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A rally held Saturday Nov. 27 in Halifax. Students from an International Development Studies course on activism marched from Dalhousie University to the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market to protest Global Food Security issues, as a graded course component.

photo by Kasia Bedkowski/Kasia Bedkowski

A small crush of students, determined and well-organized, are making their presence known under the watchful eyes of the Halifax Regional Police. A drum beat and chanting voices back placards crying out You Can't Eat Money and Less Cash Cropping = More Hunger Stopping.

They're out to raise awareness about global food and hunger issues, but more than that, they're finishing a class project worth 15 per cent of their final mark.

They are students of Prof. Robert Huish, who teaches development and activism, a new course he was instrumental in launching this fall at Dalhousie University to delve into the history and theory of activism while encouraging practical action.

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The idea for the class raised eyebrows among faculty members, some of whom worried it would be ideologically motivated, or that its title would carry connotations of radicalism, even violence. But activists and observers say it is a great way to stir students' civic instincts, even if the controlled environment of the classroom may not always be the ideal place to effect social change.

On Nov. 27, most of the class's 70 students joined Prof. Huish, who also teaches a course in volunteerism, to march from Dalhousie's campus to the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market. They obtained a sidewalk permit from the city, secured a police escort, and came armed with slogans.

Prof. Huish expects skepticism about whether an institution can teach activism, but stressed that "the most successful social movements in history have been born on campuses," and the course "was born out of student demand."

"[Students]want to know how can their voices be heard?" Prof. Huish said. "I approached this course as a means of facilitating that ability to communicate. I see activism as a skill that can be taught."

Until now, students in international development studies took a required course on the design and management of development projects. For some it is hugely useful, said department chair John Cameron, but it teaches "a bureaucratic, technocratic vision of bringing about social change." He felt it was impractical for the many students who were not planning to go on to work for aid agencies or NGOs.

And so Prof. Cameron and his colleagues devised development and activism as an alternative, "a course focused on engaged forms of citizenship - essentially what [students]can do as citizens of Canada."

The new class had students mounting education campaigns at elementary and high schools, as well as exploring the many forms of activism, from writing to a member of Parliament to composing a press release. The students ultimately decided they should rally, said Prof. Huish, who made attendance optional. Students were evaluated only on their organization of the event - formulating a coherent message, obtaining the necessary permits and the like - and not on the march itself.

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The class has none of the anarchist trappings of the activist course once taught by Denis Rancourt, since dismissed from the University of Ottawa, whose disciples included two suspects in an Ottawa firebombing. Charges have been stayed in that firebombing incident.

With videos of brutal G20 melees circulating widely, and clashes over tuition hikes turning violent in Britain, Prof. Huish preaches peaceful assembly and has his students dissect some of activism's less admirable moments.

"I certainly think the students have a very attuned insight as to say, here's a case study of activism that didn't go well, or the message was lost because of X, Y and Z," he said.

Officials in Halifax see no reason to believe the course will disturb the peace. "As long as people abide by the laws and demonstrate peacefully, then they're not a concern to police," said a spokesman for the Halifax Regional Police, while Councillor Jennifer Watts said the course seems to have been conducted responsibly.

"If you train someone and give them a [driver's]licence and they go out and … commit all sorts of infractions, should you not have taught them how to drive?" she said. "Each individual is responsible for their actions."

Carleton University sociology professor Jacqueline Kennelly, who has studied youth engagement in activism, believes the will and skill to demonstrate has waned in recent decades, largely because of greater pressure on students to quickly become "employable," and more intense policing, which has made protesting riskier. She applauded Prof. Huish's efforts, stressing that activism can and should be taught.

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"This idea of [activism]as emerging spontaneously out of nowhere is not actually the reality," she said. "You don't just absorb it through the skin."

Dalhousie expects to offer the course again next year, although it will be up to students whether they stage another march. And Prof. Cameron is adamant that, far from rabble-rousing, the course teaches essential citizenship skills.

"This is just as important as learning how to read critically, or how to write papers," he said.

Editor's Note: Former students of Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor at the University of Ottawa who is mentioned in this article, say he did not advocate violence. Charges against two of his former students in connection with the firebombing of an Ottawa bank branch have been stayed. This online version has been clarified.

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