January 7, 2013

Political parties and student struggle

Jean Chrétien, Liberal Prime Minister
of Canada from 1993-2003 
By Rebel Youth

Other articles and series on this theme: the student fight back and struggle today; our coverage of the Quebec Student StrikeStudents of Canada Rise UpYCLer Marianne Breton Fontaine speaks on Student Solidarity tourCall to 2013 YCL student conference.

Can elections be used as markers in time and struggle? Perhaps only with the full knowledge that, as Marxists understand, history is not made by the comings and goings of bourgeois political parties in polite rotation through their bourgeois parliaments, like so many characters in a Swiss Cuckoo Clock -- but by the struggles of the masses.

Still, the Canadian federal election in October 1993 is significant moment to tag. The outcome shaped the terrain of struggle of the youth and student movement in many new ways. The unpopular Conservative government (formerly led by Brian Mulroney) was swept out of office in crushing defeat -- reduced from 156 seats to just two, it lost official party status. The landslide victory of Jean Chretien's Liberals began thirteen years of that party's rule.

Swept to office on somewhat vague promises of change and anti-Free Trade sentiment, the Liberal's quickly dropped their proposals like renegotiating NAFTA and made their true colours clear to all by shifting attention towards balancing the budget -- ie. paying back the big capitalist creditors. Still in their honeymoon period, the Liberal's announced that all of Canada's social programs would be reviewed with sweeping and significant changes likely to come. Cut backs would be deep.

Post-secondary education would face a massive federal funding reduction and Income Contingent Loans.

For the left and progressive forces, however, a powerful, united and immediate response was not forthcoming. The previous five years had seen a major ideological, political and economic stalwart against global capitalism overturned: the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. All over the world, capitalism seemed a unbeatable power with renewed energy and creative strength -- and everywhere national liberation forces, socialists and communists were thrown into ideological disarray.

In Canada, the Young Communist League had just liquidated itself (temporarily) and the Communist Party of Canada was in a hard-fought battle for its own existence. The CPC's newspaper was just coming back after being stolen by traitors who wanted to liquidate that party and effectively merge it into the NDP. The party's registration had been cancelled by the government through a new anti-democratic law aimed at small parties, barring the CPC from participating in federal elections. Membership had shrunk and its Leninist message and strategy was seemingly refuted.

The rest of the left was also shaken. Most other left forces made an opportunistic slide to the right -- sometimes very quickly. This was no less true of social democracy had also entered into crisis about its own perspective towards socialism and a better world. By the 1980s even the language of socialism was being jettisoned by many social democratic parties around the world; this process rapidly accelerated.

What would become know as "New Labour" in Britain -- the transformation of already compromised principles of social democracy towards a kind of openly pro-capitalist and neo-liberal ideology -- had influence quickly on Canada and the New Democratic Party. Internal questioning came at a moment when the NDP's total seats in Ottawa had also been cut back considerably by the Liberal landside of '93, dropping from over 40 seats to just nine.

The first real battle cry of resistance, therefore, did not come from the opposition benches of the federal parliament. Instead, broad opposition in English-speaking Canada came from a coalition of labour unions (especially the Canadian Postal Workers and Canadian Auto Workers) together with the now-defunct National Action Committee on the Status of Women, anti-poverty groups, and others formed a group called the Action Canada Coalition. The ACA organized protests against the budget, on May 1st 1994. And sustained pressure came from the youth and student movement.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) began a series of campaigns and days of action to oppose the cuts in 1994. The CFS fought hard with action plans and a strategy of confrontation with the Liberals, hounding  education minister Lloyd Axeworthy across the country. (Axeworthy was also an early promoter of the imperialist foreign policy known Responsibility to Protect.) At one rally, corporate newspapers claimed that eggs, macaroni and cheese were tossed in Axeworthy's direction -- symbolizing the kraft dinner diet which students were being pushed onto with rising fees.

But more importantly, the CFS were able to win broad support for the campaign with developed into a student day of action, called a National Day of Strike and Action, in 1995. Planning for the strike began in November, and hit over 40 cities across Canada with 80,000 students participating on January 25th.

Materials were distributed to almost every student group or association, like Aboriginal student centers, and department student unions. Broad coalitions formed with local activists and labour. Many non-CFS locals joined in the protests and a number of campuses were shut-down by the actions.

(Read the CFS's own evaluation of their actions here.)

At that time, it was the largest student mobilization in English-speaking Canadian history. In Quebec, much bigger strikes had been seen over the past two decades, but the student movement had been devastatingly demobilized by a failed strike in 1990. That set-back saw the dissolution of the Association Nationale des Étudiants et Étudiantes du Québecor (National Association of Quebec Students) ANEEQ (formed in 1975 under the leadership of various forces including many Parti Quebecois activists as well as the LJC-Q or YCL in Quebec and other leftists).

By the early 90s, however, the Parti Quebecois was no longer promoting itself as progressive nationalist party having adopted a largely pro-business platform (and in some ways reflecting the development of capitalism in Quebec). The PQ's youth had accordingly changed their perspective towards an agenda of militant student action in the streets. For several years they had pushed for the formation of what became known as the Quebec student federations, the FECQ and the FEUQ.

But the struggles against the Axeworthy reforms in Quebec would help a new and more militant group, the Mouvement pour le droit à l'éducation (Movement for the right to education), or MDE to form in 1996. MDE folded in 2000 but a year later, with the anti-FTAA protests, many of the same student unions regrouped as the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (Association for student union solidarity) or ASSÉ.

The CFS campaign turned the debate around, through mass mobilization. Most provincial governments subsequently declared their opposition to Income Contingent Loan Repayment schemes. The fight-back wasn't enough to stop the cuts, and the massive withdraw of funding from post-secondary. In 1996 the transfer payment to the provinces for post-secondary education was reorganized, later to be separated from Medicare. Today the provinces can spend funds for post-secondary on any project, usually tax cuts...

* * * * * 

It is important to note that at this time the CFS also made much more clearly than today their full policy about tuition: that all fees should be frozen, reduced and ultimately eliminated. However, as a result of the struggle that developed that same year, the Federation began to make a re-evaluation of this policy. The CFS would, eventually, "moderate" its message away from arguing for free education.

This strategic retreat and resulting 'bunker mentality' approach is still being debated within the English-speaking student movement, but is important to understand how it came about.

Partly, the adjustment of the ideological approach of social democracy to post-secondary education was a factor. In 1990, a split between the Liberals and Tories in Ontario allowed the New Democratic Party to win a narrow victory under leader Bob Rae. Having campaigned on a traditional NDP platform to eliminate fees in 1987 and at least reduce them in 1990, the party actually increased fees under Rae's leadership by 40%.

In 1995, after imposing a neo-liberal style wage freeze or "social contract," Ontario voters jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire electing Bay Street's preferred team to slash-and-burn social programmes: the Mike Harris Conservatives. Tuition fees (and student debt) continued to rise in Ontario, and the next year the Harris Tories briefly floated the idea of Income Contingent Loans.

The NDP in Ontario went down to a huge defeat, but election results didn't fundamentally halt their drift to the right in Ontario or elsewhere across the country. (Today, NDP governments in Manitoba and Nova Scotia are actively increasing fees).

The reorientation of social democracy in Canada and internationally therefore not only saw the NDP abandon the goal of “socialism” entirely, but also embrace globalized capitalism and reoriented itself in favour of the (illusion) of managing capitalism “with a human face.” This was also partly a reflection of the NDP`s changing class base, from the working class toward the petty bourgeoisie, professionals and other sections of the middle strata.

The reorientation has had far-reaching effects. It has provoked deep divisions within the New Democratic Party between its right-wing leadership, and an increasingly marginalized section of the membership who retain socialist convictions or even traditional social democratic views. This sharp debate has carried over into the labour movement, calling into question the continued political and organizational relationship between the NDP and the Canadian Labour Congress (and its affiliates), as well as in the student movement.

These developments all suggest there is a widening gap between the interests of the working class and those of right-wing social democracy.

* * * * * 

The second event that lead to the policy retreat by the CFS was the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), founded at a university in New Brunswick right around the same time the student strike was taking place -- in January 1995 -- and about eight months before the referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

A wrecking-job aimed to smash the CFS, the CASA brought together right-wing tendencies and reactionary student unions that been developing and strengthening through an annual conference in the student movement over the last five years. The official dispute that launched CASA as a split from the CFS was over organizational structure. But the politics were not far from the surface, however.

“The problem with the student movement is that we have been behaving in an unscholarly way. We don’t question each other enough or question our assumptions, and we’re not always open to new ideas,” the new leader of CASA told the Simon Fraser University student newspaper The Peak in a clear criticism of the tactics of rallies, occupations and strikes.

“Hard as it may be for some of us in CASA to believe, there are indeed student associations who may prefer to be represented by an organization that takes stands on social issues, no matter how irrelevant to higher education they may seem,” Alex Usher mockingly wrote in a letter quoted by The Peak. “The thing that galls me the most about the CFS attitude is their belief that there must be unity in the student movement,” he added.

What political forces were behind this new formation that was aiming to break student unity? The Liberal Party, with assistance from Conservatives.

The political linkages of CASA's formation is best documented in a book by former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon, writing with Anthony Wilson-Smith called Double Vision (Doubleday Canada, 1996).

According to Greenspon, CASA was set up by Liberal Party clubs starting at Western Ontario and then expanding in response to the CFS's successful mobilization stopping Income Contingent Loan Schemes, which had been a important element of the Chretien Liberal's massive cuts to social transfer payments to the provinces:

Source: Campus Conservative Watch.ca

* * * * * 

The continued linkages with reactionary political parties and certain student union leaders become most clear when you look at the founding leader of CASA, Alex Usher, whose biography the Ryerson Free Press (RFP) put together recently along with those of some other notorious right-wing student leaders.

According to the RFP, Usher first jumped on the student scene in a big way as the first National Director for the CASA in 1995.  His organization hit some bumps early on; Usher was reported to have called for a stop to an investigation of fraud within CASA.

After finishing with CASA, Usher went on to work for the federal Liberal’s Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation. There he co-authored research documents with a specialty of downplaying concerns about rising tuition fees by focusing on other costs students face (Price of Knowledge 2002 and Price of Knowledge 2004).

After that, Usher moved to the Education Policy Institute (EPI), a think-tank that openly promotes significantly raising tuition fees. Usher has therefore arguably made a career of undermining students’ calls for the right to accessible education and providing a desirable mouthpiece for the ruling class.

In Ontario there are two other student groups topically fighting the unity of the student movement: the College Student Alliance (formed in 1975) and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (formed in 1992 and incorporated in 1996). Both have connections with reactionary political parties like the Liberals.

For the College Student Alliance, consider the biography of Justin Falconer, again provided by the Ryerson Free Press. According to the RFP, Falconer got his start in student politics when he served as vice-president of the Conestoga Students Inc. (CSI) in 2002-03 and then as CSI president until 2005-06.

The CSI, once known as the Doon Student Association, "represents" students at the Kitchener-based Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. Its website says "As a full-time, fee-paying student you are both a member and a client and in our eyes we will make every attempt to exceed your expectations."

As president, Falconer helped usher in large ancillary fees for capital projects on campus, some of which were contested by students who proposed a class-action lawsuit.

During his presidency at CSI Falconer served as president for the College Student Alliance (CSA). His tenure there was short, just long enough to play a supportive role in an official government review of tuition policy in Ontario and post-secondary education (somewhat ironically this review was headed by past Ontario NDP leader, who had subsequently jumped to join the Liberal Party, and became known as the Rae Review).

Falconer's work speaking out in support of the McGuinty government's initiatives must have been noticed, as he accepted an appointment within the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities as Special Assistant, Outreach and Operations to the Minister.

What about OUSA?

Consider Leslie Church, who started out as a Liberal member in Alberta and was elected president of University of Alberta Student Union. Soon after that she was hired as Executive Director of Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), where she lobbied to increase student debt through OSAP.

Church left in OUSA in 2003, and was hired the next year as a member of the Rae Review’s Ontario post-secondary education review advisory panel. The panel concluded that the Liberal government of Ontario should deregulate tuition fees. (Other former OUSA executive directors hired by the Ministry include Barry McCartan and Andrew Boggs)

Church also served with Claude Lajeunesse, (former Ryerson University president and recently fired Concordia University president) as a board member of the federal Liberals’ Millennium Scholarship Foundation.  At the time of the RFP article she had taken another job: Communications Coordinator for then Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff to help install him as Liberal leader. She now does a similar job for Google.

* * * * * 

The role of reactionary political parties is well illustrated in these examples of the formation of CASA and its other friends in Ontario. Today all these student associations tend to go along with government proposals willingly, generally supporting tuition increases -- just not "too much"!

Reactionary student organizations and leaders prefer to work from the shadows, as we have seen most clearly with the youth of the Conservative Party over the past years. But even the elected representatives, the Churchs, Falconers and Ushers, don't desire too much attention on campus. This is because the vast majority of students, while they may not be class conscious or fully understanding the battles for accessible education, do view it as socially positive -- and something we need more of, not less.

The somewhat empty slogan 'reclaim your student union' that both a few on the left are trumpeting (as well as, at least at the University of Toronto, a few on the right), needs not only real progressive content be associated with it but an understanding of the balance of political forces in the battle of ideas: especially the work of the organized big political parties -- like the Liberals, Tories and NDP. 

This is the way to better understand the ideological debate and why the demand based on a principal -- 'access to education is a right' -- is a solid basis to convince and win students away from the grip of right-wing student associations and how, within the progressive camp, students really need to seriously reconsider the electorialist tactics like lobby now, and vote NDP later.

A new strategy however requires a visible and fightback action on campus, grass-roots campaigning, and unity -- not the bunker mentality of "hunker-down we'll get through this" which is all too common in many student unions across Canada today.

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