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Targeted, criminalized, betrayed

by Laura Marchand March 29, 2016
Targeted, criminalized, betrayed

Two students taken to tribunals share their personal experiences

They had entered the room together—but she was the only one walking out. She felt like she was one step away from losing it; frustrated, exhausted, and in dire need of a break from proceedings, she took a seat and swallowed the frustration bubbling up in her throat. It had been eight hours, locked in one room under the glare of fluorescent lights, with three levels of security separating her from the outside world. And still, she wasn’t done—and she couldn’t leave.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

“I remember thinking: this is punishment enough,” recalls Nora Fabre, a third-year political science student at Concordia. “I felt targeted—and criminalized.”

She wasn’t the only one. Fabre is only one of the 25 students charged by Concordia University for her part in the austerity protests of 2015—a process she and Maidina Kadeer, a second-year literature student, describe as an emotionally and physically draining 11-month ordeal that put their education at risk.

The day of the protests, Kadeer remembers participating in the soft picketing of classes: the protestors non-violently blocked the doors for professors, explaining that there was a strike in place. They allowed students to circulate. She didn’t imagine that standing in front of a classroom door could lead to being threatened with expulsion. “I did not think we would get a whole tribunal process for just clapping our hands,” said Kadeer.

Fabre, who belonged to one of the striking associations, describes the high tensions in her classroom even before the strike motion passed. “[My professor] had coerced the classroom prior to the [strike vote at the] Annual General Meeting (AGM),” said Fabre. “[He was] saying that if you did participate in fulfilling your strike mandate, ‘I will charge you.’ He prepared a PowerPoint and spent half the class de-legitimizing the strikes and mandate—so I had the feeling I could be charged by him.”

But the real confusion came when they saw the university listed as a co-complainant in the charges. “The whole week before the actual strike motion started … [student leaders] were already talking with the university admin,” said Kadeer.

She says that—like in 2012—student leaders coordinated with the university prior to protesting to establish ground rules to avoid undesirable outcomes, like violence or tribunals. She says the university knew when the strike would be happening and what it entailed the night that the strike motion passed the political science AGM. “It was really confusing that they would backtrack on their words … when it was very transparent the way that students had gone through the process,” said Kadeer.

Both of them claim they felt betrayed seeing their university charging them—especially since student protesters and Concordia University were on the same side, taking a stance against austerity measures. Kadeer and Fabre say the charged students met with the university to attempt mediation prior to the tribunals. “It dragged on for eight hours and went nowhere,” said Fabre. “It was a waste of time.”

The next 11 months, Fabre claims, were a flurry of activity that didn’t leave her any time for self-care or studies. “I had to meet with my advocate [assigned by the Advocacy Centre], I had to prepare my evidence statement package, I needed to practice cross-witness examination—just hours of preparation [every week],” said Fabre. “My single thought was: ‘I should be studying right now. This isn’t funny.’”

“I was really embarrassed to ask for help,” said Kadeer. “I felt like there was an assumption made of us, and that was going to be put against me.”

They claim the university did not extend any sympathy to the students it was dragging to tribunals. “The school seemed really inconsiderate of what they did to us,” said Fabre. “It’s not like we tried to burn down the school or harm students.”

When it came time to speak at the tribunals, Kadeer said the pressure was immense. “I could handle saying something and having that affect my own result,” she said. “But you could say one thing, and that could affect everyone else. It’s a lot of stress on yourself: what can I say? What can I not say? … You’re trying to remember what you said, you did, a year ago.”

“It felt like you had no control over your own voice,” said Fabre. “You were walking on eggshells. We had to be super careful … [especially] because of the atmosphere, there was a strong tension between the complainants and the respondents.”

“When we were questioned, some of them seemed like they were really trying to instigate us … to get us to say something dumb, and to make us look like dumb university students,” said Fabre. Over the 11-hour mass tribunal, she says students each only got one or two minutes to speak to present their evidence. They could also respond to questions they were directly asked—otherwise, they sat in silence.

“It was very oppressive, the entire process,” said Kadeer. “Just not being able to talk for yourself, other than those two minutes, but being able to hear them speak for 10 hours.”

The protesters acknowledge that they did disrupt their own education, and the education of others. “And I apologize for that. I know some students were upset and came to learn. I understand their frustrations,” said Fabre. “But when is a good time to strike? There’s never a good time to strike.”

But they also believe the university has a role to play in reforming its practices, to ensure the stress they endured doesn’t happen again. “You didn’t need to drag us through the mud for 12 months,” said Fabre. “I would have really liked to try to understand more the professor’s side and the administration side to find out what went wrong … where did that miscommunication happen? I think that would have been a much better way: to have a sit down and talk it out.”

Despite all that, Kadeer and Fabre say that given the opportunity, they would do it all again. “We believe that austerity is not the proper way to go when you’re facing economic challenges,” said Kadeer.

“You can feel and you can see what austerity has done to Concordia,” said Fabre, who said she loves being a student at this university. “[That’s what] motivated me to protest in the first place … it’s really important to defend [the university] and give it a voice. And I thought the administration was supportive of that—and I was proven wrong.”

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