It takes quite the student to call the government out on its bullshit in front of the sitting Prime Minister, but Charlotte Kiddell, an undergraduate at Mount Saint Vincent University, did exactly that.
Kiddell recently sat down with Justin Trudeau as part of CBC’s “Face to Face with the Prime Minister” series. Kiddell interviewed Trudeau about the government’s plans to tackle student debt and related issues. This was prior to the Ontario government’s announcement about covering tuition for low income students.
We were able to catch up with Kiddell to give us deeper insight into the experience. The following interview has been edited for brevity.
Before anything, I’d love to know a little more about you. What has inspired you to take on such a strong role in student advocacy?
I think for me, the inclination to advocacy came from an inclination to care for others. It took a lot of conversations with my friends and peers—racialized peers who felt underrepresented and undervalued, young women who were scared to make their voices heard, students on the verge of tears because they couldn’t juggle it all anymore—for me to realize that part of caring for the people I love could be fighting to make their lives better.
From there I founded the MSVU Feminist Collective, was elected Women’s Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students Nova Scotia (CFS-NS) and successfully ran to represent MSVU students to the Board of Governors. From one day to the next I was advocating for students on campus and in my province to cursing out our Prime Minister about accessible post-secondary education on behalf of all of Canada’s students.
But for me, the political always starts with the personal. One of the ten Canadians interviewing Prime Minister Trudeau, Nikki Fraser, told me the morning of the interview that she hadn’t attended university because of the barrier of tuition fees and lack of funding. If she hadn’t shared that experience I would not have had the personal connection and courage to say bullshit in front of Mr. Trudeau.
I understand you were specifically selected to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. How did you accomplish that, and what drove you to do it in the first place?
The Face-to-Face producers were specifically looking for a student in Nova Scotia, because Nova Scotian students are in a particularly dire situation right now. Our provincial government, under the leadership of Minister of Labour and Advanced Education Kelly Regan, de-regulated tuition fees in the spring of 2015 through an ill-conceived tuition reset. As a result, many Nova Scotian students will see their tuition rise from the third highest in the country to the highest.
Since then, Nova Scotian students have been fighting hard to get their government to reject the reset.
“Students are always fighting for our government and institutions to recognize that education is a right. We just don’t always make it to national television.”
I could not imagine anyone turning down the opportunity to meeting face-to-face with the Prime Minister, but what excited me was knowing I had the unique opportunity to raise the collective voice of the student movement on a national platform. The conversation I had with Trudeau is one students across the country are having every day. Students are always fighting for our government and institutions to recognize that education is a right. We just don’t always make it to national television.
Were you told not to say, do, or ask certain things during the process?
The producers were adamant that we represented ourselves and our concerns authentically, so didn’t censor or govern our participation. When I was first selected for this opportunity, I was asked a couple questions about what I might ask our Prime Minister and why these issues were important to me. Then it was free reign. This is the point on which I have the most respect for the Prime Minister’s Office. Trudeau knew almost nothing about us going into the process: just our first names and our general area of interest (for example: “Charlotte, post-secondary education.”) So what we ten Canadians brought to the interviews was entirely genuine.
You told the CBC that you were “disappointed” by the Prime Minister’s answers. How do you feel he could have answered them better?
I have two main disappointments with the Prime Minister’s answers. When I asked if the government would fund education for all indigenous learners, as is their treaty right, he shrugged off the possibility of this coming up in their 2016 budget even though he already committed to this by stating that his government would adopt all the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I was also disappointed by his “skirting” answers. I understand that the needs and concerns of Canadians are diverse. Because I understand that there are no instantaneous blanket solutions, I would have respected responses admitting that some of our concerns were not a priority, even though I disagree. For Trudeau to devalue our concerns with token reassurances like “I’m looking at it,” deflect from his government’s inaction, which I found disrespectful, both on a political and personal level.
Do you think that Justin Trudeau is a suitable leader for our country? Do you have specific criticisms or praise of his leadership?
I think evaluating the efficacy of our federal government needs to go far beyond attention to a singular political figure. When we talk about keeping our government accountable, I think it’s important to consider how our government is working at all levels now, and how it could work better. The Liberal Party brought up electoral reform during their 2015 campaign, and this is a possibility that is very exciting to me.
“I think evaluating the efficacy of our federal government needs to go far beyond attention to a singular political figure.”
Right now, I see Trudeau taking steps in the right direction. He certainly made post-secondary education a central issue of his electoral campaign and his pledge to increase to 70,000 youth summer jobs by 2018 is a move towards combatting youth un(der)employment. However, I think we need to ensure we are not too easily mollified by immediate statements and short-term solutions, and keep calling on our government for long-term, meaningful action.
Looking back on the interview, would you do or say anything differently if you were to do it again?
My biggest regret is at the very end of the interview. If you watch the full ten minutes, you’ll see that Trudeau ends our conversation on the importance of access to education for indigenous learners by saying “because it’s 2016,” referencing his similar comment on gender parity in the cabinet.
My concern about this catch-phrase is that women, indigenous, and otherwise marginalized people are asked to justify our own representation all the time. And because of their marginalized positions, their responses are often disrespected or unheard. I was hopeful that our feminist-identified Prime Minister would see his unique platform, and responsibility to bring these voices and issues into a national conversation instead of relying on an easy sound bite.
Before my interview, I had thought about bringing this concern up, but thought that it was ultimately tangential and would distract from my focus on access to post-secondary education. When he closed our conversation with that statement, I couldn’t believe my luck, the ability to address this concern with him myself. In my surprise, I froze, and our ten minutes were up. If I were back in that room with him, I’d say everything I just shared above, and press him to find a new catch-phrase in the future.
In the interview, you mentioned that you have five jobs. What are those jobs and how in the world do you balance them with your personal and academic life (especially as someone achieving a double major!)?
I have one research assistance position that I work twelve hours per week. Along with that position I tutor independently and for the Mount’s English Department. I am the Board of Governors representative for my student council and the women’s representative with the Canadian Federation of Students Nova Scotia.
While it’s difficult to balance schedules like mine, full of part-time work, I recognize that many students don’t have the same opportunity for employment that I’ve had. The fact that working so many hours during school is necessary for most students to get by highlights even more how our system of college and university in this country is not accessible to so many.
As youth un(der)employment and job market competition increases, I see students being pressured into taking on an overwhelming amount of volunteer and employed work to improve their chances for meaningful employment upon graduation, but also to survive while in school.
Another dangerous trend I’ve noticed is that student support services are often the first on the chopping block when public funding for our schools is cut. This causes students like myself to take on the work of filling these gaps like establishing peer support groups or engaging in consent education. It’s a very thin line (if it exists at all) between my personal and academic life, because the students I get to work with and advocate alongside are some of the most passionate, insightful and supportive people I know. I mean it wholeheartedly when I say that I love being part of the student movement.
How would you advise that other students—Aboriginal especially—partake in advocacy for their rights, educational or otherwise? In your view, why is it so important for them to care?
I’m hesitant to advise anyone how to best advocate for their rights. I am not the expert on anyone else’s lived experience and therefore cannot determine the best way for anyone else to support themselves. That said, I think that the National Aboriginal Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students has been a strong voice for Indigenous students’ advocacy in this country, and the leaders in the caucus are the experts on advocacy.
“Don’t be afraid to call oppressive bullshit when you see it!”
For all students, I hope that you look around yourself and find something that you are truly passionate about. What is the one issue that pops into your head every day? Maybe it’s mental health, or environmental justice, or better cafeteria food. I never would have gotten involved in advocating for accessible post-secondary education if I hadn’t first been interested in advocating for gender equity on campus.
Above all, know that your concerns are important, your voice is valuable and you deserve to be heard. Systems of oppression are perpetuated, in part, because those disadvantaged within the system are taught that they have nothing meaningful to say. This is not true.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to call oppressive bullshit when you see it!
Finally, what steps do you think the federal government must take to prioritize students?
Immediately after I met with Trudeau, I joined the Canadian Federation of Students for Lobby Week, during which about 40 students met with almost 200 MPs and Senators to present our 2016 lobby document. In this, we had three key recommendations for steps the federal government must take to prioritize students: alleviating student debt and providing accessible education, revitalizing research funding in Canada, and ending youth un(der)employment.
I think the government’s top priority must be to provide access to post-secondary education to all indigenous learners without cost. This is a commitment the Liberal Party has already made in their pledge to honour the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is already a treaty right promised by the Government of Canada.
I recently heard Catherine Martin, Nancy’s Chair at the Mount and Indigenous leader, say, “We have lived up to our treaty responsibilities for the last 250 years, the other side has not.”
As Justin Trudeau said to me, “it’s not just about the future of indigenous communities, it’s about the future of our country.” The indigenous population is the fastest growing population in Canada and it’s time for our government to commit to helping this population flourish, rather than continuing a 500-year legacy of colonial oppression and destruction.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.