Students versus the world - Macleans.ca

Students versus the world

“Town and Gown” fights between students and cities have been around since the Middle Ages

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Students living near McMaster University returned to discover an anonymous letter in mailboxes last week. The writer of the letter, who did not identify himself, complained about students ruining life in Westdale, Hamilton’s university neighbourhood. The writer blamed students and what they call the "New McMaster" for the student ghetto, “a campus drenched in alcohol", a traffic crisis, vandalism, noise, and litter. McMaster University has over 20,000 students but only 4,000 live on campus, pushing thousands of students into the community.

Ryan Moran, President of the McMaster Students Union likened the letter to hate speech. "If you took the word ‘student’ out and replaced it with any other identifiable group, it would be hate speech, plain and simple," he said. Moran acknowledges that there are problems in the community, but feels that teenage residents of the community are often labelled university students and the blame is placed on students because of this. He points out that the majority of students are contributing citizens within the community.

“Town and gown” tensions—a phrase coined by academics—are nearly as old as universities themselves. In one of the most famous examples, a three-day riot in Oxford resulted in 62 students and nearly as many townspeople dead in 1355. The Scholastica’s Day Riot broke out after a dispute about beer in a local tavern. Luckily, town and gown conflicts are now mostly fought in the editorial pages of local newspapers.

The McMaster flyer is particularly critical of a frosh event called the pyjama parade, in which students are supposed to dress in their pyjamas and march through town to meet the residents. In reality, the parade serves as a kick-off for a week of parties, with hundreds of students wearing bikinis and thongs while they parade down the street, kissing each other and drinking alcohol in public.

Although there were at least 18 police officers at the parade this year, they did not seem overly concerned about the alcohol consumption. One group of students was serving beer out of a keg in the trunk of a car, within police view. Police simply directed students to step onto private property when drinking to avoid tickets. Kyle Park, one of the revellers and member of the McMaster Students Union Student Representative Assembly, said, "I do respect the community, stepping a foot off my lawn to have a beer is not a big deal."

Paul Jones, student union vice-president, said, "It is not our responsibility to police the students on the sidewalk, that’s up to the police officers. I would hope that the police officers would do their duty and arrest or fine those people that are drinking in public."

The debate about who is responsible for the policing of off-campus university activities came to focus after Queen’s University’s annual homecoming 2005. During the infamous Aberdeen Street Party—which is not sanctioned by the university—a riot broke out when over 5,000 people spilled onto Aberdeen Street. The party spun out of control, and the police, outnumbered 50 to 1, retreated. By the end of the night, one car had been flipped and set on fire, many others vandalized, and police pelted with bottles and other flying debris.

Queen’s Principal Karen Hitchcock apologized for the event stating in a letter "Queen’s University condemns and apologizes for the lawlessness and dangerous behaviour associated with Homecoming events on Aberdeen Street this past weekend and profoundly regrets both the disturbance and harm experienced by our community neighbours and the risk faced by the attending police, fire and ambulance personnel."

The City of Kingston did not feel this went far enough, they passed a motion demanding Queen’s pay $84,000 of the $119,000 it cost to police homecoming that year. Queen’s refused to pay.

Last year’s homecoming was tamer with a strong presence of police in riot gear. The budget for policing homecoming increased to $212,000 and Queen’s paid $100,000 of the cost.

Tensions are not unique to Ontario. Mt. Allison University in Nova Scotia made headlines last year when the RCMP starting emailing the names of students to the dean of students. The dean would then call the students into his office. Some students felt this was heavy-handed. One student claimed that he was threatened with on-campus judicial action for his off-campus activities if he became a repeat offender in the eyes of the university. A week after the student newspaper reported the story, the practice stopped. The police and university claim that the end of the problem had nothing to do with the newspaper reports.

Another hotspot of tension is the University of Western Ontario in London. City council recently passed bylaws to limit the number of people that can live in one house in the city, a bylaw which appears to target student housing. The city has assigned extra police resources to target areas where students live and as publicly announced that they will not tolerate misbehaviour by students. The tension between town and gown resulted in Ryan Gause, president of the Kings University College Students’ Council, warning the city that due to student bashing, it was being seen as "anti-student" which could result in lower enrolment. Gause told the London Free Press that students feel under siege. 

Two weekends ago, tensions flared in another part of London when a party near Fanshawe College involving 500 people got out of hand and police had to use pepper spray. Bernice Hall, a college Vice-President, told the London Free Press that Fanshawe would not tolerate its students trashing neighbourhoods and the college plans to go door-to-door in the community with police to talk to students in an effort to response to problems in the community. Hall admitted that the college had no power to penalize students for off-campus behaviour. Police stated they were pelted with bottles and during the mayhem a man began to tear apart a fence in front of officers. Police chief Murray Faulker was quoted as saying, "Every year, a new batch moves in and they have their first taste of freedom and they don’t understand how to control their alcohol intake."

In all these communities, non-student residents are demanding that universities and colleges act to punish poor behaviour by their students in the community. However, legislation that governs these institutions is intended only to be used to discipline students for on-campus offences. Administrators are loath to attempt to extend those powers off-campus. Offences committed by students in the community are mostly bylaw offences, and universities are not mandated to enforce municipal bylaws.

Waterloo has taken a “zero-tolerance” approach to enforcing its bylaws this year, including a controversial 24-hour noise bylaw. During the four days leading up to the start of classes at Laurier and UWaterloo, over 200 infractions and/or charges were laid by Waterloo police and bylaws officers. 49 of these were violations of noise bylaws.

Oshawa, Ontario is the latest scene of tension between town and gown with the founding of Ontario’s newest public university: the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Since UOIT started accepting students in 2003, many houses around UOIT, which shares its campus with Durham College and a satellite campus of Trent, have been purchased by landlords and converted into student rental housing. Some in the community are not happy about this and have demanded action by the city. The city has responded by drafting a new bylaw which would require any rental property in the areas surrounding campus to first have a license before being allowed to rent. All sides in the dispute are unhappy with the draft bylaw and the city is continuing to try and find a solution.