June 2, 2009
What way forward for the student movement now?
From Peoples Voice newspaper
One of the contentious resolutions at last month’s Canadian Federation of Students general meeting condemned the recent massacre of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. After this debate, what is new and significant in the Canadian student movement?
Of course, context is needed. The CFS is the most numerically significant component of the Canadian student movement, although it excludes the two militant student organizations in Quebec with tens of thousands of members. It also excludes the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), deliberately engineered as right-wing split over a decade ago.
The CFS is, potentially, the ‘tip of the spear’ of the student fight back in English-speaking Canada. The CFS meeting therefore had some significance, not least with today’s Harper Tory government attacking public funding public post-secondary education.
To most young people, the CFS meeting was invisible. We can hold the corporate media primarily responsible for that. But many progressive youth and students are starting to wonder: who is to blame for the absence of loud and visible protest on a cross-Canada level against the escalating tuition fee crisis?
It now appears the CFS will mainly be campaigning in the upcoming Federal election – presumably evaluating platforms. To be sure, if Harper’s term in office wasn’t enough to convince youth that elections are important, just look at how election decisions have framed the tuition fight-back in Ontario, BC, Manitoba and now Nova Scotia.
But even last year’s CFS federal election campaign, some delegates said, was sadly half-baked – leaflets delivered too late, strategy not thought-out, Greens rated perhaps too harshly (and the Communists, who advocate for tuition fee elimination, omitted). That criticism was again raised at the last CFS meeting. Now, apparently, things will be different.
Nevertheless, if you can’t vote, either because you are too young or not a citizen, what’s the appeal? And is this tactic of waiting to the next election really sufficient?
Frankly, the answer is no.
What is needed is a broader strategy. After all, reflection on the student fight back can not start and end with a discussion of tactics alone, or be resolved through ‘a diversity of tactics’ which, I would suggest, really means no common strategy.
Can any meaningful parliamentary advance be achieved without the people's mass action?
Look at Manitoba: the NDP campaigned for a tuition freeze, but is implementing an increase. Currently in Nova Scotia’s elections the NDP is only campaigning on tax credits to address student debt! Students can’t rely on their friends in a political party and privately hope they’ll be the engine to bring our train home.
Having not had a major cross-Canada ‘day of action’ in several years, it’s a fair question to ask if the student movement isn’t dangerously shifting towards a latent rather than an active force.
That brings us back to Sri Lanka.
Not that the resolution was mistaken -- rather, it was congruent with the CFS’s deeper commitment to the peace movement. The parochial claim that internationalism is somehow in conflict with ‘bread and butter’ struggles flies against solidarity and all its cardinal principles. Ultimately, we share the same oppressors in the form of imperialism.
But if mass action and mobilization for the right to accessible education are neglected, reactionary forces within and outside the student movement will have another cleavage to exploit and furrow into division. There’s historical precedent here. During the Vietnam war the Canadian Union of Students, the CFS’s predecessor, imploded – largely for not balancing an agenda of anti-imperialist solidarity work with the more immediate concerns of members.
Access to education could be the campus issue that “electrifies the third rail.” This is already the main dynamo inside the student movement, one that can be neglected but never turned off. Once a force is in motion it won’t spontaneously stop; but nor will it necessarily move in the strongest way.
Unity is a struggle. Some on the left sidelines also might be inclined to slag the student leadership as reformist social democratic careerists, call for a “real” fightback, and quietly wash their hands of participation in reduce tuition campaigns.
It would be as mistaken to deny these weaknesses within the student movement as to claim this is the central problem. Student activists have a choice: slide towards advocacy, or fuel up a militant Canada-wide campaign, with allies like labour, peoples forces, and parents – for ultimately our demand is raising living standards of the people as a whole.
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