Co-written by Zara Syed
In 2001, Trent students barricaded themselves in the Vice President’s office for three days. They were fighting for transparent democratic representation regarding changes to the the impending closure of Peter Robinson College. They demanded that democratic processes be reviewed at the university, to ensure that decisions were being made fairly. Students, professors, artists, and community members came together in a show of solidarity. Eight individuals were arrested via order of former Trent University President, Bonnie Patterson. An unforseen response, this contradicted Trent’s tradition of healthy student protest.
Arthur spoke to Ziysah, who was one of the eight who remained locked in the Vice President’s office for three full days. Despite the narrative of the “Trent Eight” that has permeated the retelling and press coverage of this story, countless people were involved in the protest against former Trent president Bonnie Patterson’s decision to sell Peter Robinson. What follows is a one on one with Ziysah that delves into the process behind the protest, and what followed.
When did you come to Trent?
Ziysah: I came to Trent in 2000. I was really interested in social justice and inequality. It’s interesting because there is a rich and diverse immigrant community in Peterborough and there’s also a rich network of not-for-profit community organizers and activists that aren’t necessarily connected to Trent. You think that everything is happening at Trent, and that the rest of the community is boring and unlearned.
People would say, “I can’t wait to finish my four years so I can get out of this town,” and I’m like, “Have you even looked at this town? Have you gone to an event that isn’t a Trent event?” I was fortunate enough to meet people in the community who showed me this side of Peterborough.
Why is it important to have figures at Trent and in the community re-tell stories?
Ziysah: The institution erases you from memory. Stories are being erased from public memory. We didn’t know about anything that people had done in the past and we learned about it overtime.
So, an oral history keeps institutional memory alive?
Ziysah: Yes. That’s why it’s cool that there are documentaries out there that tell the story, like My Student Loan (2013). Bonnie Patterson was very candid with them in the beginning, as she thought they were doing a positive film about the campus. She referred to students as captive customers in terms of corporate sales. When she realized that they were supporting the demonstration, they were banned from campus.
What brought you to Peter Robinson College?
Ziysah: I was a total Trent nerd, so I was reading up on it and following it on the news when I was still in high school. Trent was in the news because people were already protesting the idea of Peter Robinson closing. I knew that Peter Robinson was known for being queer and activist, and that’s where I wanted to go. I already had an affinity for the College even though I had never been there.
There was an OPIRG group called the Downtown Action Group (DAG) that knew that there was a plan to close Peter Robinson down, so they were already organizing the pushback. DAG included professors, TAs, grad students, and undergraduate students. I started going to DAG meetings when I showed up.
Did you witness anything suspicious in terms of administrative behaviour?
Ziysah: I’m pretty sure that they were intentionally re-routing students who wanted to be a part of Peter Robinson, and putting them on main campus. I had friends who requested Peter Robinson but they were put on main campus. I had more than one friend that was told that Peter Robinson was full, meanwhile none of my roommates had requested to be a part of Peter Robinson.
What did you know about the Colleges at the time?
Ziysah: When I was deciding on going to university, I read the Maclean’s university issue, and it talked about each college at Trent. It said that if you were an activist or into art, Peter Robinson was the place. If you’re kind of like a hippy who plays hacky-sack, go to Traill. Champlain and Otonabee were the jockey ones.
What was it like in the early days of your arrival?
Ziysah: We got into our townhouses, and the first event was a talk with the college head George Nader. We went into Sadleir House and we were all crowded around these tables. Nader was speaking in this British accent and it felt like Harry Potter. It felt candlelit. Nader had a British accent. He was telling us about the traditions of Peter Robinson and the feeling of it as a community, along with the rules of course.
Was it a welcoming atmosphere?
Ziysah: Yeah, but it wasn’t welcoming the way I would be welcoming. It felt really intimate, like, there was a rich, very special tradition and space. I felt excited to be a part of it. It was very collegial even though the houses were shabby and my bedroom wall was concrete bricks. Sadleir House was a beautiful building, but our rooms weren’t particularly inspiring. It was more that we were a part of a community and that we were downtown and a part of Trent.
When did you decide to become super involved and fight this thing?
Ziysah: I just started going to the meetings. I was committed to it right away, no one had to convince me of anything. I absolutely believed everything I was hearing, and then I started going to the Board of Governors meetings whenever they were open, and protested what was being said.
What was the Board discussing at the time?
Ziysah: They were making economic arguments that in order for the University to be financially viable, they needed to close the downtown colleges. They kept talking about deferred maintenance, saying that they couldn’t keep Peter Robinson opened because of the many millions of dollars of deferred maintenance.
Deferred maintenance is something they intentionally didn’t do over many years. As students, we had been paying our fees and they hadn’t been using those fees to maintain our campus, and then they were telling us, “We have to close your campus because we haven’t been maintaining the colleges.”
Was there resistance at the meetings?
Ziysah: We thought as young people, let’s just tell them how we feel. Let’s just show them what people want. You can see how that was being done already, through petitions, letters, and emails, and being totally ignored. Like, they weren’t even pretending to care or looking into the complaints. We were not asked to be on any committee. We were just told “no” and kicked out of the meetings.
How many were involved in the protest?
Ziysah: There were so many of us. The coverage somehow branded us as the “Trent 8”, but there were so many people involved that the term actually devalued the efforts. It was sort of unfortunate that it became known as the Trent 8 because there were all these people who were not locked in the room, but were there the whole time doing media communication, crowd control, and getting us what we needed.
They were taking our buckets of pee out the window because we didn’t have a bathroom, right? People were doing stuff like that, and working a lot harder than I was. I wanted to be a physical body, despite my lack of skill. I was happy to be locked in there for as long as it took.
Were professors involved?
Ziysah: Oh yes, and artists in the community. There were events and parties. It really brought everyone together. The Administration is threatened by relationships between professors and students. If professors and students care about each other at a basic human level, it isn’t easy for Administration to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Politicized professors and students are a dangerous threat to administration.
How did you occupy the Vice President’s office?
Ziysah: We knew how to go about it properly, we had researched it. We were the biggest nerds in a good way. We had done training so that we knew exactly how to take the office in a way that would be non-confrontational. We had training where the idea was not to be aggressive, but to be really assertive and clear that this was happening.
We had trained to assert that the people we were taking the office from were going to be happier if they were on the outside. Some of them were more stubborn than others, and some of them were scared. So, yeah, we went in and asked everyone to leave.
Were you all students?
Ziysah: Yes, we were all undergraduates.
What were your demands?
Ziysah: We had a list of demands. One of them was “stop the closure of Peter Robinson College.” But it wasn’t, like, “stop it, never close it.” It was “stop this and have a democratic process.” Another demand was looking at the democratic system of Trent, and doing an assessment of it. Just to make sure that the democratic process was functioning. So, it wasn’t so much of a do this, and don’t do that, it was have a committee on this, and have fair representation.
How did Bonnie Patterson react?
Ziysah: Bonnie said right away that our terms were non-negotiable, and would not talk to us. That’s just who she is. Somebody asked her neighbour about her, and the neighbour said this thing about how Bonnie is a person who just gets up in the morning, gets into her car, and it doesn’t matter what the weather is, even if it’s an ice storm, she just drives straight ahead. She is focused on her goal and that’s it.
How did you feel about Bonnie’s refusal to negotiate?
Ziysah: Our voices were never valued. At all. There was no way for us to have any impact on things that were happening at our school. That was not the history of Trent I knew. I knew that people had occupied offices in the past at Trent, and that the President had interacted with them. In one case, he ordered them pizza. This went against everything Trent was about.
Protest was a valued thing that students were encouraged to do. And new students, this particular group of students, were at Trent for that history. That’s what attracted us to the University. That’s what attracted us to taking action. And far from being applauded for doing something we believed in, Bonnie called the police and asked them to arrest us.
Tell us about the arrest.
Ziysah: Bonnie called the cops and told them when the best time would be to come and arrest us. It was in the middle of the night, when the least supporters were there, and when we were the least on guard. Essentially, she directly told them what to do. They arrived as riot cops in full gear, handcuffed us, and dragged us out. They strip searched everybody and put us in jail.
They talked to each of us individually, and tried to pit us against each other. They used standard manipulative tactics, which we had trained for. We knew not to believe them and to remain in solidarity. They transported us to the courthouse in the morning, and we were given bail. Essentially, we were only allowed to be in residence or in class. If we had to be anywhere else on campus, we had to make appointments. All the administrators had posters with our faces on it on their desks.
Do you think you committed a crime?
Ziysah: We knew how to go about the protest properly. Bonnie had orchestrated our arrest in a way that was totally unnecessary. We researched the history of dissent, and were basically going to argue that we were following in the history of our predecessors whom we valued, and that was a valued tradition at Trent.
We had done our research and the University had never called the police or charged anyone, so we thought that this was something that was acceptable. We knew that Bonnie wasn’t going to budge, therefore we knew that she was incongruent to the traditions of Trent. Regardless, we wanted to follow in the history of our school.
What were you charged with?
Ziysah: We were charged with criminal mischief. They could have just charged us with trespassing, but they decided to charge us with the harshest thing that they could. The hearing date was set for the next Fall, and we had months in which we had to fundraise money to pay the lawyer and prepare for the trial. All these Trent people came out to support us at the courthouse.
What was the trial process like?
Ziysah: A few days before the trial, they offered us a conditional discharge. After we had already raised all this money and spent it on legal feels and even practiced being interviewed on the witness stand, they give us this offer that if we plead guilty to criminal mischief, we would have to do community service, and after a few years, it would be erased off of our criminal records. They would only offer it if we all agreed to it, so we felt we had to accept it because of the risk.
What was it like, knowing it was over?
Ziysah: It was messed up because if they had offered us that in the beginning… they just waited until we were burnt out. We had spent so long fundraising, we were exhausted. All of a sudden, it was over. We were going to put Bonnie on the stand and expose all of the anti-democratic things she had done. We weren’t able to do that.
Thank you for re-visiting a very difficult time for us.
Ziysah: It was traumatic but also a nostalgic time. It was the reason I came to Trent: to be a part of a community that was basically dying when I got there. I got to be there for that, not to say that it isn’t still here now. We actually had a funeral for PR [Peter Robinson College].
Is there anything that you want Trent students to know or to take from this re-telling?
Ziysah: I want people in the community to know that they come from a rich history of creative demonstration and resistance that can be credited for a lot of what is still awesome about Trent.
Other ways are possible. The University should belong to the students. It should be up to us how we want the University to run.