November 5th, 2010
One week it’s NAGS, the next it’s CAGS—that is, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. Deans and staff from across Canada all recently gathered in Hogtown, downtown Toronto, for several days of plenary sessions and presentations. As always, it’s great to see colleagues from across the country and compare notes on what’s new and challenging in the world of graduate studies: times are tough in most provinces, Ontario is throwing huge scholarship amounts at new PhD recruits, everyone hates the Banting Scholarship post-doc process, Memorial has the best web site, bar none.
Speaking of challenges, one could not help but spill out of the airport cab with some anxiety at having to cross a picket line. Turns out the hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 75, are seeking modest wage increases but, more importantly for them, better hours, pension benefits, and some stability. Life as a parking attendant or as housecleaning staff in a large Toronto hotel can’t be a lot of fun—not the kinds of jobs one leaps out of bed every morning to embrace. Of course, someone has to do the dirty jobs, but at least you would expect them to get paid an honest wage for doing so.
Like a lot of my colleagues, those of us who live rarefied lives and whose only experience of picket lines is pretty restricted to faculty bargaining demands, this would be the first strike line we have ever crossed. It’s not a great feeling. You’d have to have a heart of stone to glide easily past the picketers into the hotel lobby. Out of courtesy—and guilt—many of us stopped to talk to the striking workers, a group that most resembled a United Nations delegates assembly, largely non-white, many new to this country, many of them women (who do we think changes the sheets?), struggling to keep their families in food and warm clothing. Our conversation was polite and respectful, but I felt feeble in my attempt to defend our conference decision to stay at a hotel from which they had walked out. A few on the lines urged me to check in and check out the next day, but the fact is that the picketers are circulating among about 15 hotels in the Toronto area and there would be no guarantee that the next hotel would be free of their protest. They understood, and seemed determined to stay out on the increasingly chilly streets for as long as possible.
Inside the lobby things were deceptively calm. Over the next few days I discovered just how thinly stretched the hotel was, as it struggled in its own way to keep a 1500-room operation going—without room service, housekeeping, their restaurants in play, and so on. Hotel management and contracted help from the employer agency were nervously speaking to each other via walkie talkies, overseeing the scene like skittish rabbits. The phone in my room didn’t work, neither did the web service, and so I asked for a switch which was gracefully obliged. The whole experience was odd and stressful.
Indeed, the thought of stepping back into the street to explore Toronto in the few free hours I had wasn’t appealing, and so for the most part I circulated indoors. One morning I did cross the line again to get some supplies down the street. In front of the massive, iconic Eaton Centre, a group of protesters of another sort was staging a demonstration in support of freeing the Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who might have escaped the punishment of stoning but was now being threatened with execution by hanging. A worldwide set of protests had been scheduled and I happened to stumble across the one in Toronto, right then and there. A couple of dozen people had gathered to hold signs and a large banner, as others drew vivid illustrations of Sakineh’s by now familiar face on the sidewalk. The protest drew me up short, reminding me of the hideous spectacle this case has conjured, and the barbaric conditions under which her life was being threatened. I did my shopping hastily, and returned to the hotel to cross the line yet again, the last time before I exited the hotel for good.
Life in a large, multicultural urban place like Toronto is demanding. Everywhere there are reminders of life-threatening social injustice, global inequity, persecution, and discrimination. You can see why people on their way to work every day would simply occlude all the noise, just managing to get from point A to point B without hassle or interference. When urban dwellers get too alienated from the world they become inhabitants of the waste land T.S. Eliot called Unreal City. This is a dramatic statement, but as a visitor to the city it is hard to shake the sense of the modern world’s complexity; besides, shaking that feeling is not necessarily a good thing. It is important to keep perspective, and to fight the tendency to helplessness which these protests engender.
Back at the CAGS conference we carried on as if the world were intelligible, manageable, moving towards more opportunity and possibility. Internationalization was a major theme, carrying forward from one session into another. All of us are facing the pressure to increase our masters and doctoral programs by recruiting students from India, China, Saudi Arabia, Viet Nam, and so on. We never formally spoke to the issues happening on the street, or considered the connections between our desire to bring more and more international students into our institutions and the protests on the street below. We probably ought to have at least raised some of these contradictions. Many graduate students boycotted the conference, having been supported by their institutions to attend, having registered and had their fees paid for. Not showing up seemed fruitless, an empty gesture of self-satisfaction. Better to have crossed the lines and shaken things up a bit, I thought.
For many of us, there were at least two conferences, the one indoors, high above the lobby, and the one on the streets, where life seemed a lot less comfortable.