The Canadian Federation of Students’ annual lobby week is happening right now in Ottawa and some unsophisticated trolling from a cyber activist (those two words cancel each other out, by the way) has motivated me to write this.
What’s the point of lobbying? Is lobbying activism? Can we achieve anything through lobbying?
When I worked at CFS my job was to be “the” lobbyist in Ontario. With the elected reps and other staff, I’d coordinate and attend meetings with MPs, MPPs city councilors and bureaucratic staff. All in, I’d spend probably about 20 per cent of my time on lobbying and related activities (like writing submissions) and 60 per cent organizing (the rest of my time was administrative/report writing). So, despite the fact that I was supposed to be lobbying the most, I spent way more time organizing than lobbying. While the CFS engages in lobbying, it hardly represents a majority of its campaigns work.
But why lobby at all? If the state bureaucracy and system of government is rotten, why waste our time engaging with it?
This is a really good question. While sitting in meetings with MPs hearing racist comments flow as if the man is talking about the weather, I’d often find myself wondering what the hell I was doing in that meeting and if it was worth my time.
First off, lobbying is important for young people to engage in. Young people need to have the veneer of power vanish before their eyes in a meeting with a politician so that they can more easily challenge and speak truth to power. I have seen many, many times, the scales fall from students’ eyes during their first meeting with a politician. We would always hold our breath until we reach the elevator, then we vent. “Are all politicians this scattered/bumbling/out of touch/dangerously unqualified/etc.?” I’ve been asked probably hundreds of times.
(I’m actually considering piling my experiences with lobbying politicians into a book. The things I’ve witnessed…).
Lobbying is also important because students’ enemies engage in it. In Ontario, where the common criticism of the CFS is that it’s too activist, Ontario students have to go through the painful process of meeting with politicians who have otherwise heard from “students” from “student organizations” (the quotes are a replacement for the word “scab”) and who, after being given a pat on the back from these “students,” actually believe that their policies are helping. So, unlike in Québec where CLASSE members could assume that at least the FEUQ and FECQ were saying that they oppose tuition fee hikes when they would meet with government, students in Ontario, or students who lobby federally can’t make the same assumption. Instead, you have the asinine opinion of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the last powerhouse of the Liberal Party of Canada, that tuition fees aren’t a federal matter and so they actually refuse to address the question of tuition fees (never mind that tuition fees and student debt are kind of related, and that the Canada Student Loans Program gives out the majority of aid to Canadian students, or that federal transfer cuts fuel tuition fee increases.) So, when CFS reps walk into an MP’s office and notice a CASA coaster sitting on the coffee table (really), they know that they are not only presenting students’ priorities, but that they’re also trying to undo some of the work done by those students propped up by the Liberals or administrators.
On Friday night, I was asked whether or not I thought street demonstrations or lobbying won victories in Ontario.
Of course, the answer has to be that it’s in the streets where victories are won. But, it is possible to make policy changes through lobbying too. This shouldn’t be ignored. While the real fight is in the streets, making changes that allow for international students to work off campus (an important victory through lobbying, for example) is really important for the students it affects. This is my third reason for why lobbying is important. While the ultimate goal for the CFS and many student activists is free higher education, some people do have to engage in the painful work of fighting for minor policy changes. And, while rallying for more Ontario Graduate Scholarship funding is what most graduate students dream about (in between all that writing they have to do to win the funding, then actually carrying out the research), lobbying does play a role in making changes like these. Funding to OGS was increased by 50 per cent in 2010 thanks solely to lobbying and solely to the lobby work of the CFS.
The existence of well-resourced, highly-controlled or front organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, the College Student Alliance or CASA makes lobbying a necessity for the CFS.
The good news is that not everyone has to do it.
Some of us, me included, have a special talent for talking to people who we fundamentally disagree with. It’s not for everyone. But for the few on the left who can stomach this life, they/we shouldn’t be made into the targets of other progressives’ crossbows.
So, if you’re the kind of dude (sorry dudes but it’s SO OFTEN DUDES!!) who likes to rail against Ontario students for not doing enough because they haven’t landed 300,000 people in the streets of Toronto demanding free education, I must insist you troll someone else. Start with someone actually *with* power. There absolutely are problems within the Ontario student movement and the national student movement, but those problems are not “Lobby Week.” They are more fundamental and are the result of a failure of generations of activists to get their shit together and actually build something that could grow into a broader progressive movement. Unfortunately, the CFS is left to re-create itself year over year through new and young activists, while a broader social movement structure, ready to absorb aging student activists, simply doesn’t exist.
It’s not the fault of the 18-year-old who just got elected to council because she believes in free education, and when you make her the target, it’s just because, deep down, you know you’ve failed to build anything better than what she’s found herself involved in.