Why students in the Rest of Canada aren’t a homogenous mass

8 Aug

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.


5 Responses to “Why students in the Rest of Canada aren’t a homogenous mass”

  1. Ian Boyko August 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Well done and badly needed given Platt’s shallow analysis. One thing you didn’t tackle that needs some acknowledgement is this idea of his that if something is wildly successful, that means that everything else except for that thing are failures. Monochrome lens.

    • Nora Loreto August 8, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

      Thanks. This is a really important point. Aside from the fact that yes, thousands of students have rallied in cities that are not in Québec (just this past year even), you’re right. There needs to be better analyses than this. When Montreal has a rally of 300,000, and “only” 15,000 rally in Québec City, “only” 8,000 rally in Gatineau, these are no more failures than when “only” 3,000 students rally in Halifax or “only” 80 students rally at McMaster. Each of these are successes and activists should be working to exceed the attendance of the last event they held.

  2. Morgan Crockett (@MorganCrockett) August 9, 2012 at 5:15 am #

    I would like to begin with a thank you for sharing this with me. I found Mr. Pratt’s article rather interesting and to have a CFS point of view to comment on it has been eye opening, as it seems commentary from dedicated CFS’ers are hard to come by.

    The argument of Platt is sorely missed though. I believe he was trying to get across that to be both a corporation and a mobilizer is not just time & resource consuming, but also problematic in terms of structuring. Unions in Québec are (generally) not concentrated on running like a business and rarely seek executive decisions or leadership. They seek to make all inclusive associations. Structurally, unions are an upside down hierarchy where each and every executive are elected by the members at large not to make decisions on behalf of them in a business sense, but to do the boring paper work for the members. As for service centres such as the racialised student collective or womens centres, I think that is a Québec problem that runs way deeper than simply not having those services offered in our unions. QC also tends to use different methods of involving marginalized groups. At the moment, both presidents of the FECQ & FEUQ, and the two spokespersons for the CLASSE are all women so I do not believe masculinity is a current problem. Procedures in almost all Francophone schools, give priority to Queer or woman speakers at meetings or General Assemblies. For Ontario/CDN schools it is also a bit odd to create these centres to level the political field, when there is no field.

    For General Assembly models, you seem to be stuck on the idea of representative democracy. QC student movement, may have its instances of such a structure but direct democracy is where we find our bliss and is by far the most widely used. Opening up so that any student can vote on decisions of their association is imperative. If a vote on striking were to take place, any student should be able to discuss and debate for as long as they see fit and then have the chance to vote on the fate of their union. True grassroots movements is not just lessening concentration of power, but abolishing it completely. No student will feel the need to picket for a strike that was decided by leaders. No students will understand why they are even striking because they did not get to debate and finally use critical thinking in practice along with their fellow students.

    On another note, there are many reasons to which Ontario or Canada may not (and quite probably won’t ever) have a legitimate general student strike. From culture to structure we cannot just copy paste an uprising of a people. And of course the French chants are just so much catchier!

    If I am not mistaken, CUSA only cut one campaign, making it singular and it was replaced with one created by actual students. Another thing to which CDN movement does not seem to have. Material and campaigns should not be just crafted in an office and sent to hundreds of thousands of students. Though 1000 flashy signs that say DROP FEES may make for a great photo op, it stunts students creativity & involvement. I agree Canada is not homogenous, but neither are it’s students.

    (by the way, I had no clue until I read this that not all executives are chosen in other systems by the members at large. like. wut.. how?!!? the differences shock me.)

    • Nora Loreto August 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

      Are you referring to CEGEP students’ unions not being corporate entities? Because I know that FAECUM, CADEUL and the Concordia Students’ Union are all large, corporate students’ unions and, in the case of CSU at least, mobilize quite well. In fact, CSU and RSU are surprisingly similar in terms of size, budget, services and businesses.

      I don’t think it’s good enough to blame this on structures alone. There are too many different structures out there for them to be able to produce the same result. It’s also defeatist and ignores some facts. In NFLD, when ancillary fees are factored in the equation, they pay less for university than students in Québec. Not only that, but they have had the most progressive tuition fee reductions in Canada for the past 15 or so years. Their models of organizing in that province are working. You have to ignore a lot of diversity from province to province, region to region, small university to college to graduate students’ unions for this point to be true. There are dozens of graduate students’ unions across Canada that are organized such that they’re less likely to be large business-coordinating entities. By this logic, they should be the ones on the front lines, striking all the time.

      “If I am not mistaken, CUSA only cut one campaign, making it singular and it was replaced with one created by actual students” I think you are mistaken in the CUSA situation. When the coordinator of the Queer students’ centre on campus is advocating for a campaign to be maintained and a board of mostly non-Queer students votes against it, that’s a problem. Actually, I would argue that that’s homophobic, but I’d need more details of what went on for me to get into that argument.

      Let’s be clear, however. My point of view isn’t “a CFS point of view.” I’ve been heavily involved with the organization, yes, but I’m a human with my own autonomy and mind. A decade of work in the student movement has given me insight and access to seeing how students across Canada organize themselves, in every province. When I write about these issues, I’m speaking on behalf of the CFS in as much as I’m speaking on behalf of Québecers or on behalf of my peers at the University of Saskatchewan. That is to say, not at all. The discussion about the student movement in Canada is seriously lacking nuance and I think we all benefit from learning how each other works, emulating what we can, improving on it and engaging and enfranchising students on our campuses.

      • Morgan Crockett (@MorganCrockett) August 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

        ULaval & UdeM are widely known as the more “right-wing” campuses as well as McGill. As for Concordia they were (are to some) involved in the CFS, leading to a more services based union. Though, as for businesses they only own Reggies and lease a café They of course turned back to a good mix in time for the current strike. Concordia had few departments who continued its grêve générale illimitée, UdeM had few departments, and I am not as knowledgeable about ULaval but as far as I know they did not go far either. The services that are offer by UQAM or other schools are also co-op based. Where other unions in Canada own café’s and hire students (sometimes), CEGEPS have student run lounges where everything is completely free of admin and business like tactics. Used books are also co-op style and run by students.

        Newfoundland also had many other reasons for keeping their tuition fees low. I don’t believe there was really a recent gov’t who needed to be organised against.

        And thought it might not be on behalf of the CFS your point of view is definitely CFS style. Theres a difference.

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