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Campus Activists From A Bygone Age

Writer and commentator Elamin Abdelmahmoud. There's a weekly CBC News segment hosted by Rosemary Barton called At Issue which I watch every week when I'm at my parents' house and many weeks when I'm not. It features four political commentators discussing recent events from Parliament Hill and sometimes getting into heated arguments about them. The panelist in the "lower right corner" rotates periodically but someone who watches for any decent length of time will see Elamin Abdelmahmoud in that spot. Elamin is the host of another CBC show and a writer for BuzzFeed who recently released a memoir called Son of Elsewhere about his family's experience of moving to Canada from Sudan. While I was hearing interesting opinions of his on and off for the last two years, it didn't take me long to find out that his undergrad is also from Queen's University in Kingston. But it was only last month that I flipped to a profile of him in the Queen's alumni magazine and began learning much more. The two facts that helped me the most sounded quite innocuous at first: that he attended from 2005-2011 and that he used to go by the nickname Stan. But this made me think more about whether I had ever crossed paths with him and it turns out the answer is yes. So now I get to have fun reminiscing about these exact circumstances and the wider cast of characters that they involve.

As with many things, this all started with inspiration from the Free Software movement. Specifically I was reading a lot about Cory Doctorow in 2008 and saw that he was part of a venture to promote OpenCola as an alternative to the soft drinks sold by large corporations. Even though I didn't have especially negative opinions of Coca Cola at the time, I was completely on board with exposing the fact that there was no reason for them to have such a large monopoly given the simplicity of their recipe. Further reading told me that there were absolutely reasons to boycott Coca Cola since it owns the Panamco bottling company in Colombia whose workers have been repeatedly abused. To protest the murders of SINALTRAINAL union leaders, a Killer Coke campaign website was started which helped me find out about clubs aligned with them at various universities.

One of these was Queen's University Against Killer Coke which had a very concrete mission. Apart from aiming to raise awareness generally, an exclusivity contract between Coca Cola and the food services at Queen's was about to expire and they wanted to make sure it was not renewed. Thinking that an OpenCola demonstration would be perfect, I reached out to them and got in touch with a member named James Douglas. Right after listening to Dread Rock by Oakenfold (not sure how I remember that), I met James and discussed how we would source the various ingredients. We eventually found the website of Wellington Fragrance which sold all of the essential oils needed for the flavouring syrup. We didn't end up making the final batch together but once I had the 24 bottles, carbonated with dry ice, I gave some of them to James who I knew would find a good way to use them.

The first time I met James after this was at a meeting of the Alma Mater Society (student government) where one of the motions was to approve a ballot question to all students about whether the Coca Cola contract should be renewed. Although there was a snag due to language (apparently someone wanted to use "resigning" without a hyphen to mean "signing again" instead of "exiting") this ended up passing. Some friends of mine went to this meeting too but the most active participants were people I'd never seen before. One of them, who seemed to be a good friend of James Douglas, was a guy named Nick Day. Nick got things off to an interesting start by claiming he had evidence that someone named Kevin Wiener, a student representative, had a conflict of interest and needed to step down or be impeached. Apparently, Kevin had been heard detailing plans of how he was going to use his position for partisan ends at a Conservative Party conference. There was some pushback to the fact that this was a last minute addition to the agenda but one speaker in particular made a well spoken case that people who uncover information like this deserve to be heard whether they are late or not. This was in fact my first time seeing Elamin "Stan" Abdelmahmoud but not the last.

As the meeting went on, it became clear that the main accusation against Kevin Wiener was that he was part of an outside effort to stop the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) from receiving student fees. I was ignorant of what exactly this group was and still am but the association with Ralph Nader indicates that it's politically progressive. Kevin's rebuttal started off with a simple call for transparency, saying that OPIRG was just one beneficiary of student fees who hadn't published enough details about its expenses. But then, taking a turn for the controversial, he accused OPIRG members of downplaying terrorism by inviting a former member of the Black Panthers to speak at one of their meetings. Kevin ultimately kept his position but things were close enough that the 23 people who abstained (including me) could've changed the result. Some of the other 22 expressed concerns that a negative outcome for Kevin would've jeopardized the political career he planned to have. I guess we didn't realize that, within conservative politics, censure by a student government (even in Canada) would soon come to be regarded as a badge of honour. Twitter picture of lawyer Kevin Wiener.

An approximate reversal of this scenario ended up playing out toward the end of my time at Queen's. During my third year, students voted for Nick Day to become the Rector meaning he would represent their views on the board of directors. This is a position most universities don't even have. I'm reading now that Elamin managed Nick's campaign which is not surprising given how engaged they both were. Nick was a well known supporter of BDS and made this clear in a Remembrance Day speech which I wish I could've heard delivered in person. Continued activism in this direction got him into trouble in 2011 when Michael Ignatieff, one of the least successful leaders the Liberal Party has ever had, referred to an event called Israeli Apartheid Week as "a dangerous cocktail of ignorance and intolerance". Nick Day went off, writing that Michael Ignatieff was slandering researchers who document the suffering of Palestinian people and promoting a reductionist view of Jewish people at the same time. This caused some anger since he didn't just give his affiliation as Queen's University but also wrote that he was the Rector. A movement to impeach Nick Day started to gain steam with Kevin Wiener as one of its vocal supporters.

Some time before Nick stepped down, I emailed him to say that all activists should be encouraged to give their views without bending over backwards to remind readers that "some students who elected me might disagree". He told me that a website about the issue was collecting statements in support of free speech so I submitted mine to it. If I had paid more attention, I might've noticed Elamin making similar statements but my last time seeing Elamin Abdelmahmoud in person had nothing to do with this. Instead, I was playing a campus game called "Catch Me If You Can" which required me to track down other players and eliminate them using a clothespin. Incidentally, I did well enough at this game to win a Nintendo Wii. On the last day before the game ended, I went to a meeting of the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society because a friend who attended them knew my last target and I needed to get information quickly. Before the meeting ended, I got to hear another speech by the student I then knew only by a nickname. Referring to a student run movie theatre service, he described some changes and then said "now it's actually making money, imagine that" in a cadence which is exactly the one that Elamin uses on air.

I could not find what James Douglas is currently up to but I hope it's something he enjoys. Nick Day appears to be a teacher and I saw that he was thanked in the acknowledgements of Elamin's book. Friendship is not the only thing that lasts a lifetime since Kevin Wiener, a human rights lawyer who got an early start filing anti-discrimination cases, seems intent on keeping the decade old drama going. According to tweets of his from just this week, there is a meme out there about convincing Elamin to watch Battlestar Galactica. I have no idea what that's about. My thoughts are simply that, then as now, I would be happy to share a bottle of OpenCola with any of them.