Nova Scotia

Dalhousie University students protesting for a good grade

A course at Dalhousie University in Halifax is getting students fired up about making a difference in the world, but it doesn't hurt that 20 per cent of their participation mark comes from organizing a protest.

Robert Huish's activism class required for students studying international development

Robert Huish says his course on social activism took shape after he read a book about the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk. The North Korean man escaped from a concentration camp after 23 years inside (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

A course at Dalhousie University in Halifax is getting students fired up about making a difference in the world, but it helps 20 per cent of their participation mark comes from organizing a protest.

Robert Huish says his course on social activism took shape after he read a book about the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, a North Korean man born in a concentration camp – Camp 14 – in the heart of North Korea.

Dong Hyuk spent the first 23 years of his life there until his escape. Ever since, he has lived with the guilt of leaving behind a father who would have been publicly executed to discourage others from making a break for it.

Huish came across Dong Hyuk’s harrowing story by chance.

"Honestly, I was just bored in an airport - I picked up his book off the shelf and by the time the flight was over, I had swallowed up the whole book," Huish says. "I figured this is something that most people would want to get behind, that a lot of people would want to be a part of. And that's what we're showing students, even though we're in Halifax, they are now a part of this."

Since he became familiar with the North Korean defector’s story, he has used it as an inspiration in the course he teaches on social activism.

"His story shows that anyone has the potential to be an activist, to truly be a world leader when it comes to human rights," says Huish. "I think students after this course, no matter who they are, realize they can be an uninvited activist as well and really make a change in the world."

The course called development and activism: methods of organization, manifestation and dissent is listed as a required course for students studying international development studies.

Twenty per cent of the final grade depends on their active participation in – and reflection on – a protest.

More than a lecture

Huish says while it may be a course required for some students, he has students from a wide array of faculties and departments.

“I actually took this course primarily because Professor Huish was teaching it,” said student Hayam Hamodat.

“I took a course with him last year and I knew it’s not just a lecture, there’s always outside-of-the-classroom activism and getting involved in the real world.”

The demonstration called ‘to remember those the world forgets’ was organized last week and comprised of a walking memorial march and a conference to discuss human rights atrocities in North Korea.

Students took on tasks from a range of responsibilities, including creating posters, lining up public speakers and playing music at the event. The class extended an invitation to the world leaders in town for the security forum last weekend, although they didn't receive any RSVPs.

Kyung Lee, president of the Council for Human Rights in North Korea, came from Toronto to co-host the event with the students.

“We are here, first of all to voice our anger and our disappointment. We cannot just sit quietly, you know?” We have to make a fuss really.”

Huish says he did have students approach him who were not comfortable participating in the demonstration and alternative assignments were handed out.

Last year’s group of students conducted a similar project. They also successfully nominated Dong Hyuk for an honorary degree from Dalhousie.

Upon accepting his degree last spring Dong Hyuk described the emptiness he felt before escaping North Korea and he said, “In places where it is brightly lit and we can see clearly – things look well. But behind the light, where there is darkness, people just like you are suffering beyond comprehension.”

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