When someone speaks about the struggles students face in university or college, you might think of workload, finances, extracurricular activities, or some other typical student issue. What usually doesn’t come to mind is how their new city – the city in which their university or college resides – treats that student and students as a group. In fact, this is one of the least discussed but most-important aspects of university life. Cities have the potential to create flourishing relationships with postsecondary students, but in reality often ignore or marginalize students, playing a four-year waiting game until they are gone.
Recently, in the City of Kingston, the anti-student attitude prevalent in other cities across the country came to a head. On Tuesday night, the Kingston City Council, including the Mayor, voted 7-6 to not count students when realigning electoral boundaries. What this means is that that the number of Queen’s students being officially represented at the municipal level has dropped from over 14,000 to approximately 2000. As a consequence, Queen’s University will see a reduction in the number of councillors representing students.
This decision is hugely problematic from a standpoint of accurate democratic representation, and our student government is committed to fighting this. The larger problem, however, is one faced by students across this country: Cities that not only sideline or ignore the contributions of students but that are openly antagonistic toward students. Whether it is in the consultation processes, debate over legislation or simply every-day attitudes, students from across the country can attest to communities that look down upon them or treat them as someone to be tolerated.
However, many students throughout Canada want to be a part of the community; we want to participate; to give back; to make this place our home for four years or more. This is not just rhetorical – everywhere you look you can see tangible community initiatives being undertaken. Here at Queen’s, for instance, you would see thousands of students volunteering in local schools, hospitals, seniors’ homes, community centers and shelters, in addition to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities. Furthermore, we as a student government have taken specific actions to encourage ownership of the community, even creating a service that cleans properties – and streets – throughout the University District.
Regretfully, and far too often, this type of community involvement and participation is overlooked or simply cast aside. Students are not perfect, but no constituent group is. What can truly be said about many student groups though is that we are trying to become part of the community – and we need to be met half-way.
People frequently talk about how valuable postsecondary institutions are for their cities. In fact many cities – Kingston included – have been discussing ways to better harness the intellectual capital of their student populations, and asking how to best encourage student innovation to facilitate growth.
In order for students to want to stay – to enrich these cities and start businesses and families here –we must feel like a valued part of the community. But as long as cities, and certain parts of their populations, continue to treat students as a nuisance and not as genuine members of that community, students will not want to stay. The action taken by Kingston City Council and the Mayor this Tuesday was shameful and sadly indicative of a pervasive anti-student culture that must change. While it is immediately apparent how bad a decision like this is for students, it will prove over the longer-term to be an even worse decision for our cities.
Doug Johnson is President, Alma Mater Society of Queen’s University.