University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Studying dissent


New history course inspects activism in Canada.

By Caitlyn Spencer

“Historically, three cohorts of people have been instrumental in protests: youth, the university-educated, and women,” says history professor Paul Stortz. For those students nostalgic for the much-mythologized antiwar protests that swept across many campuses in the 1960s and 1970s, Stortz is teaching a new curricular offering to sate their revolutionary interests: History of Activism and Protest in Canada (HTST 493).

“You have contemporary ideas of social movements, and what you might see in the media as riots – these are forms of protest, but not all forms of protest,” Stortz says. He argues that the nature of protests is changing, in part because of our increased freedoms in societies such as Canada. “Freedom of expression is much broader than it was,” he says. “We enjoy greater liberty to press for change.”

Though Stortz has previously taught the subject in Canadian Studies, this year it’s being offered through the history department, and consequently will focus on contextualizing protest in Canada, from the 19th century on. “We take a contemporary look at what’s happening today, then we look at protest historically. Because we only have 13 weeks in the class, we have to pick and choose what we cover,” Stortz explains. This semester, the course will touch on human rights, labour and class, lgbtq, feminist, aboriginal, environmental, university-based, political, Quebec, and culturally based activism.

 “If you look at SlutWalk – that idea goes back 100 years, though it wasn’t called SlutWalk. In the 1880s and 1890s, with the New Woman Movement, they were already fighting for the emancipation of women’s choices and voices,” Stortz says. “The ideas that promote inequality are extremely difficult to break down. They persist. The only way to fight them is activism – that might be with a torch and pitchfork, or through talking with your parents and your friends, or through giving up your seat to someone else on the bus.”

Would taking a course on activism help combat inequality? Absolutely – in fact, Stortz argues that taking a course at all is a form of activism.

“Activism doesn’t have to be this media sensation of riots,” he says. “Every classroom on this campus is activist. Every person in it. There’s a motion and an energy, a proceeding from one point to another, and that doesn’t have to be physical – it can be pursuing new ideas. Those are activist ideas, no matter what they pertain to.”

HTST 493 runs MWF from 12-12:50. There are no prerequisites for the course, which is open to students of all majors. For more information, contact Paul Stortz at The last day to add or swap courses is September 26.

Photo of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 taken from the National Library and Archives of Canada photographic catalogue.