January 12, 2006

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The radical campus faces first major protest

The first major crisis and the first demonstration of student power at SFU was a protest against the construction of a service station.
From its inception 40 years ago, SFU attracted national attention for its innovative design and programs, and for the activism of its students and faculty. Today it may be surprising to learn that activism at SFU began as a protest against the construction of the Shell service station that now stands empty and forgotten on the far side of the ring road opposite the west mall complex. In 1966, objections to this service station caught SFU's first president, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, completely by surprise and they proved to be the start of a series of crises that eventually forced his resignation. The full story is told in Hugh Johnston's Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University. Below is an excerpt from the book.

The first major crisis and the first demonstration of student power at SFU was a protest against the construction of a service station.

Students and faculty were defending SFU's architectural integrity and its natural setting. The earliest hint that they could be mobilized in this way had been a plant-in at the end of the spring semester when about 30 professors and students spent a muddy afternoon planting grass and trees to stave off a designated parking lot.

A couple of months later a Shell service station presented itself as a much greater issue.

McTaggart-Cowan was generous in his memory of the anti-Shell protest, saying that he never had any fear that SFU students would damage their own buildings: they were too proud of the architecture and the Shell protest was proof. The result of the protest had been a compromise. The protesters did not stop the construction of the service station - which was to operate for nearly 33 years before Shell shut it down in 1999 - but they did secure modifications in the design. In retrospect, McTaggart-Cowan conceded that the original design had been wrong, and the protesters had been right in objecting.

At the time, McTaggart-Cowan had wryly watched a protest begin over a scenic view that he knew had not existed before the service station lot was cleared. Then he had been unable to get ahead of the misinformation that pushed the protest along. The original idea had seemed unremarkable: to provide a basic service that would bring in revenue for the university. Chevron and Shell stations at UBC caused no comment and a lot of cars would be coming to Burnaby Mountain.

While the campus was still a construction site, workers had problems with vehicles breaking down and no repair or tow truck facilities nearby.

With the plan for a service station came a creative addendum: the service station would be sitting on university land and if the company operating it pre-paid 25 years of rent ($116,000), SFU would have a capital sum to put toward a men's residence. The pre-payment of rent would show up in company books as an asset, so for a large company this would be quite manageable: a bookkeeping entry.

This idea materialized within the board of governors and it was a board member with connections at Shell, Charles Bloch-Bauer, who negotiated the details. In the summer of 1965, before the university opened, the board invited major oil companies to submit tenders. Shell's proposal - including a profit sharing scheme and with an extra $15,000 thrown in - was accepted during the second week of classes in the fall of 1965. By then the board had decided that the service station should be located centrally, on the concrete loop road near the transportation centre.

And they had agreed that the architecture of the service station should be in keeping with the architecture of the university. A corollary meant no streaming pennants, tire displays, flashy contest signs, arc lights on tall poles, or Shell's usual large yellow sign.

For several months in the spring of 1966, SFU commuters enjoyed a magnificent view toward Burrard Inlet and the mountains of the North Shore - a view created when a contractor for Shell toppled alder and hemlock trees on the far side of the loop road opposite the campus bus stop. The SFU community seems to have enjoyed this view without noticing that it was new or without figuring out that trees had been cut for a purpose. Then word spread that a service station was going in.

One might gauge the strength of the campus-wide reaction by the generally conservative physics department where eight of 11 professors registered objections to the service station. (The other three were out of town). In all faculties, students and professors were quick to express opposition. Aesthetics was one issue and catering to a big oil company another (everyone assumed that Shell had taken the initiative, not the Board); and that was compounded by the board's decision to call the men's residence Shell house. Then there was the larger matter of taking campus opinion into account.

The university and Shell went ahead with the service station because the oil company would not withdraw without compensation and the university could not afford to pay the costs. As far as the company could tell, most students wanted a service station although not on the spot that had been chosen. Moving it was not an option that Shell would consider once they had spent heavily on design, site development and construction.

The concession that they agreed to - with student leaders, the faculty association, and board members all involved in the negotiations - was to soften the appearance by moving the service bays to the rear and increasing the height of the shrubbery screen that they already planned to put along the road. The gas pumps stayed at the front.

The protest erupted in June and died down in two weeks when Shell promised changes. Then when students enrolled for the fall semester - most of them having taken the summer off - the protest started up again. The service station site was still a mess because student demonstrators had briefly halted construction in June, and then Shell's contractor had waded into labour problems: a carpenters' lockout. In September, a Shift Shell rally in the mall brought out 1,000 students, and by the end of September student organizers had 1,500 signatures on a petition that they delivered by a cavalcade of cars to Shell officials in downtown Vancouver.

The Shell station controversy showed how fickle a university community could be under a trimester system. The Student Society president in the spring semester was Tony Buzan who attended the sod turning ceremony in February without a hint of concern. The summer president, Alex Turner, astutely put himself at the head of the protest and then contained it by negotiating and supporting Shell's changes. In September, yet another president, John Mynott, was leading a cavalcade of cars downtown to present Shell with fresh demands to relocate the station.

SFU got the service station, but the protest had a legacy. First of all, activists had an appetizing taste of confrontation. And the radicalization of student leaders, including those of the liberal centre as well as the extreme left. And then there was the aggravation felt by members of the board who saw the Shell protest as a setback, especially with the business community: fundraising was going to be more difficult. All this served to shape their actions in the crises that followed.

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