Have you read this yet? It’s the subject of this post.
I think it’s necessary for the student movement in the ROC (rest of Canada for you ROC’ers) to examine the difference in student organizing outside Québec. I’m glad Brian Platt took a shot at it (actually, a good shot at it), although I think he missed some important aspects of the student movement outside of Québec.
I spent the last year of my job with the Canadian Federation of Students asking this question: what makes Québec’s model of organizing so effective? How have they succeeded in mass mobilization? While I think Platt makes some reasonable arguments, his main thesis, “anglophone student unions aren’t built for protesting” is untrue. Differences do exist between Québec students’ unions and the ROC but it’s not this simple.
Sandy Hudson and I came up with four reasons for why the Québec student movement has been so successful and what Ontario can learn from it, but that’s a topic for another bottle of wine.
On Platt’s piece. First off, there’s a huge difference between students’ unions that are structurally apolitical and politically apolitical (or politically oriented such that they support the government of the day). There are many students’ unions in Canada that are political apolitical, but not that many that are structurally apolitical. Universities like Queen’s, Western, McMaster and others in Ontario, for example, have vast resources, but fail to venture past a Liberal politic in their campaigns. This isn’t to say they couldn’t become politicized. Most college students’ unions in Ontario have also been depoliticized, but it has been more through the co-optation of student leaders, not necessarily thanks to the structures of their students’ unions.
From what I’ve seen, the students’ unions in Ontario that get away with being the least political (or most Conservative/Liberal) are the ones where their executive members are not elected at large. Or, where their representatives are selected structurally by the fewest people. In most cases, the president is elected at large, then he/she either appoints their vice-presidents or they are selected by board members who received fewer votes relative to what someone running for a VP position would receive. This is highly undemocratic and is a structure that keeps a dissenting politic out of the students’ union. The examples of this that I am aware of are at a few Ontario university students’ unions that are members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, with two or three exceptions, and part-time students’ unions with a delegated class representative structure. Some college students’ unions are also organized this way.
Platt argues that the time spent on services is what really stops ROC students’ unions from mobilizing the way Québec students have. This is only the case where there aren’t enough activists involved in a students’ union. Of course, if your one activist is busy signing health opt out cheques and not mobilizing for a General Assembly, it’s a struggle between the two. But services are inherently political. The service centres that are strong in many Ontario students’ unions are what drive students to their students’ unions. Racialized student collectives, women’s centres, disability centres and others help to outreach to students and enable them to access the mainstream student political sphere. Where these services don’t exist, the student union is obviously and persistently less diverse. This is the case in many students’ unions in Québec and the movement is noticeably less diverse than it should be.
University and college services are political and should be organized and coordinated by students. The existence of profiteering health and dental brokers (one of which I’ve had the peripheral pleasure of being sued by, being locked into a contract by, settling with and then being locked in a contract again…some of the signatories to that agreement did get jobs, so at least they sold out for something, I guess), is one of the obvious examples of why students should control their services. A glance at Ontario’s UHIP system can show anyone how damaging for students’ interests and their pockets it can be when administrators control student services. And yes, coordinating these services takes a lot of time. This is why it is critical for active, service-heavy students’ unions to ensure that they are placing as much importance and as many resources into the campaigns work that they have.
I think it is also critical for ROC students’ unions to examine how students have organized in Québec and adopt the tactics needed to bolster similar efforts outside of Québec. Provincial solidarity is a major part and will make organizing in provinces like Manitoba or Newfoundland and Labrador easier (they also happen to be the other two provinces with the lowest tuition fees in Canada). In a province like Ontario, provincial solidarity is not remotely possible in the current state of affairs. This is a threat to the capacity of the Ontario student movement.
But the general assembly model is an important one that students’ unions should work to adopt. Organizing at the grassroots means going into each classroom, asking for them to select a representative and having open GAs at the departmental level where attendance is mandatory for class representatives, and encouraged for everyone else. Starting at this point would not only be constitutionally possible for local students’ unions, but would reach students in the classroom while they’re on campus. Minimizing students’ efforts to get them involved is critical, especially when tuition fees mean that you also have to work two jobs to stay afloat. Professors also become critical at this level, as access to their classes requires a level of support for the movement.
The most important critique of Platt’s piece, though, is that the ROC is not a homogenous mass. The differences that exist among the students’ unions in Halifax alone cannot be ignored. Writing solely about one’s experience with the AMS at UBC (arguably one of Canada’s most bureaucratic and least political forces out there) and CUSA at Carleton (a service-heavy students’ union where campaigns this year have been eliminated by the current regime) doesn’t effectively capture the reality of the Canadian scene.
I was elected to the Ryerson Students’ Union where I think we did the best we could to balance our services (two businesses, taking back control of our student centre, the pub and the cafe, grade appeals help, health plan and five equity service groups, events etc.), but I know we could have done more. And, these things are always evolving. The current executive is probably doing more than we were able to achieve. While there are students’ unions I would consider to be comparable to RSU in size, scope and campaigns work, I’m under no illusion that RSU represented anything more than itself.
That’s the danger of these generalizations. Both applied to the ROC and to the Québec student movement, they are somewhat helpful, but not really.
Although, at the very least, I’ve just leaked 1156 words on this. Brian Platt gets all the credit for that.