November 23, 2019

A history for student sturggle for unity (2)

Divisions and current challenges

by Drew Garvie
To oppose the militancy of the CFS, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) was founded in June of 1995 with help from mainly the Liberal Party, but also from the Conservatives. Its tactics do not include any member mobilization and instead focus entirely on lobbying and photo opportunities with politicians. CASA and its provincial affiliates have distinguished themselves by frequently supporting rises in tuition fees over the last 25 years. Its capture by governments and the Liberal party remains and students cannot call it a truly independent student federation.
The struggle against the Harris Tories in Ontario and the mass mobilizations against the Iraq war brought more student struggles that built the student movement’s capacity. However, in 2009 a defederation campaign, organized by campus Conservatives connected to MPs in the Harper government (with the ultra-left participating on some select campuse) led to attempts to leave the Federation on at least 10 campuses.

One of the results of this offensive was a strengthening of social democratic tendencies inside the CFS that adopted a more defensive position, relying largely on lawsuits to try and maintain the membership. This “bunker mentality” has led some in the leadership of the CFS to imagine that there is little hope and that they are surrounded by an increasing number of right-wing students who will eventually win. “Now is not the time for action, now is the time for capacity building,” they say. Coordinated grassroots mobilization at the provincial and federal levels became less frequent and an increased emphasis on lobbying actions has led to less students being drawn into student unions and a weaker political leadership. The last coordinated pan-Canadian day of action happened on November 2nd, 2016 with the one before that in the beginning of 2012.

But Doug Ford and likeminded forces on campuses know full well that student unions and their federations cannot be tolerated, even when they are weak, since history has shown that they are able to block the corporate agenda and win gains through mass action. This is the reason why the Ontario Tories are leading the charge using “right-to-work” style laws against student unions to defund them.

So far, the CFS remains the only pan-Canadian independent student union federation, but it has serious shortcomings in terms of both bold leadership and connection to student activists.

Other issues face the student movement today and throughout much of its history, including a correct understanding of the national question which would recognise the right to self-determination of Québec, Indigenous and Acadian students. These issues also include the need for the student movement to take strong stances against imperialism and war, and fight for an internationalist student movement united with student struggles internationally against their common enemy: corporate power.

Student unions are not governing bodies and should have no interest in collaborating with corporate driven board of governors and administrators. This should be the basis of student unionism. As we have seen, it is when this principle has been adopted by unions that the student movement has been the strongest, the most internationalist, the most united and the most combative. This is the way to go for our unions in order to build a united, strong and militant student movement that will echo the voices of the hundreds of thousands of students who are ready to fight for their rights, as we saw with the 2012 Québec student strike, united in the goal of the right to free education.

For this to happen, can we count on the CFS to survive, thrive and be the vehicle? This question remains to be seen, but one thing remains clear: while the student movement in Canada (both in Québec and in the rest of Canada) is in crisis, a key element is to strengthen the YCL-LJC in the student movement. Leaving the field wide open to ultra-leftism and social democracy in our student unions leads sooner or later to a collapse of the movement. History teaches us this too.

There is a battle of ideas that needs to be fought inside the student movement alongside advancing unity in action. We need the big ideas that will connect immediate student demands to the need to unite with other labour and peoples’ movements to constitute an alliance that will fight to curb corporate power and eventually overthrow capitalism.

This is what students need and what many students are looking for. Students don’t get active to fight for their interests because of ISIC cards or dental plans (which should be covered by medicare for all anyways). Many students, who on average finish their postsecondary education $30,000 in debt, understand perfectly when you tell them that capitalism is leading us to crises, to war and to environmental destruction. They don’t need more campus services outsourced to “student governments”, they need organizations built on struggle in order to struggle and build further.

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