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Canada: Mount Allison students learn about activism by taking on a favourite cause

Mount Allison University

A new course at Mount Allison University saw students do their learning outside the classroom as they organized marches and petitions, addressed town council, and harnessed social media to further their favourite causes.
Environmental Activism was offered for the first time this semester. The third-year course was taught by geography and environment professor Dr. Brad Walters.

“It is a very applied course. They learn about activism and write about it and analyze some issues, but the focus is doing mini campaigns,” he says. “It is good for building confidence and leadership skills. It is very much a learn-by-doing approach.”

The 22 students in the class broke into five groups, each choosing a particular cause to champion and setting an achievable goal to reach by term’s end. Third-year environmental science student Robyn Snook of Stephenville, NL was part of a group protesting the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project in Alberta and BC.

“A lot of people look at activism as being really radical and really extreme, but it can be a very conservative thing,” she says. “There is a lot of planning that goes into it, it is not just going to a protest and screaming. I am not overly outgoing, but I can still do this.”

Walters says he was surprised and pleased by some of the things the students accomplished in the short time they had.

“One group did a YouTube video and I was really impressed by the end product. I was pleased that two of the groups got themselves on the town council agenda,” he says. “Another group had a fall supper to raise awareness about local food. They had 120 tickets and got 150 people. It was so successful it was almost a disaster.”

Alexandra Ross, a fourth-year geography student from Penticton, BC, says students spend a lot of time reading and writing about what other people have done, so the opportunity to do something herself was appealing. Her group worked on getting Sackville to ban shark fin soup. It seemed an odd aim since no restaurant in Sackville serves the controversial dish.

“The reason why we went for a town ban is there are a lot of other groups around the country that are looking for a provincial or federal ban and it is a lot easier to get one if you can show a willing citizen base,” Ross explains. “So if there are three or four small towns in New Brunswick that ban it, then it would be easier to get a provincial ban. Some people say it is a symbolic victory, but symbols make a point to people. If people see it happening in one little town, it may set off a chain reaction. It inspires the activism spirit in other people as well.”

Her group managed to gather more than 550 signatures on a petition and will be addressing town council at a meeting in January.

“It is these kinds of hands-on classes that really get students not only more engaged and more excited, but really help you determine if you like something or not,” Ross says. “From doing this I am applying to do work with the Ecology Action Centre and SeaChoice.”

Walters says Mount Allison has a strong history of environmental activism and has always attracted a lot of students who are environmental leaders.

“We have really distinguished ourselves in that way, so it made sense to have this kind of course in the context of Mount Allison,” he says. “The students are easily convinced of the merits of doing this, but at the same time, activism isn’t necessarily in their bones because we’ve gone through a long period of inactivity. The time is ripe to get this stuff back into universities and classrooms and the public sphere.”

Walters hopes his students walk away with not only experience, but the confidence to try to change things.

“Most people avoid activism because they don’t have the sense that they can have an impact,” he says. “This course is about empowering people to feel they can make a difference by becoming engaged in the things they care about.”

The development of the course was supported by a grant from the EJLB Foundation, a private charitable foundation that supports work related to mental health and the environment.

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