May 31, 2012

Activists in Quebec respond to debates on strategy and tactics

The massive mobilization of students in Quebec has
generated interest across Canada and around
the world, with many asking -- what can we do?!
This letter is in response to a recent call to criticize the Canadian Federation of Students, and demand this student union in Ontario call a general student strike. That letter can be read here.

We write as student activists in Québec who have been involved in organizing the 2011-2012 general student strike - on both anglophone and francophone campuses.

We are ecstatic to hear that so many students in English Canada are building a campaign to mobilize similar strikes in Ontario and elsewhere. We are heartened by the outpouring of solidarity, and we believe that the best way that students outside Québec can join the movement is by mobilizing strikes from the ground up in their own communities.

Open Letter to the CFS assumes that strikes can be organized by “elected student leaders” and masterminded provincially, if not nationally. Certainly, the Federation can and must support strike initiatives. However, these have to be built from the ground up and through structures of direct democracy - specifically, general assemblies which are fully empowered to make real decisions. This is something that we have learned again and again in Québec, and this method of organizing has consistently proven to be the only way to build viable strike movements. Students feel a sense of ownership over movements created this way, which cannot be undermined by claims of a minority imposing their will on a majority.

Strike campaigns or votes must not be imposed by student federations, or even individual unions. They must be organized by activists on the ground and discussed in regular general assemblies to involve the broader student body. Strategically, organizing strikes first where they’re most likely to succeed - in traditionally progressive departmental unions rather than faculty or campus unions - will ensure the kind of momentum-building that could lead to a general strike of Ontario students.

There are, however, a number of things that the Federation can and must do to support a general strike movement. Educational campaigns, facilitating solidarity delegations, workshops, and activist exchanges are extremely important, even if they do not replace locally-focused campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, the CFS could facilitate the creation or mobilization of politically autonomous departmental associations, which barely exist on many anglophone campuses. In fact, the first unlimited strikes in the history of McGill and Concordia Universities were organized mainly in previously dormant departmental unions.

The formation of mobilized, combative departmental unions built upon structures of direct democracy needs to be seen as a consequence of strike campaigns, not a necessary precondition without which activists’ hands are tied. There is always a way forward.

We are optimistic that a general student strike in Ontario can and will succeed, given the right ingredients. The Open Letter to the CFS represents a first step towards creating a radical, democratic strike movement in Ontario and beyond. As we watch students lay the foundations for powerful strike movements across the country, we hope we can continue to share our experience in Quebec - both successes and failures.

The letter has been signed by a number of student activists from English and French-speaking campuses in Quebec. The full letter is posted on facebook here.

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