Post-secondary funding protest moves online amidst COVID-19 concerns

As health experts urge people to self-isolate and avoid large crowds, activists are avoiding in-person protests and demonstrations because of the public health risk.

Students who wanted their voices heard on budget day move from in-person to online demonstration

The Saskatchewan government released its spending plans for the 2020-21 budget year Wednesday. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

As health experts urge people to self-isolate and avoid large crowds, some Saskatchewan activists are avoiding in-person protests and demonstrations because of the public health risk.

Organizers at the Regina Public Interest Research Group (RPRIG), a University of Regina-based resource centre committed to social and environmental justice, are using other methods to speak up.

Instead of cancelling the action they had planned for budget day, they moved it online.

"In light of the emerging situation with the global pandemic of COVID-19, we would like to acknowledge our collective responsibility to keep our community safe and healthy by limiting large gatherings and practicing social distancing," RPRIG wrote on its Facebook page on Monday, two days before organizers had planned to lead a protest outside the legislature.

The organization asked students to participate in the action remotely by using the #skpoli hashtag to tweet at their MLA and the minister of advanced education.

"Feel free to make a digital banner, sassy meme, or take a picture of yourself holding your banner at home to share."

While public health experts urge people to avoid gathering in large groups to slow the spread of coronavirus, organizers at the Regina Public Interest Research Group led a digital protest on budget day. (Julia Peterson/for CBC)

RPRIG executive director Krystal Lewis said it is important for the government to hear and respond to students, because the budget affects so many aspects of student life.

"We're concerned about rising tuition and access to grants versus loans," she said. "But if we cut funding to other social services, or reduce the availability of childcare spaces, or if rents keep going up — all of these things affect students too."

Deputy Minister of Advanced Education Mark McLoughlin said the government is listening to student concerns.

"The Government of Saskatchewan's commitment to post-secondary education remains strong in this year's budget with a lift of $11.2-million," he said. "This includes increased operating funding to all of our valuable institutions and a continued strong amount of support for our students."

The province released its spending plans Wednesday.

Lewis and her colleagues at RPRIG found the promises inadequate.

"We looked at [the spending plans for] some key programming like education, health and social services and compared them to the 2016-17 budget, before the current government started their more aggressive gutting of public services," she said. "We saw that the 'increase' shown for advanced education doesn't even get the funding back up to 2016 numbers.

"The U of R alone has seen record enrolment in the last few years, and funding hasn't even kept up to pace with inflation, let alone this influx of new students."

Accessible activism

Saima Desai, who participated in the online protest, said she is particularly concerned about the rising cost of tuition.

"Right now, I think tuition is one of the main factors causing poverty among young people," she said. "The Saskatchewan government is being extremely shortsighted by making tuition so unaffordable for so many students, which forces students to take on massive amounts of debt or work multiple jobs on the side. They're atrophying our collective future."

Lewis said the online protest was a natural extension of RPRIG's work.

"Every time we organize – not just now – we try to show students that there's a variety of ways to get involved," Lewis said. "That's especially important because there's also folks who can't get to the [legislature] during the workday or have mobility issues that make it hard for them to walk in a march, for example."

Desai said the choice to move this action online — on top of being the responsible thing to do — is a reminder that accessible activism is both necessary and achievable.

"A lot of organizers right now are worried about what it means to not be able to take to the streets or gather en masse, but one of the things this shows is that we actually can hold this kind of collective action in a way that's more accessible to everyone," she said. "That has always been possible, though we've been reluctant to do so for a long time." 

About the Author

Julia Peterson is a Saskatoon-based journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She has a passion for arts journalism, science reporting, and social justice movements. Story ideas? Email