [Filipino-Canadian] youth are having challenges with the school system, and they’re [the VSB] not recognizing that,” German told the Georgia Straight. “They end up dropping out and into low-paying jobs. Is that the kind of contribution they want from our youth? Our youth are not reaching their full potential to contribute to a multicultural Canada.”

The FCYA has been demanding greater resources for settlement programs that will make it easier for students from various immigrant communities to integrate in school. German explained that this need is particularly great for children who have been separated for many years from mothers who came to Canada without their families to work as live-in caregivers.

German’s exposure to Filipino-Canadian youth issues started during her first year in Canada, in 1999. Then a Grade 11 student at Britannia secondary school, she learned that 25 Filipino students were transferred from Vancouver Technical secondary following a number of confrontations with Caucasian students.

“I was really surprised, because Canada was supposed to be a safe place for students,” she said. “I was trying to understand why it was only the Filipinos who were removed from Van Tech. Most of them eventually dropped out of school.”

Albert Lopez was one of these students. Lopez and German met a few years later, when she became an FCYA member. In May 2006, the two wrote the open letter that sought a dialogue with the VSB. It was during this period that the B.C. Supreme Court was conducting sentencing hearings in the case of a young South Asian man charged in the death of Jomar Lanot, a 17-year-old Filipino-Canadian student at Sir Charles Tupper secondary who was attacked in November 2003.

German also writes for and cohosts Tinig ng Masa (The People’s Views on Philippine News), a weekly program on Co-op Radio (CFRO 102.7FM) that tackles issues facing immigrant youth, like the potential loss of cultural identity and feelings of alienation in an adopted country. She pointed out that it would help if social-science courses in schools provided more information to allow immigrant youth to connect to the unique histories of their ethnic communities in Canada.

The VSB commissioned Adrienne Chan—an adjunct professor at UBC’s Centre for Policy Studies in Education—to review the district’s antiracism programs in 2004. In her report, Chan noted that one of the students she interviewed pointed out that during class discussions on immigration, pins are put on a map to indicate immigration patterns but not much else.

“It’s to give an idea of where people come from,” Chan told the Straight. “It’s not a bad thing to do, but you have to do more than that and talk about why people come to Canada, what it means for them to come here, what it means for them to integrate.”

The VSB’s race-relations advisory committee includes veteran board trustee Ken Denike, who explained that the school system has a strong emphasis on multiculturalism.

“There are attempts to provide a broader context in terms of [Canadian] history,” Denike told the Straight. “There’s a kind of competing philosophy here, and that is you either point out the differences or you work on the similarities, and the view of the committee has been that we have to work on the similarities.”

German said that the FCYA is also interested in knowing more about the provincial Settlement Workers in Schools program, which started last year in school districts in the Lower Mainland, Abbotsford, and Greater Victoria. She claimed that little is known about the progress of this joint outreach program of the B.C. ministries of Attorney General and Education, which is funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

VSB trustee Don Lee explained to the Straight that the board had previously called on the provincial and federal governments to help put up a program to assist both immigrant and refugee students, as well as their families, access services in the school and the community.

German may be a critic, but the VSB can perhaps take comfort in the fact that she was a model student. German recalled that she graduated with honours from Britannia. She took philosophy courses at Langara College before her postsecondary education was temporarily put on hold. German plans to return to school one day and become a journalist.

> Carlito Pablo


UBC’s Kirsty Allen, seen with son Ayden, is pushing to make university more accessible to single parents. Pieta Woolley photo.

Kirsty Allen and Sheelah Ziajka

In 2001, the year Gordon Campbell was elected premier, Kirsty Allen became a single mom. She went back to university the next year. Since then, tuition at UBC has almost tripled, Canada Student Loans has rejigged loan and grant portions, and Allen, who will graduate with a BA this May, has accumulated $63,845 in debt. Four months after the former line cook graduates, when her loans become due, she’ll owe about $900 a month. She’s scared. But she’s made it.

Allen, along with another UBC single mom, Sheelah Ziajka, told the Georgia Straight that the university, plus the provincial and federal governments, have made earning their degrees, as single parents, next to impossible. At UBC, their breed is rare indeed. Single parents make up just one percent of the student body, according to a 2007 access-and-affordability survey conducted by UBC’s planning and institutional research office.

“It’s liberal feminism: add women and stir. Nothing’s changed,” Allen said in an interview in her Kitsilano cohousing boardroom. Ziajka added: “They’re not saying you’re not welcome; they’re just saying that if you can’t conform to this standard, it’s too bad for you.”

Allen half joked: “We’re bitter and pissed!”

But not too bitter and pissed to do something about it. Despite their impossible schedules, the two have formed Single Parents on Campus, a group that hopes to spread to other schools in the Lower Mainland. Their goal is to repave degree-earning so other single parents have an easier time at school than they did. So far, they’ve published a guide for the next generation of single-parenting students through UBC’s diversity and accessibility office. The two also met with UBC president Stephen Toope and the vice president of student services, Janet Teasdale, to explain their project. Their list of obstacles would make any administrator blanch.

First: caring for their kids while they attend class. UBC Childcare, which is located a 20-minute walk from the main campus, has a waiting list of 1,400 children, or about three years. Plus, the bus runs past it infrequently, making it difficult to access physically. (Ziajka’s son, she said, has been on the list for four years, and he’ll be too old by the time he’s accepted.) They’d like to see it relocated somewhere central, such as the Student Union Building. And, to allow parents to take advantage of non-classroom opportunities on campus—essential to the student experience, they said they remember UBC dean of arts Nancy Gallini saying in a speech—childcare must be available at night and on weekends.

Second: child support. When Allen’s ex returned to school, he didn’t have to pay child support because his loan was not considered income. Yet Allen’s student loan just kept growing over that same period.

Third: B.C. Housing’s Rental Assistance Program. Even though she brings home just $17,360 a year from student loans—far less than the $35,000 cutoff for the program—Allen is not eligible for a subsidy (up to $653 per month). That’s because the RAP doesn’t consider her to be employed.

Fourth: student loans. When Allen and Ziajka started university, they qualified each year for a $9,000 loan and a $5,000 nonrepayable grant. But that’s changed. Now it’s a $16,000 loan and just $1,360 in the form of a grant, to cover a tuition that’s almost three times as much as when they started.

Why didn’t they quit? Ziajka pointed out: “When you’re a parent, there’s a ”˜just get it done’ mentality.”¦This is poverty for our children. I’m doing this for the betterment of my family, but I’m still trapped in cyclical poverty.”

Fifth: students do not get maternity-leave benefits

And, finally, they want their struggle to be recognized. They want the government to understand that poverty and a lack of job skills are not isolated circumstances but are interrelated with a set of significant barriers to education. What they call “intolerable debt” creates poverty not just for them but, as Ziajka said, for their children.

Allen is about to graduate with a women’s-studies degree; Ziajka graduates at the same time with a double major in women’s studies and American studies. Why didn’t they just become electricians or go into another highly paid, guaranteed-hirable trade?

“One of my reasons for going to university is that [government] policies were affecting my family, my elderly aunt, myself,” Allen said. “It would not have increased the number of child-care spaces in B.C. if I had gone into trades.”

Ziajka said: “Yes, we need people who can do trades, but we also need people who can analyze policies. We need many voices so we can create a better society. We also need to value choice and democracy.”

> Pieta Woolley


UBC’s SFU dean of education Paul Shaker spoke glowingly about a Sooke teacher who had the courage not to give her third-grade students a provincial exam.

Paul Shaker

Some senior education administrators don’t make public waves higher than a few millimetres. Then there’s Paul Shaker, the dean of education at Simon Fraser University, who has lived up to his surname on a few occasions since arriving on Burnaby Mountain in 2003.

SFU education professors, including Shaker, have been fierce critics of the Fraser Institute’s school rankings for a long time. Last year, Shaker went further by engaging in a public debate in Langley with Peter Cowley, who creates the rankings, in front of scores of educators. Shaker stated at the time that the right-wing think tank doesn’t take demographic variables into account, and he claimed that this renders the whole process meaningless.

In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Shaker said he thinks the debate helped galvanize opposition to the Fraser Institute’s methodology, which isn’t subjected to peer review. Shaker said that he is even more disappointed with the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of the school rankings every year.

“They’ll still publish an entire section of the newspaper dedicated to this—making pseudoscience look like it has great significance,” he said.

Last November, Shaker waded into another public controversy in a convocation address to future teachers graduating from SFU. He embraced some large themes, paying special attention to acts of conscience by teachers. “The British Columbia news this fall has been replete with the story of Kathryn Sihota, who exemplifies these standards by engaging in an act of professional conscience and civil disobedience when she refused to administer a standardized reading test to her third graders,” Shaker said, according to the text from his speech. “Thus far she has been disciplined by a letter from her school board. You should remember that you entered the profession at the moment when this courageous teacher was taking her principled stand. Let her character, conviction, and willingness to act be an inspiration to you.”

Shaker emphasized that the issue wasn’t whether or not the students agreed with Sihota. “The point is that her professional conscience was definitive for her and gave her the courage to act in the face of public disapproval, disciplinary measures, and economic risk,” he said.

For this, newspaper editorialists across the country condemned Shaker’s remarks. “The moral of this lesson? A childish act can be dressed up as something grand if done on principle,” opined the Globe and Mail.

Shaker noted that he never saw a single letter to the editor criticizing him, and opinions were mixed on campus. However, part of the speech was published in Education Week, a well-known U.S. paper, and that led to a publisher offering him a chance to write a book on professionals who follow their consciences and take stances on issues.

He will step down as dean at the end of August upon the expiry of his five-year contract and take a one-year leave of absence. “There might be a lot more for me to say about this, and I will be able to say it as a private citizen,” he said.

Shaker, born into a second-generation Lebanese-American Maronite family, said that as a boy, he learned much from studying the history of ancient Greece. “I was reading it because I was the object of some degree of racism,” he recalled. “In order to reconcile my pride in my family with the treatment that I was receiving from some others, I studied the history of my ethnicity. That helped me to keep pride in my ethnic origins in the face of some racism.”

While studying to become a history professor, he was drafted for the Vietnam War. His military service would be quashed if he accepted a teaching position, which is what led him into education. He taught in the extremely poor Appalachian area in the southern part of Ohio, and from there he was hooked.

“I thought it would be more meaningful to get a doctorate in education”¦because I wanted some more direct way to affect society,” Shaker said.

Jinny Sims, former president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, told the Straight that she thinks Shaker has all the qualities anyone would want in a dean of education, including compassion. Sims added that she admires people, such as Shaker, who stand up for their beliefs.

“We have all kinds of people in our system who like to call themselves leaders in the educational arena, but they have remained silent while we have seen the teaching profession under attack and the dismantling of a publicly funded public-education system,” Sims said. “Paul Shaker has a great belief in the public-education system, and he champions quality education.”

> Charlie Smith