Editorials, Epitaphs, and the End of Days: History through The Plant archives
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
By Benjamin Wexler
An abridged version of this article was published in the Plant's November Issue 2020
There are two lies on our cover page. The first is the year; the oldest issues of The Plant date to 1971. The second is the name; for a number of those years, it was not The Plant, but The Planet.
Why the change? Perhaps someone miscopied the title and was too ashamed to admit their mistake. We don’t know for sure. But we hope to find that out, and so much more, when The Plant’s history is finally archived online.
Our executive team met at the Atwater metro entrance to Dawson College on October 15 — our Editor-In-Chief Daylen, our Managing Editor Julie, and myself.
The Plant room was a mess, as always. In the corner of the room are the archives, a flimsy-looking shelf about as tall as I am, and stacked horizontally within, issues from every year since our founding. We carried them out, piled them up in the hallway, and began the arduous process of sorting.
We wanted a single copy of each issue. This meant sorting out missing pages, unaccompanied covers, and doubles, which would stay in the archive at school. We arrived at 3 p.m.; it was 9 p.m. when we swept up the confetti of fifty years of paper and carted our boxes out of the building.
Along the way, I tried to collect notes and photos of the most notable articles and covers. This was not systematic — that will come later, hopefully — but here’s a taste of what the archives have to offer.
“Almost three years ago Dawson was created. Built on the slender shoulders of a community philosophy, it survived, flowered, and now, as summer comes too late to warm the frozen shadow, it dies.
"Who killed Dawson?”
So begins "Epitaph," a column in one of the earliest archived issues of The Planet. "Epitaph" drops us into the uncertainty of the newly created institutions of Dawson and the CEGEP system as a whole.
Student Pat Capponi lists a number of names — “All self-serving faculty ‘representatives' who sold out a college for the greater glory of their egos and their white liberal pseudo-worker marxist blustering bullshit. Who killed Dawson? All those faculty who will cast their votes pro-affiliation, anti-student participation on Wednesday, March 22nd. The ADE [Association of Dawson Educators] has a distinctly foul odour, a carrion odour, and those who associate with them carry the scent.” I did some research, curious to contact any of those involved. Pat Capponi only recently passed away. She was the author of seven books, a mental health advocate, and recipient of the Order of Canada in 2015.
The archive, as well as a few outside sources, help us piece together the years leading up to what Capponi believed would be Dawson’s end. Steve Muszynski, a Physics professor at the time of the union disputes, wrote a short history of the Dawson Teachers’ Union for The Unofficial Dawson Retrospective. I acquired the text through the Dawson Library, and it is naturally far more diplomatic than Capponi’s article.
According to Muszynski, the ADE was formed in 1970, and successfully achieved accreditation on September 2, 1971. Accreditation gave Dawson teachers the right to negotiate and sign agreements collectively, much like a union, just without the official union designation. By 1972, the Confédération des syndicate nationaux (CSN), usually referred to in The Planet by its English name, the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU), was at the head of the Common Front Strikes of public-sector unions against the provincial government. Many Dawson teachers wanted to be affiliated with the trade union group, as teachers at Francophone schools already were. Between the creation of the ADE, and the time that “Epitaph” was published, we found another 14 articles, letters, ads, or other submissions referencing the ADE and CNTU.
Two clear wedge issues appear: the ADE as a political body in general, and the permanency of teachers.
Capponi’s “community philosophy” was a key argument for those opposed to the union. They appealed to the idea of Dawson as a community project of students and teachers, and argued that a strong union would grant teachers undue independence and control. The Planet clearly took this stance, and articles frequently accuse teachers of abusing their power. A 1972 article “Faculty Follies” cynically describes an ADE meeting as a “faculty play” full of drama and deception, starring “An idealistic and dedicated young teacher (movingly portrayed by Steve Muszynski).” It claims that Muszynski acted as chair to the meeting despite being forbidden from doing so because he was also President of the local faculty association. Both the article and Muszynski’s account of the events include a matching anecdote: one staff member says: “You’re out of order!” Another responds: “You’re out of your mind!”
Gary Campbell, first Vice-President of the ADE and subject of many attack articles, published a long “ADE Position” to address student concerns. “A very important point, that many people (students and faculty alike) seem to have forgotten— or never quite realized— is that the employer of the teachers is not the students, nor any branch of Dawson college, but the province of Quebec. No amount of talking about the Dawson spirit is going to change this simple fact.”
One of the employee rights that Gary Campbell wanted to protect was job security for teachers. Job security, often called permanency, was exactly what Pat Capponi was worried about. Unfortunately, we could not find what Gary Campbell describes as the “the Planet’s biased coverage of the English department retention committee battle.” All we know about said coverage is that Capponi claimed that she knew there were “faculty in the department either academically or emotionally unqualified to teach at Dawson,” and she wanted them gone.
The response from the English department was fierce. One faculty member, Jim Strahs, sent several Letters to the Editor on the topic. An early letter calls the students involved “ninny-witted brownshirts with no programme.” “But good to see you’re into some heavy gossip and slander,” he continues. “Next time how about some stuff on who’s screwing whoch and where and with what and withcetera.” He gets increasingly aggressive in later letters: “You ain’t myths, kids, you’re assholes. Aren’t you a little embarrassed that I can honestly say that my letter was the best thing in [issue] no. 9.” He jokingly suggests they commission articles on several enumerated topics, including “7. matricide and patricide as roads to mental health,” and “9. Teacher/student sex: someone is getting screwed.” Immediately below, the Planet places a graphic in direct response to the teacher/student sex suggestion. There are two photos of nude women, one captioned “OK Steve, can I join the Union?”, and the other captioned “What do I have to do for my other credit Harry?” It is not clear whether there were ongoing allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of teachers, or simply a fear among the students that a strong union would protect teachers who did misbehave in such a way.
There were other, mostly unsaid reasons that certain students and teachers were so strongly opposed to affiliation. According to Campbell, “they do not like working class unions, and they do not like the idea of joining a mainly French organization.” Both claims are echoed in Muszynski’s retrospective. Certainly, the writings of the anti-affiliation camp show traces of late Cold War anti-communism. In addition, the October Crisis had occurred in 1970, and tensions remained high between French and English-speaking Quebecers.
Vitriolic letters and articles continued to be exchanged. According to Muszynski, Gary Campbell eventually resigned from his position as ADE chair because of the abuse he endured. One student wrote in simply to say that “F**k**g p**s like Gary Campbell have no place among the dignified people of Dawson College.” A teacher, Eric Reynolds, wrote an article “Campbell — Man or Myth,” in which he calls his colleague “a master of the half truth.”
The same Eric Reynolds appears on a spread advertising a group of faculty running for ADE executive positions. Their slogan is “a good cross-section”, and they claim to be representing “Viger and Selby, French and English, Technology, Arts, and Science, Men and Women, Canadian and Foreign, and The Dawson Community Philosophy.”
According to Muszynski, they were elected on a firm anti-affiliation stance, and were then unable to defend the rights of teachers. A wage crisis and cross-CEGEP teacher strikes followed. Finally, in the 1973-74 academic year, the ADE voted to affiliate with the CNTU with 79% in favour.
Reading through accounts of the period, it seems almost shocking that Dawson survived. But we did, and The Plant has receipts to prove it.
An article from the early 70s seems to describe a pub on the Viger Campus, founded by the “enterprising Sean Long.” The writer mentions complaints about prices, which are listed at the end of the article — Beer 40 ¢, Brador 50 ¢, Mixed drink $1.00, Irish Coffeeee $1.25, Coffee, tea, soft drinks - all 15 ¢.
One 1985 issue includes a large colour ad for export A cigarettes. Only a year later, an article titled “GET IT WHILE YOU CAN” warns Selby students that a new Westmount bylaw prohibits smoking on campus. A large image features five students, each with several cigarettes stuffed in their mouths. One leans towards the camera, offering a pack to the viewer. Caption: "Selby students puff away the time before smoking is banned in halls and the lobby." Honestly, from their black leather boots and up to their mouthfuls of cigarettes, they don’t look all that different from the modern Dawson student.
Unfortunately, we did not record much on the rivalry between the Viger and Selby campuses, or the general chaos that resulted from the school’s several scattered campuses. We do, however, have a full page spread from 1985 introducing Dawson’s new Mother House," which would open in 1988. It includes teacher and student concerns about the building and move, and gives descriptions and a brief history of the building that we all know so well. The article is wonderfully complimented with photos: the rose window from inside and out, large bare rooms which are familiar but difficult to identify, and architectural plans.
One other disruption to student routine stands out. Vol. 35, issue 4, was published October 5, 2006, less than a month after the Dawson school shooting. It would probably have been the first issue published since the tragedy. A look at just one page captures a school struggling to process the event. One article advertises student led gun control protests, another outlines a speech by one of the victims, and a third is titled “Victims may be eligible for compensation.”
Widen our lens a little. As well as events within the school, The Plant chronicles students’ reactions to the changing world around them.
One article from a 1973 issue dips its toes, carefully and endearingly, into the waters of the sexual revolution. “It gives freedom…freedom to get lost? There is nothing wrong with sex being in revolution. There is nothing wrong with substituting truth for myth. Revolution is inclined to create turmoil, confusion, and pressure.” It goes on, “It is not merely sex in revolution. It is people in revolution. Your human sexuality deserves exploration to give you an honest comprehendable image of yourself.” Then a poem. “In the dim light / the desire / The time to caress…. / Pulsating, motion, rhythm / Pleasurable joy…. / And for two people.” There’s no indication of the author. It might just be an advertisement for the school program described at the end of the article, which includes discussions of male identity, a woman’s experience of marriage, education, and bureaucracy, and a representative from one of Canada’s first gay and lesbian student groups, the Community Homophile Association. “Sex Episode, Feb 20-23 Inclusively, at Viger.”
Often, the form of a report on social or political issues is as instructive as the article’s content. In the early 80s, there is a trickle of articles on apartheid in South Africa as boycotts against the state grew in profile. A 1985 supplement is titled APARTHEID, in bold red letters, next to a photo of protestors carrying a “Freedom for South Africa” sign.
In 1993, the Plant published an outraged letter to the editor written on behalf of the Croatian Democratic Union Youth. The letter, titled “Blame should not be placed on all sides in Yugoslavian conflict,” responds to a previous article detailing an interview with a Dawson teacher who, according to the letter, claimed that “the Serbs are not the only guilty party and that blame should be put on all sides.”
“Let me ask [him], who is laying to waste in Sarajevo? Who is raping Muslim and Croatian women? Who is preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Muslims in eastern Bosnia? Who has threatened the US if they were to intervene in Bosnia? All those questions have a common answer: Serbs.”
As in the case of the union disputes of the 70s, we must be careful with such heated, partisan texts, but I think some hindsight is warranted here. The Yugoslavian conflict would go on to be one of the bloodiest events on European soil since WWII. Two years after the letter’s publication, Bosnian Serb forces killed 8000 Bosnian Muslims in the Srebrenica massacre. In 2001, an international tribunal judged that the massacre constituted genocide.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has some of the most concentrated coverage of any event through the 90s. Articles usually try to advocate for stronger sex education and dispel harmful myths about AIDS.
Perhaps most striking of all is the issue published September 14, 2001 — three days after 9/11. I can only imagine the scramble that must have been necessary to produce the paper in the immediate wake of such a tragedy, and the issue captures the shock and horror of the student body. “I don’t feel safe anymore”, reads the cover story, overlaying a photo of the Twin Towers from when they were still standing. A teacher reflects on when Kennedy was killed, councillors begin plans to deal with student trauma, and interviewees fear nuclear war. A blurry photo from a crowded Oliver’s shows students with their eyes glued to a TV screen out of picture.
There is a noticeable increase in articles about Muslim student clubs in the years following, with attitudes ranging from sympathy to paranoia.
Trends of malaise are generally fascinating to track through the decades. Attitudes towards technology as documented in The Plant deserve a column of their own. An article in the early 70s speculates that cable TV might be a useful tool for spies. We see reruns in the 90s, with an article titled “Big Brother is Watching You” above the glowing display of a clunky computer. Technological angst ramps up through the decade. In 1997 the cover aesthetic takes a sharp turn towards the nuclear fallout of a robot rebellion. In 1999, the paper explores the full range of apocalypses that might follow the turn of the millennium - Y2K.
On a lighter note, an article from 1999 has maybe the best title in the history of The Plant. “‘SEX?’ not anymore. ‘MP3’ is now the most common search term on the Internet.”
Whether they listened on vinyl, CD, MP3, iPods, iPhones, or vinyl again, our writers never lost their love for music. There’s a photo of Aretha Franklin from the early 70s - “Young, Gifted and Black.” A 1974 article about the disbanded Beatles speculates: “Are there any chances of them getting back together?” We have a review of Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and accounts of Montreal concerts by everyone from the Cure to Regina Spektor to Limp Bizkit. After attending Elliot Smith’s Montreal concert, one student journalist caught him at a bar and got an impromptu interview, only a few years before the artist’s suicide. A 1993 issue advertises an exclusive interview - “yo, chill y’all, it’s ICE-T”.
The Plant goes through its own noticeable trends. Two of our favourites: The Plant as a message board, and The Plant as a smut rag.
The Dawson Christian Federation is one of the more common clubs mentioned in Letters to the Editor. “I find it regrettable that the DCF chose to recently run a program that seemed to encourage Jews to join its messianic faith,” writes one student, and even goes on to delineate the elements of Jewish faith that make such a suggestion absurd. Robust student life drove an intense engagement with the newspaper, as different student groups advanced their interests in editorials, news articles, and letters to the editor. Some smoulder with rage, others are ice-cold.
The editors weren’t above taking their own shots. One student writes a pointed letter in 1990.
“Dear Plant Editor, I think you’ve gone too far. I’m sick and tired of picking up The Plant to get up-to-date on school issues and having to first plow through the filth. I’m really not interested in seeing two students advertising their sexual preferences in an unnecessary photo [page 5 of last week] and I don’t consider a tasteless sketch of male genitals [page 7] art either. As well, I’d appreciate it if you could use proper language journalists are expected to use. That ‘F— Pig’ of yours insults my intelligence. One more thing: Is Dawson Christian Fellowship a thorn in your side? I’m really disgusted with the material you print. I threw out The Plant without even reading it!”
Immediately above the letter is a photo of two male students pretending to have sex fully clothed, captioned “Just look at what we could have printed last week.” The letter’s title, which I can’t imagine was chosen by its author, is “The Plant pushes it.” The author is now a writer and illustrator of multiple Christian devotional books.
The Plant's readers would become well-acquainted with its more obscene side in the years that followed. It seems like a combination of free-press advocates pushing boundaries, as we see in the letter above, and good ol’ teenage horniness. In the mid-90s, one cover has a censored penis; a 1997 issue’s tagline is “The Plant: not putting penises on the cover since 1995”. At least two issues have covers with topless women facing away from the camera in what looks like the club room. Designing a cover that incorporates both upcoming St. Patrick’s day and Pride celebrations may seem difficult to you, but it was almost obvious back then: two hairy leprechauns having anal sex (rainbows streaking through the frame, of course).
The smut slows down by the end of the 2000s. It probably lost its edge for the internet generation, and shifting sexual politics may have inspired a reevaluation of the sheer number of nude women on the covers. School censorship and changing Plant structures can’t be ruled out as factors either. Perhaps a future article should answer the question of What happened to the porn?
For most of its history, The Plant was an English credit course. Many of the archived issues are even marked up by teachers’ comments. Changes in form and even drops in quality are a natural result of it becoming a club, and it would be unfair for me to blame changing circumstances on myself or my hardworking peers. There are also some overall improvements — technology has made my job as Copy Editor far easier, and our graphic designer turned Editor-In-Chief was genuinely offended by some of the designs they saw.
But if I could bring back one thing about those early issues, it would be news images. Photos taken by students for The Plant are not common in older issues either, but they were among our best archival finds. In our club format, writers and graphic designers are relatively segregated, so we writers no longer see it as our duty to provide quality images. For my first time as writer for The Plant, I find myself working with the graphic designer to unite the format and content of this essay. Cameras are more accessible than ever; we could be filling every page with photos to make our issues better documents of news and of history.
Retrospection is important. My intention with this piece, and the usefulness of our archive, is not simply to gawk at the past.
That was my first instinct. “Look at how funny this is! look at how wrong they were! look at how right they were! look at how relevant this is today!” And I admit that many of the examples I chose, I chose as curiosities to the modern reader. Our main goal was to sort our issues, not to report on them, and I do not currently have access to them. What I remember, and what we have photos of, are those items so famous or so striking that they caught our eyes as we were sorting. But I also did my best to go beyond a facsimile of history, either by allowing the reader to make their own anachronistic judgments, or, in a few cases, attempting to put the newspaper clippings in their proper historic context.
Once our records are digitized, projects like my history of the union disputes will become much, much easier. I hope that The Plant will eventually dedicate a semi-regular column to analyzing moments in the archives. However, I also urge future journalists-turned-historians to be even more careful than I was. You may not understand an article. It may seem wrong, or plain insignificant, but your task is to reach back to that moment during which for at least one person it was right and necessary.
Newspapers document history, but they are also documents of history. Understanding them outside of their time and place is very difficult — that’s why we publish monthly. I mean this issue as well, and the last issue, and the next. Maybe fifty years from now, some Copy Editor will be reading and rolling his eyes. Racial justice, climate change — who knows what those words will mean? They may be redefined, forgotten in the mainstream, or developed into something far greater than we ever imagined. Of course, there’s also the socially-isolated elephant in the room, which is so absolutely crucial to understanding anything at all that’s written right now…I’m not going to explain that one, he can work it out.
Without the context of our moment, every word he reads will seem naïve, or opaque, or just plain wrong. But his readers deserve better than that.
Hell, I think I deserve better.
I might still be stupid and wrong, but I hope he at least gives me a fair shot.