Dissent conference involves community

Wilfrid Laurier University’s faculties of arts and social work, along with the global studies department and community members co-ordinated a conference on the oppression of political activism hosted at Laurier’s Kitchener campus on Mar. 19.

Speak Up! Speak Out! — Public Dialogue and the Politics of Dissent was billed by organizers as a conference about the criminalization of dissent.

The events focused largely, but not exclusively, on the police crackdown at the G20 protests in Toronto in June 2010.

“Everyone that was on the organizing committee had had some direct
experience from the G20 Summit,” global studies professor Alex Latta said after the event. “Whether in terms of having been there, being arrested or having had someone close to them arrested.”

“We’d all been affected by G20 in some way but also we had broader concerns.”

The conference was well attended and guests were able to participate in discussions and workshops on academic freedom, collective healing, creative resistance, as well as a keynote address from Toronto-based G20 defence lawyer Peter Rosenthal. The evening portion featured poetry and musical performances, and a talk by activist Farrah Miranda of the group No One is Illegal.

Rosenthal, a University of Toronto professor, explained that he decided to
become a lawyer after being arrested in 1969 for protesting the Vietnam War in front of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto.

“I think we live in a very unfair society,” he remarked, in a talk with topics ranging from an apparent increase in the kidnapping of political dissenters by plain-clothes agents to the police response to the G20 protests and the bail conditions, trials and sentencing of arrested protestors.

Conference organizers Laura McDonald and Sara Matthews, another global studies professor, noted that the conference was a response to the infiltration of academic space by state agents and government attempts to create discord and prevent public debate.

Latta expanded on the rationale behind the conference.

“Particularly at this university we’d like to think that it’s an institution that fosters dissent in some ways.”

“It’s particularly disturbing when students who are also engaged in activism become targeted by the state for their activism.”

Laurier alumnus Alex Hundert and numerous other graduates and current students have been caught up in the aftermath of the June summits, with
Hundert’s case drawing attention for his strict bail conditions among other issues.

He was arrested in Sept. 2010 after speaking on panels at Laurier and Ryerson University, actions deemed to be in breach of his bail conditions.

In her opening remarks, Matthews asked several times that any “agents of the state” present at the conference remove themselves and not participate.

Some agitated attendees asked that any such people in attendance identify themselves immediately, but Matthews reminded the crowd that plain-clothes officials were not legally obligated to reveal themselves.

Matthews voiced her concern in the decreasing allowance of free speech in academic forums.

“The academic community has abandoned students,” she said. “Professors need to be more accountable in how they ask students to participate.”

Latta explained that there are professors at Laurier who fall on both sides of the argument of whether their political views should enter the classroom and influence teaching.

After the conference’s discussions on activism on and off campuses and in the academic sphere, Latta remarked on the state of protest culture at Laurier.

“The more political kind of engagement isn’t as present as it may have been in the past and maybe should be,” he said.

“Laurier is a curious kind of place because there is a real student culture of wanting to be involved, to do good things in the world. Despite that, it is in many ways a less radical place than other university campuses. Someone made the remark that being political at Laurier means holding a bake sale.”

He concluded noting the connections to the local community fostered by the conference. “What was really special about this event was the collaborative nature of it,” he said.

“This kind of endeavour that seeks to bridge beyond the university is important.”