Over the past month, thousands of students across Canada have joined in massive displays of solidarity with the Quebec student movement. In this article from the Marxists in Canada we look at how the struggle has developed and where it should go.
Over the past month, thousands of students across Canada have joined in massive displays of solidarity with the Quebec student movement. This solidarity movement has not been limited to just students; it has also included the participation of trade unionists, young workers, teachers, and parents. It has even caught the imagination of residents and onlookers who have joined in the casserole-inspired demonstrations marching through neighbourhoods in Toronto and other cities. There has been at least ten solidarity demonstrations organized in Toronto alone over the past six weeks. The largest of these demonstrations had 3,000 people marching on a single evening.
In addition to the demonstrations, there have also been dozens upon dozens of organizing meetings, educational forums, and discussions held on the topic of the Quebec student movement. This inspiring wave of youth activism continues to build upon the energy coming from the Occupy movement and the organizing efforts around the G20. It is significant that this has all occurred during the summer months when student activism tends to slow down.
It would, however, be simplistic to view this political movement as being solely an expression of solidarity. It is obviously true that students have significant sympathies with the struggle of their peers in Quebec. Furthermore, students and workers in Ontario are furious at the anti-democratic and brutal measures carried out by Quebec premier Jean Charest and the police forces. Nonetheless, this solidarity movement actually speaks more to the conditions facing youth and workers in Ontario.
Pro-business politicians and university administrations across Canada are realizing the warning inherent in these solidarity mobilizations. The message they are correctly taking is that students in the rest of Canada, too, are aware of the inequality and barriers presented by record-high tuition fees, and that they are looking for an outlet for their anger. There is a thirst among youth to fight back, and the solidarity efforts over the past two months display this.
The opportunity is there to build the student movement and build towards strike action. We must be able to present students with a strategy and method for actually carrying out such a struggle. We must be able to educate and agitate amongst students to let them know what such a struggle could achieve. Most students are angry at the status quo, but they are skeptical. They do not believe they can actually win, and most end up drifting towards apathy.
What students lack at the moment are the political vehicles through which their fighting spirit can express itself. Without organization, the sense of collective confidence of students is tremendously lowered. Therefore, the significant task is to strengthen and democratize the mass student organizations on the basis of a fighting strategy. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) must become a fighting student union.
This sentiment is already popular among the student union rank-and-file. Many have been inspired by the example of the militant CLASSE student unions in Quebec. As a result, thousands of students have vocally raised demands on their student union executives and leadership across Canada to build the student movement.
Pressure from the grassroots
It is therefore encouraging to see that some sections of the CFS are beginning to shift towards a more fighting stance. Some student leaders are taking positive steps to build and strengthen the student movement, and some are even raising the possibility of organizing a student strike in the coming school semesters. Fightback welcomes the positive steps taken by these student leaders that contribute to raising consciousness and participation of students in the movement.
Fightback has insisted from the beginning of the movement in Quebec that our student unions in English Canada should take a lead from this magnificent movement. We explained that the positive example and momentum from Quebec provided an excellent opportunity to build the movement. The thousands of students who began to spontaneously organize, protest, distribute red squares, leaflet, put up posters, and to generally spread the movement across Canada adequately displays this.
It is unfortunate, however, that the student unions have largely been outside, or a minor component part, of these solidarity efforts thus far. It is a testament to the tremendous energy of the student grassroots who, without waiting for their leaders to begin organizing, have already carried out a range of impressive political actions. Now it seems like the student leaders are starting to catch up with the sentiment in the streets and in the classrooms.
This was displayed at a demonstration organized by the Ontario Student Mobilization Committee (OSMC) on 5th June in Toronto. The rally ended at the Ryerson Students’ Centre, where a series of speeches were made, including by several elected student leaders. It was very indicative that several of the elected student leaders openly raised the demand for free post-secondary education. These excellent speeches were made by student leaders such as Rodney Diverlus, president of the Ryerson Students Unions (RSU), and Alastair Woods, vice-president of Campaigns and Advocacy at the York Federation of Students (YFS).
Raising this slogan openly in the movement represents a significant step forward, and has long been a point of contention within the student movement. Student militants have insisted that the student leaders openly and publicly call for free education, as opposed to the call for reducing or freezing tuition fees, or the ambiguous “drop fees” slogan. The latter slogans already concede to the rationale of a class-biased education system. Meanwhile, the demand for free education tends to get a very enthusiastic hearing from students. Even students who are skeptical about whether free education is realistic will tend to be supportive of the demand, and any questions they raise tend to open up important discussions about broader political questions. When the student leaders raised these slogans at the rally, it had an electrifying effect on the crowd.
The mass solidarity movement is finding a reflection within the CFS. The enormous pressure from the rank-and-file is catching the ears of the more sensitive and genuine student leaders. This explains the growing fighting spirit in the speeches and slogans being raised by the student leaders. More important than just words, however, is that certain CFS locals are beginning to take concrete steps to advance the student movement.
CFS locals begin to move
The York Federation of Students (YFS), which represents some 50,000 students and stands as one of the largest locals of the CFS, is taking some excellent steps, which other student locals should take as an example. The YFS leaders have committed to organizing monthly student assemblies to build student participation and ownership over their student union. Importantly, the YFS has committed to giving these monthly assemblies the decision-making power to determine the political campaigns and activism of the student union local. This is very important. Student assemblies must not become a “talk-shop”, and the rank-and-file should have the ability to hold their leaders to account, and even to overrule them if necessary. We insist that these democratic assemblies be set up with full decision-making powers. This will be a huge step forward. The first assembly at York will be held in August, and they are scheduled to continue to occur on a monthly basis.
The YFS has also begun to organize educational efforts to raise the consciousness of the rank-and-file and to popularize the strike tactic. They are planning an educational for July, called “Lessons from Quebec; Building in Ontario”for July 18. This is a very encouraging beginning, which must develop into regular discussions and workshops on the campus. The topics covered should range from immediate issues around the free education and the strike tactic, to broader political issues of interest to the student body.
The Students’ Union at Ottawa University (SFUO) has also played an excellent mobilizing role. They have taken it upon themselves to organize and mobilize for the impressive demonstrations we have witnessed in Ottawa to support the Quebec students. They have also organized educationals for the purpose of radicalizing the rank-and-file, including on the topic of civil disobedience and the Quebec movement. They have also been bussing solidarity delegations to Quebec. This is a great example of the kind of initiative that is necessary of leadership; the SFUO sent their first delegation to Montreal back in March 2012!
It is notable that the SFUO has taken the initiative to organize solidarity rallies in the city of Ottawa. This stands in contrast to the CFS locals in Toronto who have not taken a leading role organizing the demonstrations. The evening casseroles protests in Toronto have been organized spontaneously, while an ad hoc body called the Ontario Student Mobilization Committee (OSMC) has organized the planned demonstrations. The powerful CFS locals in Toronto must immediately begin to take an active role organizing mass rallies.
The Laurentian Students’ Union (LSU) at the Barrie campus was perhaps the CFS local which showed the greatest initiative to organize democratic assemblies, and they have just convened their first assembly. The elected leadership at the LSU must be given credit for the very active role they have played in solidarity efforts this summer. It has also been confirmed that the University of Toronto at Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) are beginning to organize assemblies on their campus, as well.
These are all excellent examples of the efforts that can, and must be taken by the student unions. Student activists should assist in efforts where their student leaders are taking positive steps. They should also hold the student leaders to their commitments, and continue to pressure from the grassroots to ensure that the student unions actually keep moving forward.
Just the first steps
We are positive about these steps that are being taken by the CFS locals. It must, however, be clearly said that just holding several educationals, organizing a few demonstrations, or even initiating regular democratic assemblies on campus will not lead to free education. In fact, on their own, they will not even put a dent in the skyrocketing tuition fees in Ontario. The protracted nature of the struggle of Quebec students shows this. It is unlikely that the provincial government, or local administrations, will buckle without students first taking strike action and connecting it to the larger problem of capitalist austerity.
In Quebec, students have been on unlimited strike since February, and the Quebec Liberal government has yet to back down on their proposed tuition increase. But, the student strike has shaken Quebec society to its core, further destabilized the precarious Charest government, and endangered the ability of future Quebec governments to impose their austerity program. If the student strike can bring in the mass of workers, then the strike will very likely force the government to back down.
But, we cannot expect such a strike to magically occur or organize itself overnight in the rest of Canada. Students will need to prepare themselves if there is going to be an unlimited students’ strike.
Therefore, these positive steps that have been taken by the CFS locals must be part of acampaign that inexplicitly working towards a 24-hour student strike.Educationals, assemblies, and rallies must be used to raise confidence and consciousness for the purpose of building towards strike actions. The CFS locals must openly promote and popularize strike action. Anything short of this is unacceptable. Of course, if the government doesn’t back down in the face of a 24-hour strike in Ontario, then we should escalate towards longer strikes.
We should also understand that this shift to the left is in its first stages, and is occurring very unevenly, only involving a few CFS locals. We should encourage the more left and activist wing of the CFS to move forward, while openly confronting the more conservative wing of the CFS leaders who are unwilling to move. We should also insist that the more activist CFS leaders should openly challenge the conservatism that has developed within provincial and national federations of our student unions. A concrete way of doing this is to demand that the positive steps taken by certain CFS locals (such as the YFS, SFUO, and LSU) be generalized across all locals. Student militants should also use these examples to press their own elected student executives on their local campus.
Lesson drawn — We can reshape our student unions
These developments point to an important fact — there are enormous possibilities that exist within the CFS. This is a direct rebuke towards the student leaders and staffers who have tried to avoid any responsibility to organize. Some of the student leaders have even made the argument that it is not their job to educate the membership or to build the student movement. These examples clearly show what these elected executives and staffers could be doing, if they had any interest in doing so.
Others have tried to deflect the pressure on the student leaders to act, by making a vague argument that the movement can only come from “the grassroots”. The conclusion these people make is that the elected leaders of our student unions can play no role in building a student movement. The examples of what certain CFS locals are doing — along with the excellent lessons from the CLASSE union in Quebec — shows this argument to be patently false. This argument is simply an attempt to disguise inaction and conservatism within the student unions, with a left-wing language through appeals to the “grassroots” and “bottom up”. It is a blatant abrogation of leadership. It is particularly pernicious because it serves to confuse newly radicalized students.
At York, Ottawa, and Laurentian, we have concrete examples of student union locals actually building the grassroots and encouraging participation! This is also precisely the lesson to be learned from Quebec — a fighting student union can help build the grassroots, which in turn will serve to further strengthen the student union itself. There is absolutely no excuse for inaction among the student unions, except for being politically opposed to students fighting skyrocketing tuition fees. These student leaders who are not ready to build the movement must be asked to step aside, or be replaced with leaders who are willing to advance the student movement.
These developments on some of campuses should lead us to be optimistic. As we have explained, the beginning of a shift to the left in the CFS is a huge step forward. We must understand that is entirely the result of political action and pressure from the rank-and-file. That section of the CFS leaders that are more sensitive to the needs and demands of working class students on the campuses are being pushed into action. We must continue to pressure, and hold the elected leaders to account. Where commitments and steps are being taken, we should support them, while ensuring that these commitments to build the movement actually translate into action.
It is true that we would have wished that this process had started sooner (such as when the Quebec movement first began). Already, big opportunities have been lost, largely because of the conservatism of the student leaders. Nonetheless, every student militant should enthusiastically greet the development in which certain CFS locals are taking the initiative to mobilize, educate, and organize towards a more participatory and fighting student movement. Most importantly, it provides a solid example of how students can, and will, reshape our student unions into fighting organizations.
Appeal to student militants — Build on your local campus!
There is enormous potential among the hundreds of thousands of students in English Canada. Students who are currently involved in the solidarity movement in Ontario and other provinces must now become organizers on their campuses. We must agitate among our peers. The first steps of organizing on campus should result in gathering the students who are the most open to the demands for free post-secondary education and who are sympathetic to the Quebec student movement. These students can be developed into activists themselves, and help us spread our influence even more broadly among the student population.
Some have misinterpreted the “Open Letter to the CFS”, as well as Fightback’s demands for the CFS leadership to take a lead. We have bluntly raised the demand that the CFS and its affiliated locals must openly agitate and raise the need for a strike, and make preparations for escalating the student movement by organizing assemblies or taking strike votes. Some honest activists have misunderstood the demands on the CFS to mean that we are suggesting that student activists should just sit and patiently wait for their student leaders to organize. Many of the honest activists will correctly point to the tradition of inactivity in the CFS, and correctly feel that a sit-and-wait strategy (in relation to the CFS leaders) would be ineffective.
Nothing could be further from what we believe, or actually do in practice. The enormous anger among youth must be given a political vehicle. While certain CFS locals are making positive steps forward, student militants should not wait for the student leaders to organize. We must build immediately. The task of organizing fellow students is urgent. Indeed, militant students taking initiative to organize on their own is the best way to pressure the student leaders to move. This is precisely the process that is occurring at the moment, where the rank-and-file is shifting certain CFS locals.
Fightback encourages student militants to get involved with our student groups — Socialist Fightback clubs – that are set up on the local campuses. Our efforts are focused on building a strong base for militant and socialist politics on the campus. We give a priority to organizing around the key issues of free education and student-worker solidarity efforts. We encourage students who are still hesitant about Marxist theory to engage in coordinated work with us around these broader issues we all agree on (while, of course, continuing to learn about Marxism!). Political theory is best sharpened through actually engaging in political activism.
Naturally, some of the efforts of our campus clubs are also oriented towards building and reshaping our local student unions. Having clarified that we are not interested in simply waiting for our student unions to organize, it is worth repeating Fightback’s key point.
We understand that it is necessary to organize mass strike action to be able to win free education. Without pro-strike student unions that are willing to agitate, educate, and mobilize their members, it will be impossible to effectively organize mass strikes. The mass of students in Ontario will only get mobilized in a sustained struggle if they feel they have the strength of a collective student organization behind them, which would allow them to fight alongside tens of thousands of their fellow students. The current potential for a mass and militant student movement, which exists across English Canada, will not be realized without fighting student union organization.
We therefore ask student militants, regardless of particular political stripes, to join us in agitating for the following concrete program. In the coming weeks and months we must raise the following demands on our student union locals and leaders:
- For the immediate convening of monthly assemblies, with real democratic decision-making power, to direct the political activities of the student union local.
- For the establishment of activist committees and regular educationals, coordinated by the student union locals, to encourage mass participation and raise political consciousness on the campuses. These bodies should present and popularize the slogan of free education and the necessity of the strike tactic among the rank-and-file.
- Begin mobilizing towards a 24-hour student strike to fight for free post-secondary education.
Today there is an immense potential for mass political action. This will require the establishing of systematic and consistent efforts on the campuses to organize among our peers. We must agitate among the tens of thousands of students who are hesitant to fight because of a lack of political confidence, and bring them into the movement. This is what the Socialist Fightback clubs are doing on the campuses, and we are interested in working with any students and activists who want to co-ordinate efforts with us. We must maintain the energy from a summer of solidarity actions, and put it at the disposal of the student struggle on our local campuses. Only in this way can we build towards our own strike wave across the province, and across Canada.
We must also never lose sight of the fact that our efforts on campus are necessarily linked to the broader working class movement, and to the fight against all of the austerity cuts. Students and workers must be united against the assault of Bay Street. The experience of Quebec further displays how the struggle for free education is about something much larger than a single educational reform. It is a challenge to the irrational capitalist system, which puts the profits of a minority above the economic well-being and democratic rights of the majority. The fight to make education a right and the fight against the broader austerity agenda, which is being carried out across the globe, point towards the necessity of abolishing capitalism and building a socialist society.
Student militants, build on your campus!
For a CFS committed to a fighting student unionism!
Mobilize towards a 24-hour student strike to abolish tuition fees!