November 19, 2019

The history of student union federations in English-speaking Canada (1)

A history of student struggle for unity
by Drew Garvie

The student movement has a long, proud history of struggle across Canada. This issue of Rebel Youth is going to print as the Canadian Federation of Students, English Canada’s largest and only independent student union federation, finds itself facing crises on several fronts: a split with the “BC Federation of Students” (what was left of CFS-BC) and attacks from Ontario’s Doug Ford government which threaten to defund a large part of their remaining base in Ontario.

But this isn’t the first crisis in the student movement in English-Speaking Canada and this history is also marked by founding and re-founding student union federations. There certainly remains an urgent need for a pan-Canadian student union to fight for the right to education, for broader democratic and social rights and to coordinate student action and build student power across the country. The goal of this article is to revisit this history in order to provide a basis for discussion for the way forward for today.

Before WWII, post-secondary education (PSE) was really reserved for the overwhelmingly male heirs of the ruling class and a much smaller layer of male white collar workers. There were still campus based struggles, including Young Communist League (YCL-LJC) clubs active on campuses in the 1930s, but the established student associations mainly acted as service providers alongside university administrations.

It was the Canadian Student Assembly, founded in 1938 with help from the Student Christian Movement and the YCL-LJC, that first started to fight for student bursaries at the federal level with a campaign demanding one thousand bursaries worth $500 each. That’s almost $9,000 today, so these were meaningful attempts to increase the university accessibility.

After the war, the federal government provided funding for veterans to attend university, and this did change the class composition of the schools for a short period after the war.

The leaders of National Federation of Canadian University Students then became active in the international student movement at the time which was quickly split by the Cold War. John Curran, an International Union of Students leader, told Rebel Youth’s predecessor in 1979 that young people after WWII had a strong sense of unity and wanted to ensure that fascism would never return. This led to the founding of the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students (IUS). Curran explained that the IUS aimed to “align itself with the progressive forces in socialist countries and support the struggles of people in the colonial countries against imperialism.” However, a CIA-driven split happened in 1950, giving birth to the reformist and pro-imperialist International Student Conference.

At the same time, throughout the 1950s NFCUS was campaigning for mass student-aid programs and low tuition fees. As Jacques Gérin, NFCUS president 1959-1960, has written: “The issue in those days was that university education was for a reserved lot: privileged students who had the means. Only 8% of the student-aged population was at university.”

The Canadian economy was also changing and the capitalist class was looking to expand white collar jobs, which meant an expansion of post-secondary education. This meant that NFCUS found some receptive ears in the Liberal Party for their demand of a mass bursary program. They also said that they agreed with the principle that education at all levels should be “free to all those who can take advantage of it.”

However, a year after the Liberals won government in 1963, they created the Canada Student Loan Program, which is at heart of the debt-driven PSE system across Canada and continues to this day. Even if the CSLP was not the “grants not loans” principle that the NFCUS was fighting for, the reform in education funding massively increased enrollment in PSE, especially for women.

Despite eventually recognising Canada as a bi-national country and changing its name to the Canadian Union of Students (CUS), affiliated Québec student unions withdrew from the former NFCUS over the federation’s stance of ignoring Québec’s right to control its own education system. They went on to found the Union générale des étudiants du Québec and organised strikes as part of campaigns for Québec national rights. They then became more militant in the context of the Quiet Revolution. The organizational rupture was never repaired and the “two solitudes” situation between Québec and English-Canada’s student movements have often been a barrier to unity in action to win gains from the federal government, which continues nowadays.

The CUS also started to take a more militant path in the mid-60s. In 1964 the CUS adopted an “abolish tuition fees” position. Major clashes between students and administrations took place across the country with the CUS able to coordinate across English-Speaking Canada. A “National” Student Day was organized in October 1965 which included public events, large meetings and demonstrations.

This led to mass actions and social student unionism. CUS engaged itself in other fights than only economic demands related to student life such as the abolition of capital punishment, the oppression of Indigenous peoples, the war in Viet Nam, and the abolition of birth control restrictions.

By the late 60s, the student movement’s strength forced even the ruling class to recognise it as a social force.

1969-1981 - Leftist mistakes and re-composition

The leadership of the CUS began to emphasize increasingly revolutionary long-term goals in place of immediate principled student demands that could mobilize and unite their membership in a militant strategy to win struggles. For example, there were a number of pronouncements from the CUS calling for the overthrow of capitalism and for the victory of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.

These positions provoked a right-wing reaction amongst some of the CUS’ more conservative membership. Several student unions sponsored successful defederation referenda. This resulted in the lack of any organization uniting students in English-speaking Canada until 1972, when the National Union of Students (NUS) was born in opposition to the federal government plan to reduce funding for education, reducing access to PSE. By 1978, the NUS united students across English-Canada.

1970s: Self-determination for Québec and the struggle for women’s rights

Québec students continued a militant tradition of their own into the 70s with the continuation of the Quiet Revolution and the struggle against national oppression and for self-determination as a backdrop. L’Association nationale des étudiants du Québec (ANEQ), a new student federation, was formed in 1975. By 1978, 100,000 students in Quebec organized an offensive strike for free education, which resulted in increased access to the bursaries and loans program.

Despite the gulf in politics and organization between the student movements in Québec and English-speaking Canada, there were some efforts made towards unity with the NUS supporting self-determination for Québec. The chairperson of the Ontario Federation of Students, Mariam Edelson, spoke to Rebel Youth’s predecessor in an interview about these efforts in 1978:

“Although NUS-ANEQ relations have not always been good in the past, there is now communication between the organizations. There are two motions that student councils around the country are dealing with now. One is to recognize ANEQ as the national representative of Quebec students. The other is to recognize Quebec as a nation and, therefore, its right to self-determination.”

The 1970s also saw a resurgent women’s movement across the country. The NUS engaged in struggles against violence against women and for abortion rights (still illegal until 1988). There were internal struggles in the student movement against sexism and hostility to feminism at student movement meetings. The NUS women’s committee and caucus were central to the survival of the NUS as a whole when the NUS faced another defederation drive.

1981 - ?: The Canadian Federation of Students

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) was formed in 1981 again in the context of an attack on students. The proposal from the federal government was to cut $1.5 billion from support to PSE. Immediately following the foundation of the CFS, there was a wave of student mobilizations to fight the proposed cuts. This was right in the midst of neoliberal attacks on students and working people enhanced by the new free trade deals with the US. The attacks culminated in the restructuring of federal funding enacted by the Chrétien Liberal government elected in 1994. These measures combined health, welfare and PSE into a single fund to provinces instead of earmarked funding. Provinces then had more freedom to make their own cuts, resulting in a $2.29 billion loss to PSE.

The CFS organised the only cross-Canada student strike in Canadian history on January 25th, 1995 with 80,000 students mobilized. The CFS noted at the time that the actions were “significant enough for the US Consulate to phone the Federation three times for details about how it had been organized and whether there was any likelihood that such action would ‘spill-over south of the 49th parrallel’”. However, the CHST was rammed through in 1996 and with it, federal funding for public services has significantly weakened until today.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular stories