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Universities have a duty to be political

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.


On Feb. 25, members of No One Is Illegal Halifax and the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group got some great news. The Chaudhry family, who had found their application to stay in Canada on Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds denied, won their appeal. 

The family, who are at risk of being deported, will now have the chance to have their application reviewed by another officer.

After their refugee claim was overturned in 2004, the Chaudhrys have faced a hard battle for status in Canada. With the support of friends, the Muslim community and university community members, the Chaudhrys chose to do an application for status based on humanitarian grounds, emphasizing their own establishment and value to the Halifax community. 

Their application was originally denied. Officer Janice Galant dismissed letters written about the Chaudhrys as false proof of the community's interest in the Chaudhry case, because many were written by members of student "cause groups" like NSPIRG and people with a fleeting ethical interest in the case, rather than people who had a personal relationship with the family or were committed to the Chaudhry's continued presence in Halifax. 

First of all, if a community wants someone to stay, why should it matter what motivations that community has for that person staying?  

"It shouldn't, at all," said John O'Neill, one of the defense lawyers for the Chaudhry family. He says he thinks the court had "a very negative stereotype of students."

During the case, O'Neill argued that Galant had "completely stripped the efficacy" of the one vehicle community members had to express their support for the family: writing a letter. Students who wrote to support the family the only way available to them thus had their own democratic expression dismissed as invalid and petty.

That's why student groups including NSPIRG encouraged students who knew and supported the Chaudhrys to come render their support visible during their appeal hearing. The courthouse—with a capacity of 90 witnesses—was consistently packed as over 100 people attended the hearing.  Members of the university and Muslim communities took up the benches and sat in the aisles on the floor. More friends and supporters waited in the adjacent lobby to be there for support.

The presence seems to have worked: the Chaudhrys won their case. They are now one step closer to potentially securing permanent residency in Canada.

The efficacy of university and student activism is evident. Yet it continues to be dismissed by people in positions of power. Maybe that's because of a looming perception that for students, political action is fun and easy. 

Shannon Brownlee is a Dalhousie professor of film studies. Her support for the Chaudhrys was sparked "through student activism." 

Brownlee says she found the Crown's dismissal of student efforts during the case "appalling."

Brownlee also sees an "assumption on the judge's part, and maybe the lawyers' part too, that in order for community support to be taken seriously it had to be based on personal acquaintance with the family, and that activism based on ethical principles or political principles was less valid."

While anyone might be able to sign a petition or write a letter, that doesn't take away from the thought and energy put into those acts. Students aren't stupid—and they certainly don't have oodles of time on their hands. Students who take the time to write letters or sign petitions are not only giving their time, but emotional and political energy—which, as Brownlee says, "students don't have an extraordinary surplus of."

The idea that students and members of cause groups don't have a real stake in the events of their community is further blurred when you actually talk to them.

David Parker is the spoken word co-ordinator for CKDU and a member of Dalhousie's Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group. He says, "I've known the Chaudhrys for 2 years and gotten to meet and get to know their children...(and) develop a strong connection with them." 

He says his work supporting the Chaudhrys stems from that relationship. "I just see it as something natural I would do, not because I'm an activist, but because I care about someone."

"I think ... if there's anyone in your life who you care about who was in such a life threatening situation you would do whatever you could as well.... the consequences are so severe, the impending danger is so severe, that anyone would do whatever they could do try and stop that. "

Students and professors are people first. Brownlee said that her choice to show support for the Chaudhry case was "mainly just me being a human being."

  But as individuals who have the privilege of spending our time thinking about ideas, we also have a responsibility to come together and put those ideas into practice. It's part of our mandate as an institution to work with our community and challenge it to be better. 

When Galant ignored our support because we were students and couldn't know the Chaudhry's situation, she threatened the institution of the university with obsolescence. University is not just a space in which to train for a job: it's ideally a space in which people can retreat from the status quo in order to envision a new, better world, and discuss how to put those visions into practice. 

If the moral and political implications of our work shouldn't be listened to by our courts, then what should, and by whom? 

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