“Anti-debt youth group booted from campus for ‘unsanctioned activism’,” announced the September 7 headline in the Toronto Sun. It wasn’t how we intended to kick off our 2016 campus tour, but officials at Montreal’s Université Laval had other plans. The headline likely raised a few questions in readers’ minds. For one, isn’t ‘unsanctioned activism’ kind of an oxymoron? Since when are universities in the business of “sanctioning” anybody’s right to free expression? Also, what kind of activism is so unacceptable that it causes a university to expel young people from its grounds, lest they interact with other students?
Oh, and who ever heard of an anti-debt youth group in Canada?
Generation Screwed is a campus initiative of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation launched in 2013 to raise awareness among young Canadians about the massive fiscal burden they are being bequeathed by their elders. By the turn of the last decade, federal and provincial governments had already racked up nearly $1.1 trillion in debt, and left trillions more in unfunded program liabilities (e.g. pensions and health care costs).
After governments made significant progress in bringing down debt and deficits during the 1990s, cavalier attitudes toward borrowing have returned. The temporary and “modest” deficits promised by our current prime minister in last year’s election campaign have already morphed into large and long-term projections of new debt. In Ontario, provincial red ink has soared past $300 billion while formerly debt-free Alberta now runs the second-largest per capita deficit in Canada. Even Saskatchewan, an erstwhile bulwark against the spend-now, worry-later instincts of so many governments, is running a billion-dollar operational deficit. Eventually these bills will come due.
It is future generations who will be saddled with the ever-growing pubic debt plus the interest it accrues. Yet, on university campuses across the country the people most adversely impacted by this political profligacy are the ones least exposed to alternatives. From their classroom pulpits, professors impart knowledge on a myriad of topics, from climate change to gender expression, but few put much emphasis on fiscal sustainability. To the extent that students learn anything at all about economics, most of it comes with a bias against capitalism, free markets, resource development and fiscal restraint.
This is what spurred the CTF to get involved. We originally hoped to establish student chapters at 13 universities within three years. Instead, the enthusiasm of local student coordinators has given us a solid presence on over 25 different campuses. We are now Canada’s largest, non-partisan student movement advocating for fiscally responsible small government.
We focused on the issues most critical to the next generation and most closely associated with our established CTF brand, namely debt, deficits and unfunded liabilities. The reaction from students has been overwhelmingly positive. Most had little idea about the size and growth rate of government debt. Many were stunned at the amount spent each year just to pay interest on it. But when they got the facts almost all agreed that debt was bad, government debt was worse, and that it was unethical to stick the next generation with the bill.
Storming the campus barricades
Our campaign would have been an unmitigated success if we only had to work with students. Unfortunately some student unions, and in some cases university administrators, erected bureaucratic and politically correct roadblocks between us and students. The University of Alberta, for example, seems determined to do everything in its power to discourage the formation of student organizations and student-staged events. Activists are forced to open a bank account, track down insurance, fill out cumbersome paperwork and recruit an entire club executive before being “permitted” to operate. They are then forced, as on many campuses, to run every event through the student union for approval.
Leaving aside any impairment to the right to free association and expression, this deluge of red tape, which is typically of many SUs, can cause a cascade of bureaucratic headaches. Understaffed and sometimes incompetent or biased student union bureaucracies frequently misplace requests and correspondence, or are otherwise slow to respond. This has led to numerous Generation Screwed events being delayed or, in some cases, cancelled.
At the University of Ottawa the level of incompetence has been particularly egregious. Our club had to complete the registration process on four separate occasions after the student union repeatedly “lost” our paperwork. Numerous phone calls and emails went unanswered and in-person meetings failed to solve anything. The level of ineptitude and obstruction was so bad it caused us to wonder about motive. Although officially registered earlier this semester, as of this writing our campus coordinator still had not obtained the necessary credentials to book rooms and thus host speakers. As a result he was forced to cancel a December speaking event.
I should say that not all universities have been difficult to work with. Western University, for example, provided a streamlined process to register our Generation Screwed club on campus and competently facilitated our visit there with our mobile debt clock last fall. Regrettably, Western stands out as more of an exception than the rule.
Elsewhere, we have endured run-ins with officials responsible for creating and policing “safe spaces” to insulate fragile students from ideas that may “shock” or “offend” them. At Brock University in St. Catharines, our campus coordinator was forced to undertake mandatory sensitivity training before being permitted to host events. At Guelph University our Generation Screwed club name was found to conflict with the student union’s “anti-oppression” mandate, whatever that means. At the aforementioned September 7 event at Université Laval in Quebec City, Generation Screwed activists were ejected from the university under threat of arrest by campus security. Laval students had simply organized a visit of the CTF’s travelling debt clock – our signature visual tool to raise awareness of the size of Canada’s debt.
Parked legally on campus, the iconic clock immediately drew the attention of students. Dozens approached to ask questions about the federal debt as the digital read-out ticked off its rapid growth at roughly $1,000 every second. But five minutes after we set up our display, campus security arrived at the scene, grilling the local GS activists and demanding to see their permit. The students responded that they were exercising their right to free expression and had paid for parking as required. The campus cops replied that they were committing “unsanctioned activism” and would have to leave immediately. Within half an hour, the officers called for backup and issued a final warning. Rather than risk arrest, our team reluctantly departed campus, debt clock in tow.
It’s hard to say whether our “crime” was a parking violation or some offence against political correctness. Regardless, our run-ins with campus officials represent only a small fraction of the conflicts that occur over free expression at campuses across Canada and other western democracies. For example, at Mount Royal University in Calgary this summer, a student union representative verbally accosted a fellow student because he was sporting one of Donald Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” ball caps. She referred to the hat as “hate speech,” demanded that he remove it, and threatened to involve university administration if he failed to comply.
What millennials really believe
Whether you’re celebrating Trumpism or griping about government debt, you risk provoking this kind of backlash. Intolerance for politically incorrect ideas and opinions seems to be on the rise, but polling indicates it is not supported by most young Canadians. According to an August 2016 poll from the Angus Reid Institute, 67 percent of Canadians aged 18-34 believe political correctness has “gone too far”. Even more of this same cohort – 71 percent – believes “too many people are easily offended these days over the language others use.” Young people support that statement in higher numbers than any other age group in Canada. The data refutes the notion that millennials have invited this coddling, “safe space” culture. Instead, it implies that such attitudes are the preference of PC activists whose influence over campus debate far exceeds their actual numbers in the student population.
But these so-called “social justice warriors” do not represent their generation. Millennials, in fact, are very much the free-thinking entrepreneurs fomenting the digital revolution; the generation most comfortable with the open, free-wheeling debate synonymous with the Internet. They are open to fresh ideas and bold new ways of thinking. They believe, by and large, that universities should be a place for the free exchange of ideas. And that society should reflect a diversity of viewpoints, not a single, socially approved narrative.
Enter the Generation Screwed campaign. Over the past three and a half years, we have interacted with thousands of young Canadians across the country. Over and over, students approach our booths and displays armed with probing questions and open minds. They get that perpetual borrowing against the promise of a brighter future doesn’t add up. And they understand that an aging population and soaring health care costs are only going to make the intergenerational debt transfer even worse. As millennials move toward middle age, and try to make ends meet while raising families and servicing mortgages, they are only going to feel the debt burden more acutely, and they will increasingly challenge politicians to live within their means; to build a better future for the next generation, not a more indebted one.
The CTF, and our Generation Screwed team are proud to be playing a role in spreading this awareness, despite the obstacles we have faced. We’re also proud to be part of the growing resistance to campus censorship and political correctness. It is long past time for universities to return to their roots as bastions for the free exchange of ideas and the guardians of open debate. On its surface, the Université Laval’s eloquent vision statement appears a good place to start, promising, among other things, “An open university that promotes dialog, cooperation, and the participation of its members in major world issues.”
For now it seems those words only apply to officially “sanctioned” activities. But based on what we’re hearing at Laval and elsewhere, young people want the university to start believing in its own vision again.