June 2, 2009

What way forward for the student movement now?

J. Boyden
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.
- Comments


  1. As a student heavily involved in student government and who helped coordinate our students' union's tuition campaign last year, I resent the claim that CFS is the only way for students and that CASA is a right-wing plot to sabotage students. CFS has, literally, ten times the student fee and an extremel murky exit mechanism. I can tell you with certainty that CASA has not sued its members for trying to leave the organization, which CFS has done on several occasions.
    But more than that, CFS and CASA present entirely different methods for dealing with student problems. While protests are a useful tool, students leaders have to be able to sit down with university administrations and government to work out practical solutions. CAUS in Alberta has been effective at this, and consequently Alberta has the most accommodating student financial aid program in Canada.
    Student issues and access to education are too important to get hung up on ideology.

  2. Dear Aden

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. Respectfully, the history is out there to be googled. CASA's founder just published a report (in the capacity of his new job in a US think tank) calling for 25% tuition increases across the country.

    Meanwhile CASA in the last election called for students to vote for a major corporate party -- the Liberals -- and for modest tuition increases.

    I do not claim to have any sort of mandate to speak for CFS, but a letter of inquiry to their offices will explain their 'exit strategy' which requires, broadly speaking, a valid referendum.

    CASA only requires a vote of the student union's executive -- and who knows how they were elected!

    Which is more democratic? You be the judge.

    As will all organizations that have set rules, the CFS in BC has been forced to resort to the courts to resolve the conflict between the right-wing students who staged a referendum to de-federate. The YCL has been critical of the way that campaign was effected, but SFU's de-federation would be real step back for the student movement in BC.

    You say that student issues are too important to get hung-up on ideology; actually the struggle is inseparable from ideology. Student issues are too important to be blind to such fundamentals.

    If you were to discuss with a group of CASA and CFS activists, I would have no doubt they would outline the following differences between their organizations.

    These are all ideological questions that revolve around fighting VS compromising:

    - demanding a reduction in fees or a supporting only modest increases;

    - integrating solidarity work on peace and social justice issues which combine with the political agenda of students or narrowly focusing on immediate campus demands;

    - services, campaigns including lobbying and visible demonstrations or just services and lobbying.

    (By the way, what services does CASA provide these days?)

    The advocacy/lobby tactics of CASA flow from their political orientation. You hit the nail on the head, however, when you say that the CFS and CASA have radically different tactics. I'm glad you agree that protest are useful (when was CASA's last protest?)

    The ideas the students demand of the capitalist state are dialectically connected to their struggle in the streets. They are the muscle behind which the students can base their ideas.

    And that is exactly why the YCL calling for a greater fight back and a bolder direction from the CFS now. You should know that the CFS does lobby, in fact they do quite a great deal of lobbying, which is a point of criticism of this article.

    As to CAUS's effectiveness in Alberta, I would like to continue this conversation. Perhaps you could provide some documentation to back up your claim?

    I would suggest you look at the level of tuition fees in the province however as a better yard stick to measure success, and that the level be relative to students needs, affordability and accessibility-- not what other provinces do.

    When I was in Alberta working they would have called what the government is doing to the students through debt what the bull does to the cow on the other side of the barn.

    Given that situation, there is little choice but to fight. Yet CASA, and some even in the CFS, seem to think otherwise.

    On the other hand, if the CFS could find a hair of progressive space to cooperate with CASA, such as a Canada-wide tuition freeze, the YCL would support such unity.

    But right now, with CASA holding a line of compromise which if applied Canada-wide would objectively sabotage the student movement...

    well, it looks like hell would freeze over first.


  3. I have just a little note : there is three student organisation in Quebec -- the federations are two. After that there is ASSÉ.

    This article was very interesting. I learn a lot about the Canadian Federation.

  4. re: Aden

    With all due respect, CASA has decided sue members who have left the organization. Just ask the folks at the Student Society of McGill University and the University Manitoba Students Union who were sued by CASA.

    It's impossible to claim that CASA were not founded by the Liberal party of Canada in the wake of the CFS opposition to the Social Policy Review as an attempt to split the student movement. That's just historical fact that has been well documented by people with no reason to support the Federation.

    The Federation does lobbying with university and government officials all the time. The difference is that the CFS also does things beyond the narrow backroom lobbying efforts of CASA.

  5. Aden - CASA's history is well-documented. It was formed in 1995 in response to the CFS-led student strike that scuttled the federal Liberal's attempt to implement income-contingent loan repayments.

    Student union leaders who part of the Liberal Party, as well as some Tories and independent anti-CFSers, unilaterally pulled their student unions out of CFS and formed CASA. There are still student unions who are legally CFS members because they never held referendums to leave. CASA's founding congress was funded by the New Brunswick Liberals and the organization would have never had the profile it did at the outset had it not been for the behind-the-scenes operating of various Liberals in getting their pals in the press to provide regular, detailed and positive coverage. This may be news to those involved in CASA today, but it certainly wasn't when it happened.

    CFS and CASA both have problems, but CFS is actually committed to student advocacy through a variety of means, not simply lobbying, which is the only thing that CASA can ever muster itself to do.

    Students in Canada would be in a very bad situation if there was no CFS and if CASA was the only thing that was existed it would have to be completely revamped or jettisoned entirely as the useless vehicle it has proven to be in these last 14 years.

  6. Recent (and upcoming) CFS defederation referendums are not, in my limited experience, right-wing affairs. I know lifelong card-carrying NDP members, libertarians, communists, greens, conservatives & anarchists who campaigned in them in the last few years.

    You say defederation requires "broadly speaking, a valid referendum". You are speaking very, very broadly here. The CFS bylaws have specific requirements for the form these referendums take, and these bylaws benefit the status quo (membership) and, depending on the point of view of the student union leadership, can easily be used to completely silence dissent. I find that the most prevalent underlying criticism of the CFS is that it sees every other goal or ideal secondary to it's own effectiveness, including intelectual integrity, personal & professional conduct and the rights of members. On the other hand, CASA engages in something like the opposite of solidarity, some kind of lasseiz-faire non-organizing.

    It's unfortunate that this issue is always characterised as a right/left or Liberal/NDP or imperialist/progressive prize fight for the souls of students. The extravagances of each organization do disservices to all students and student activists. Regardless of the histories we have all written about ourselves, the rank & file students do not have a responsive, intuitive tool to control their own fates. This kind of navel-gazing comparison of these two organizations as the only players only calcifies these creaking beasts. When we invoke them like this, we give them power. They have forgotten us. We should forget them too.

  7. The CFS is a marketing operation, not a student organization. It is a way to exploint the captive markets in universities: travel, phones, discount cards, tax preparation, health insurance, agendas - it's a business, not a lobby group.

    And what does the CFS do with our money? What has the CFS actually delivered? Where are the campaigns that have succeeded - other than the ones against people trying to pull out because they get no return on their investment?

    At Concordia, what the CFS brought was controversy over health insurance (http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2009/02/18/lawsuits-accusations-and-denials-at-concordia/) and petty political douchebaggery (http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2009/03/11/cfs-deputy-chair-elect-at-centre-of-new-concordia-controversy/).

    There is no left-right issue here, only one of how much insolence and corruption students let the CFS or CASA or their own local student associations get away with while they spend millions of dollards of our money.

  8. When I attended Red River College for a trade school course(99-2000), I had no clue a union even existed (it was a CASA campus).

    But it is an editorial, and only one part of a larger dialogue. In an editorial, one would expect things to be simplified and lines drawn where they don't occur for sake of making a point. I assumed this in your article Johan and I expect that the CFS is capable of improving it responsiveness. Of course that means having an involved student electorate.

    That is something not mentioned and it's a big hole in the comment.

    Without a involved election:

    I've seen campuses that had a small anarchist-activist group take control of a union exec many years back (I was working and not a student but involved with student activists and events on campus). The other example is more recent. while visiting the U of Sask campus I saw an uncontested slate of doofuses get control of the union exec. Reading that university's paper I read trhat one of the first things the new union did was to attempt to cancel the 2nd CFS referendum, slated for later in the
    year. I smell tories. If it were a full fledged CFS local (and it's
    not-only a prospective member) would you blame the CFS as a whole for the shit that happened on one campus?

    But yes, the CFS can be attacked from the left (ultra-left) as well as from the right depending on the posisitions of the CFS and its local. But criticism is one thing, an outright attack is another. The CFS has had a nasty habit of bad PR work and courtrooms. The CUP papers have largely been attacking the CFS, which is not helping matters. Does the CFS have a
    way to get it side out in the media? here in MB the CFS has really been battling it out with the right wingers. We gained the upper hand, and hope we can keep the defed folks at bay.

  9. More discussion here:


  10. "To most young people, the CFS meeting was invisible. We can hold the corporate media primarily responsible for that."

    The CFS is invisible to most students because twice yearly they have a meeting behind closed doors were the average student is not alowed to attenend. Its rather top heavy for a 'grassroots' and 'democratic' movement. Maybe students would care more if we were invited in on the debates and discussion on where should place our collective resources.


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