November 1, 2009

Student struggles in Canada

Excerpt from the 25th Central Convention documents of the Young Communist League of Canada on the struggle of high school and post-secondary students.

The primary contradiction in the struggle for increased access to education is: corporations want a trained workforce but they will not pay for it through corporate taxes, forcing the people to pay for education through wages, savings and especially debt. The working people want accessible, emancipatory education.

This class perspective is often obscured. The struggle for access is presented as a simply universal fight against the government. Right-social democratic ideas in the student movement deliberately avoid class perspectives and misrepresent the state as neutral. Yet the state’s decisions are, generally, in line with the banks and businesses. And the single largest group of youth impeded and excluded from post-secondary are youth from the working-class majority.

The student movement is vital in the fight back. It makes up the most organized component of the youth movement. The students are concentrated onto campuses. Education also gives them skills for struggle.  Yet students also contain strong non-working class elements in their leadership with associated values.  Students are a therefore a contradictory and dynamic force.

The corporate agenda for schools

Over the past generation, the hungry drive of the corporations for profits has led to: restructuring the tax system and federal-provincial relations, restricting post-secondary funding;
‘eating’ the public sector as a new source of profits through privatization.

In BC, for example, students pay will pay more in tuition in 2010 than corporations pay in provincial taxes.  This is restructuring for rich-only, American-style education.

Thirty years ago tuition fees were negligible or even zero! What has changed?

  • Federal government's role in funding reduced transfer payments, no longer requires provinces to allocate money to secondary and post-secondary education;
  • tuition fees have emerged as a major user fee on a service which should be free;
  • in spring 2010 student debt topped $13,500,000,000;
  • mass increases in illegal ancillary fees (like “library access” fees);
  • Boards of Governors have adopted an increasingly pro-corporate, pro-privatization, anti-student line;
  • a small army of students work on and off campus for corporations, essentially free labour.

In Quebec, tuition fees are very low. But the loans programme sharply reduces accessibility. Currently tuition is highest in Ontario and Nova Scotia. It is frozen in Newfoundland.

In secondary schools there has been similar under-funding and cut-backs. In Ontario alone, schools are short several billions of dollars from mid-90s levels because of the flawed provincial funding formula.  All schools have seen a wave of cut-backs: support staff, teachers, supplies, repairs and new buildings. Teachers' pay has been frozen (ie. Alberta in 2008) and collective agreements torn-up. In Nova Scotia and elsewhere, Public Private Partnership (P3) school buildings are scandalously over-budget.

While the source of the problem in the privatization of universities lies in the budget of the federal/provincial government, the structure of university administration is crucial. If over-staffing takes place at the administrative level, this undermines the role of teachers and professors in major decisions within the universities, and creates an even greater barrier between the students and those responsible for the cost of their education. Lower wages are not the solution, but neither is over-staffing undemocratic university administrations.

In elementary and secondary schools there has been a trend toward the introduction of user fees which are often illegal.  Students are being asked more frequently to pay for materials essential to their education such as music texts, gym shorts, year books and more.  Meanwhile, fundraising for public schools is becoming increasingly predominant.  These trends create a funding framework that leaves working-class schools with fewer resources than schools with wealthier students who have the ability to pay user fees and fundraise.  The YCL-LJC opposes and has organized around fees imposed on students and against the move towards privatization of our public school systems.

Privatization is not just an attack on service – costing more, but delivering less because of the new need to make a profit – but an attack on workers as well. Privatization attacks union collective agreements, and decertifies unions (ie: privatization of campus food services). This strengthens the objective basis for student-teacher and student-worker unity. While public schools continue to be subject to deep funding cuts, private schools continue to receive public funding in many parts of the country. The YCL demands an end to all funding of private schools and a subsequent strengthening of the public school system.

Resistance in secondary and post-secondary

The attack on education has been met with continued resistance since our last convention.  In high schools the majority of resistance has been lead by the teachers. School boards have also opposed funding cuts and been placed under receivership by provincial governments. The YCL-LJC supports school board autonomy and local democracy and youth running for school board elections raising a pro-teacher, pro-student agenda.

The YCL-LJC aims to reach out to the next generation of its membership through the methods mentioned in the action items, and prioritize the future of socialism to the outmost degree thereby. Knowledge of the fundamentals of social justice should be disseminated in an effort to combat growing levels of anti-communist propaganda within the actual curriculum, and to combat apathy within the secondary school student body.  High school clubs such as environmental or “Gay-Straight Alliances” are often places to find progressive youth.  The YCL-LJC has a role to play in terms of strengthening these groups.

In English-speaking Canada the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) organized a cross-Canada day of action in spring 2007 but has called none since. In some high schools, students have walked out of class, joining in solidarity with university students.  More assessment by the YCL-LJC needs to be made on the situation in trade schools.

In Quebec, following the spectacular 2005 students strike, an attempted 2007 general student strike failed.

Individual provincial CFS actions were organized in Ontario and Manitoba in fall 2008 and 2009 under the new and positive slogan ‘Drop Fees.’ Manitoba students occupied the legislature. Although there were very few mass mobilizations in BC and elsewhere, these Drop Fees actions are very significant. They visibly show the students' power.  Mass protests must be supported by more youth and people’s forces, including labour. There more regular organization will only help push the students beyond lobbying.

Other potential sources of campus resistance for a students' agenda include:

  • Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS), uneven and decentralized, but often home for many genuine anti-capitalist students;
  • Part-time and mature students and international students;
  • Racialized student clubs;
  • Environmental and social-justice clubs like the Student Christian Movement;
  • University professors (too often absent from demos) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT);
  • TAs and sessional instructors, whose actions have been dynamic, especially at York U.
  • Equality rights organizations such as LGBTTTQQI and Women's groups

Greater student participation in university affairs has also been demanded in confrontation with the corporatization of education. Workers, students, administrators and the state have a role at the table. Corporations do not.

Harper Conservative attacks

On a number of campuses university administrators have been heavy-handed against demonstrators.  This has engendered widespread campus solidarity:

  • British Columbia, UBC – students arrested protesting privatization and destruction of campus environment, support committee developed;
  • Alberta, U of A – student protest blocked administration from abolishing elected student residence representatives, after reps had petitioned against rising fees;
  • Ontario, U of T – administration deliberately had police arrest 14 campus activists on the pretext of occupation of the President’s office weeks prior, campaigning forced dropping of charges and restrictive bail conditions;
  • Quebec, UQAM – student protest (ie. demos, posters) banned within the vicinity of all campuses.
  • Quebec, CEGEP du Vieux Montreal –over 100 arrests at one student occupation, although campus was well know for long-standing tolerance of protest; across Quebec the student movement experienced reduced tolerance towards any campus activism;

Restrictions on academic freedom remain a significant problem in schools around Canada. Students and professors often face discrimination because of their political beliefs.  The YCL-LJC stands for inclusive, progressive academic freedom.

Conservative Party youth organizations have also stepped up their activity against progressive and left student organizations.  For some time the Conservatives have held a secret slush-fund to seek office in student unions. But in the spring of 2009 on campuses across Canada, Conservative youth organized training sessions about:

  • building front organizations, working with Zionist and anti-abortionist organizations on campus;
  • attacking Public Interests Research Groups;
  • de-federating from the Canadian Federation of Students;
  • strikingly, workshops featured sitting Members of Parliament;
  • since, at least one MP has been caught interfering directly in student elections through administration (MP Peter Kent and the York Federation of Students);
  • Conservative youth also a catalyst in several attacks on PIRGS (ie. Guelph, Halifax);
  • Conservatives implicated in thirteen decertification campaigns from CFS;
  • blocking student protestors at last fall's Drop Fees demonstrations at the Manitoba legislature.

The question of de-federation has brought to light the problem of cross-Canada student unity.

English-speaking Canadian student unity

The struggle for student unity is playing out in various ways on different campuses. Political problems have sometimes been expressed in administrative solutions. Although the CFS AGM created new rules regarding decertification, the campaigns against the CFS continue, and the right-wing enemies of student unity have not disappeared.

There are also right-wing student organizations that can “fill the hole” of the CFS – specifically the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, historically a device of the federal government to split the student’s movement.  CASA and its provincial affiliates have been used to stand in the way of student mobilization around progressive demands.  The tacticians of the Liberal and Conservative Parties, happy political prisoners of the big corporations, may view CASA as of less use today.

Therefore a new wrecking ball has been swung into motion.

Post-decertification campuses will not engage political campaigns. Simon Fraser University was the test ground for this, in 2008.  Right-wing students worked with some leftist critics of CFS to decertify in the context of mistaken management by the student union.

People’s organizations like CFS have internal problems. There is a struggle for democracy and militancy. Claiming the left should provoke a “few” decertifications to “shake things up in CFS” is opportunist. Claiming the CFS can not be reformed plays the right-wing’s game.

The counter-offensive required in this struggle is broad united fronts.  The political reason for the CFS must be brought back to the students who must empower themselves to democratically drive the student struggle.

This is an internal battle students are fighting out.  Liberal as well as right and centrist social democratic outlooks are predominant but not ‘hegemonic’ within CFS.  The British Columbian, Manitoba and Nova Scotian components of CFS have made open criticism of the NDP. Some leaders have torn-up their membership cards. Students understand the need for militancy, unity and grass-roots campaigns.  A CFS basing itself on militant struggle for the interests of students would no doubt win the interest and support of a much wider array of students and help to pull the rug out from under anti-CFS forces.

Student unity in Quebec

Although there is greater militancy, unity of the students in Quebec is arguably weaker than in English-speaking Canada.  In Quebec CFS has organized a few student unions. The bigger players are the FEUQ for university students, FECQ for CEGEPs, ASSÉ and the new Third Voice who organize both. The majority of student unions are unaffiliated.

The most militant student union central is the ASSÉ. The FECQ/FEUQ hold an annual action, but have a narrower lobbying and compromise approach focusing on immediate student issues.  In 2005 the ASSÉ initiated the largest mobilization of students in Quebec and Canadian history against cutbacks of student bursaries (with support of labour and people’s forces).  In 2007, the ASSÉ launched a failed call for a general strike after the Charest government un-froze student fees, and then launched another failed call for an unlimited general strike (like 2005).

ASSÉ continues to have a serious internal discussion about the failed strikes and the implication for strategy and tactics today.  The debate is around how to place the demand of free education. Reasonable voices with ASSÉ have identified a like lack of unity, between ASSE and the FECQ/FEUQ, as detrimental to their cause.

The way forward for the students in Quebec demands that they overcome these barriers to unity. Of necessity, this requires a transformation of the FECQ/FEUQ position towards a more mass-student and class struggle-based approach.

Aboriginal students

Education is a human right – and for First Nations a treaty right. However, in addition to long-standing neo-colonial policies against Aboriginal peoples, in 1996 the Federal government imposed a 2% cap on all basic core services funding increases, breaking the Treaties.  Rising numbers of Aboriginal youth seek degrees. Over half of the aboriginal population is under 25. There are long waiting lists for First Nations youth to attend post-secondary. Non-status and Metis people do not receive any funding, while facing the same racism.  YCL sees the need to establish additional Aboriginal public universities with Aboriginal education at all universities.

Racist policies against Aboriginal students hurt the entire movement.  Although First Nations students centers and associations have been established at most universities across the country they must fight for funding. Only one First Nation’s University exists in Canada, in Saskatchewan, which the Harper Tories are shutting-down. The YCL-LJC condemns the closing of First Nations University.  The YCL-LJC demands abolition of the funding cap, emergency action to improve Aboriginal people’s social and economic conditions, and full recognition of sovereignty and self-determination for aboriginal nations.

Pan-Canadian student unity

The necessity for a united organization for all students at the federal level is an objective need. Some efforts have been made uniting CFS and Aboriginal students. The CFS has campaigned on Aboriginal student’s issues especially in Manitoba, and condemned the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ continued approach to aboriginal education and closure of First Nations University.

Unity between English-speaking and Quebec students is sporadic and limited.  On the surface, language is a barrier to greater communication. In fact this is a political problem about the national question with reflections into tactics:

  • the Millennium scholarship was opposed by the CFS as ineffective;
  • for Quebec student’s however it was an advantage to their loan system;
  • the “Post-secondary education act” first advanced by the CFS and the CAUT and now adopted by the New Democratic Party contains no special provisions for Quebec and Aboriginal students.

While narrow nationalism (encouraged by the Parti Québéquois) discourages some Quebec students from pan-Canadian, Federal-level action, the main problem is English-speaking Canadian chauvinism. Many English-speaking students speak as if there were no militant student battles in Quebec.

In our view there is one working class within distinct nations in Canada. The situation has changed since the days of the National Union of Students when there was one organization of Quebec students (ANEEQ). If the CFS were to withdraw from Quebec there is no guarantee that something beneficial would arise in its absence. There are many English-speaking student unions not organized into any progressive student movement. First outreach could be made by the CFS and its own position on the national question should develop to recognize the multi-national character of Canada.

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