The Circle Game: Campus Politics Then and Now

An image advertising roles with the now-defunct Trent Student Union from Arthur, Volume 10 (1975-1976), Issue 1, page 8. Image via Arthur Digital Archives.

Peter Gould, or Otis as he’s known to friends, is a semi-retired public servant and artist living in Vanier, Ottawa. He’s got an easy-going kind of attitude and he’s known for wearing colourful Hawaiian shirts at any social gathering. In 1976, 18-year-old Peter Gould found himself in the unenviable position of being the lightning rod for growing political tensions between Marxists and Conservatives at Trent University. Gould was elected as the Lady Eaton representative on the Trent Student Union. Naïve and inexperienced, Gould followed the lead of his upperclassmen who convinced him to run on their behalf. As part of this plan, his new friends convinced him to sign his name on a letter to Arthur editors outlining his reluctance to fund special interest groups, which they felt only served a vocal minority at Trent. Gould, now in his fifties, looks back on this incident and cringes, the way most of us do when reflecting on our choices in the first year of university.

Trent’s current political climate mirrors its roots in many ways. Campus politics, as a reflection of provincial politics, have become increasingly polarized. Although the “vocal minority groups” have been replaced with levy groups and the TSU has given way to the TCSA, many of the issues that faced Peter’s generation of Trent students are still present on our campus. Concerns about tuition fees, the treatment of international students, divesting from unethical corporations, political bias, the rights of Indigenous peoples, environmentalism, housing scarcity, and underemployment remain on the minds of Trent students.

Arthur spoke to Peter Gould (’76-’78) about the cyclical nature of campus politics.

What was Trent like for the typical undergrad in 1976?

I was at Trent from 1976-78. Coming from Ottawa, I applied to Trent because I was attracted by its small student population and style of teaching that allowed for a lot of interaction with faculty. Although I started at Trent 42 years ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday because it was such a stimulating environment and I had so many memorable experiences there. I was so impressed — though often rather intimidated! — by the level of knowledge and insights of my professors. Life in residence was lively and I met some incredible people there. One of my neighbours was a brilliant economics major who listened to Gregorian chants. Another of my neighbours was a political activist who grew up in Zimbabwe, where his (white) family had been forced to leave the country because his father was a leading anti-apartheid activist. At Trent I met the first Indigenous Canadians I had ever met, from all over Canada, who had come to Trent to study Indigenous Studies. The friendships we had opened my eyes to a side of Canada I had never known much about.

I found our life for the typical Trent undergrad was extremely privileged — tuition at Ontario universities was only $600 per year, generous loans and grants were available, and Trent even provided students with a green credit card that you could use at the university bookstore, as well as to cover your tuition and residence expenses. Life on the main campus out on the Otonabee river, surrounded by stunning architecture set in a beautiful landscape, had the feel of attending a kind of resort devoted to intellectual development. When we weren’t in class or weren’t reading for our courses, there were endless free-floating discussions of literature, music, politics, spirituality. It had an idyllic quality.

The social life for undergrads was quite rich: free concerts, special lectures, political rallies, bluegrass festivals, rowing regattas, sunrise ceremonies on the drumlin behind Lady Eaton College. College dons living in the residence regularly invited students for informal evening get-togethers. There were a lot of parties. A lot.

Where did students hang outs in 1976? Were certain pubs considered radical or conservative hang-outs, or did you all pretty much mix together?

There was “The Commoner”, a cozy but primitive bar in an old farmhouse about one kilometre from the main campus (but still on Trent U property). It had a couple foosball games and so attracted a fair number of jocks, but everybody who lived on campus went there at least once. Then there was the “Cat’s Ass” (really) disco which was held on Thursday nights in the large open area next to the Otonabee College cafeteria. It attracted mainly the more conformist elements on campus, but Otonabee students would usually show up now and then. Lady Eaton had a disco about once a month (again, in the cafeteria) — of no interest to anyone other than Lady Eaton and Champlain students. The “Jolly Hangman” pub at Peter Robinson College was the best place to go—and was the radical hangout. It had a very bohemian, intellectual and leftist crowd, and sponsored poetry readings etc. Many Trent students who lived on campus rarely went into Peterborough. A lot of my friends at Trent who lived off campus introduced me to the preferred student hangouts in town: the Trent Inn (where I remember the “Hurricane Carter” concert by Bob Dylan was being televised — while a local folk singer was playing “Hurricane” while standing on a small stage at the back of the Trent Inn), which was this long Tudor-style bar that was pretty lively (if a bit gritty). In my second year, “The Room at the Top” opened, this 1960s lounge on the top floor of a hotel downtown (can’t remember which one) and the small circle of jazz musicians at Trent had weekly concerts there.

Can you set the tone for student politics at the time? What were the major issues on the minds of students both on and off campus?

When I first arrived at Trent, I didn’t pay any attention to student politics. In time, I came to realize that most students at my college (Lady Eaton) and neighbouring Champlain were politically fairly conservative, while students at Otonabee and the downtown colleges tended to have very wide-ranging intellectual interests and very liberal or radical politics. At Lady Eaton, there was a group of about thirty male students who called themselves “The Bay Boys”, as they were from the Georgian Bay. There was an excellent rapport between, on the one hand, Trent students and, on the other, faculty and the administration. Most faculty had very liberal or progressive political views. There was an active political scene at Trent, even though only a fraction of the students took an interest in it. At the time, the imprisonment of Leonard Pelletier and the activities of the American Indian Movement was a major focus of political advocacy among First Nations students at Trent. Another focus of political activism at Trent was countering US imperialism such as the excesses of the CIA, and neo-colonialism in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Occasionally, issues closer to home would lead to a mobilization of the more politically-aware students. For example, in 1977, the Ontario government announced that, for the first time, Ontario would introduce differential fees for foreign students. Although there were only about 30 foreign students at Trent, a large group of students (myself included) occupied the Comptroller’s Office on one of the upper floors of the library for about five days. The sit-in ended when the administration agreed to file a formal protest of the new policy with the Ontario Ministry of Education.

You had a unique experience with student politics. Can you elaborate on that? How did you end up featured in Arthur and what were the events that lead to it?

I did have a unique experience with student politics at Trent. It caused me a few days of anxiety at the time but I look back on it now and laugh. My first month at Trent, September 1976, my dorm mentor Ken Mitchell introduced me to a circle of his friends, upper-year students at Lady Eaton who were mainly majoring in arts or social sciences, were well-read, fairly outspoken, and quite outgoing. Although we listened to the same music, read the same books, and smoked the same marijuana, they were. politically, in fact surprisingly conservative—while distancing themselves from “The Bay Boys” whom they considered anti-intellectual.

Anyways, one day, Ken and his friends told me that the Trent Student Union (TSU) had refused to hold an election at Lady Eaton the year before because the TSU, led by Randy Barnhardt (who went on to a brilliant career as a First Nations legal activist), was dominated by extreme Marxists who didn’t want a non-Marxist representative from Lady Eaton to be elected to the TSU and thereby make TSU meetings uncomfortable. They explained that the Trent administration had ordered the TSU to hold an election at Lady Eaton to fill the vacant post of college student rep, and asked if they could nominate me as they feared that if any upper-year student at Lady Eaton, who might be known to the TSU, were nominated, that the TSU would then find some excuse to cancel the vote. I was unable to confirm any of this information and, looking back now, I find the scenario presented to me back in 1976 preposterous. I was nominated, an election was held one day at Lady Eaton, and I won by acclamation.

About two weeks later, Arthur ran a long article entitled “The Unfortunate Gould” in which it was argued that this first-year student had been made the unwitting co-conspirator of a conservative faction at Lady Eaton that was determined to hold back Trent students from political, intellectual and spiritual liberation. I was stunned to see all of this written about myself—I was only 18 after all and had just left home for the first time not even a month before. I resolved to prove them wrong, by attending every TSU meeting, and showing a cooperative attitude. In fact, the TSU was very accepting of me, even though I knew next-to-nothing about the issues they discussed at their meetings. I was asked to take on the responsibility of ensuring the contractual conditions were met for musicians playing at concerts on campus that were sponsored by the TSU which turned out to be a great way to meet some wonderful folk and rock musicians.

You said that there was a divide in the colleges in terms of political alignment. Was there any particular college that was considered the most radical at the time?

Yes, I think Lady Eaton and Champlain were generally quite conservative. I was impressed by Otonabee, but I somehow transposed the names on my application and ended up at Lady Eaton — not that I cared as I quickly made friends at Lady Eaton. Otonabee had a general reputation as a community of free thinkers, I think because so many hippy students and native students were there. Traill was a subdued place (I lived next to it in second year). Peter Robinson had the reputation as the most radical college. I think the more radical students tended to be older and living off campus, but found Peter Robinson the most comfortable institutional setting.

I think the “vocal minority groups” (whatever they were) were seen by these Lady Eaton students as a network of students co-opted by a radical agenda. I think these Lady Eaton students sought to demonize these campus groups as subversives, rather than recognize that these groups were exploring real grievances, needs, etc. So in retrospect, it seems that it was largely a rhetorical exercise devoid of substance — though still potentially harmful to relations among students.

This holds true over 50 years later; a campus looking much different than Gould would remember, plagued by familiar cyclical politics devoid of real substance. This is one of the many cycles that can and should be broken down, allowing for a forward momentum rather than an endless tug of war. Lessons to be taken from Trent’s alumni are to make change and be active, ground ourselves in Trent’s radical roots. We may face some of the same political drama today on campus that Gould did in 1976 – when he unwittingly become an Arthur headline – but how we handle it? That’s up to us.