General Assemblies, student movements and Québec’s cégeps

6 Nov

Half of the members’ meeting at Ryerson Students’ Union, Nov, 2010 (courtesy: The Eyeopener)

Having watched most of the Québec student protests from Ontario, I’ve obviously spent hours thinking about the differences between the Québec student movement and the Ontario student movement. And I’ve come up with a few theories that I hope to write into something…someday.

Luckily, others have similar questions as I do. Doug Nesbitt, PhD student at Queen’s and the local PSAC president, has done some thinking on this. And so, because I’ve spent most of my day dealing with the bureaucracy of the state in French and my brain is fried, I’m sharing with you what he’s posted at his blog. Nothing I write next will be as good as his analysis…

Doug focuses on the role of General Assemblies and how they have helped to build Québec’s movement into what it is today. I agree that GAs have been critical to politicizing generations of students. They have helped to circumvent conservative student leadership and maintain the necessary accountability of those students who “float to the top” of a formal students’ union’s executive.

But I can’t believe that it’s *just* General Assemblies. While GAs politicize students who attend them, what is the factor getting students in the door in the first place?

At Ryerson, our General Meetings would normally reach 150 students while more contentious meetings may have topped out at 400. At McMaster University last year, thanks to a heavy advertising campaign and the promise of the MOST AMAZING FROSH WEEK EVAAARRRR more than 600 students attended the MSU GA to vote in favour of an ancillary fee hike. It’s hard to explain how this is possible if we look only at the GA model and how it has fueled generations of activists in Québec. These Ontario examples don’t make sense.

I think that the most significant reason for the differences in the student movements in Ontario and Québec isn’t just the decision-making structure, it’s the role of cégeps.

During my time in the student movement, I always found graduate/second degree/college transfer students easier to organize. They came to their new educational tier with baggage: debt from a previous degree/diploma/certificate, experience (sometimes negative) from another degree (and even school) and maturity that grew out of their first round of post-secondary education. They spent more time in the system and were more ready to challenge what they had witnessed in their first educational experiences as being unjust, but not necessarily having the time, opportunity or willingness to act. I found my work to explain the effects of debt, tuition fees, large classes etc. was always easier with these students as they had an experience that we could link the facts to.

Imagine if Ontario’s colleges were full of students who had already done a few years at college? Imagine every student walked into a university already having experienced the soul-crushing bureaucracy of higher education? The context for organizing would be entirely different.

There’s a reason why cégep students lead the strikes in Québec. The dangerous combination of free higher education, a radicalizing movement and participatory democracy blew up into an amazing student strike. And every university student involved in the strike had been introduced to the student movement either directly or indirectly through their time at cégep.

This has to be said: identifying this difference isn’t to say that it is impossible for Ontario students to organize provincially in the way Québec students have. I think it’s critical that if Ontario students are going to figure out how best to carve out their own movement, the right analyses of the differences (and similarities) are necessary to lead to appropriate organizing techniques.

I have a lot more to say about this…and it’s later than I had intended to be up (and I wrote more than I intended to write) but I will flesh this out. I’m interested in feedback too, as always, but especially on this. The history of the student movement (or movements) hasn’t been told well enough…and who better to tell it than those of us who’ve been there.

4 Responses to “General Assemblies, student movements and Québec’s cégeps”

  1. Jess at 2:19 pm #

    Hey, so I am not sure either GAs or cégeps are the whole story. There is also the unique history of Quebec in the mix, and the fact that strike tradition was born in a moment when anything seemed possible: 1968. Because it goes back that far, almost every adult in Quebec has either been directly or indirectly involved in a strike at least once, and some several times. Finally, I would add the factor that, like it or not, having low fees makes it easier to organize. That big price tag is a significant obstacle for a lot of people. It seems to us that it should actually make people more likely to want to take action, but there’s a reason also that demographically, people with lower incomes have lower participation rates in electoral politics. More to be angry about does not equal more likely to act.

    Also, GAs can’t explain it because actually, many student unions outside Quebec do have GA structures. It doesn’t necessarily help. You still have to organize. The tradition goes way beyond just GAs; it’s a syndicalist tradition of student unionism that centres on bottom-up organizing.

    I have other factors in mind as well, but no time to write. Will try to come back later….

    • Nora Loreto at 6:24 pm #

      I purposely avoided talking about the affect of tuition fees because I knew that would double the length, but I agree, that’s a huge factor in how much risk a student is willing to take. I also think that the ability of administrations and government to infiltrate the Ontario student movement has also played a major role, which I hope to write about later. Can’t wait for the other factors…

  2. Mac Student at 10:04 pm #

    I find it interesting how people assume structure alone is what is required for social change. Structure can definitely help facilitate social change, but it is not part in parcel. What is required is instead is outreach and organizing. As a McMaster student I can tell you first hand it is higher political consciousness of the students and leadership(not in a formal sense) among the students that is needed.

    We at McMaster got scammed by the promise of the best welcome week ever, and instead of the best welcome week ever with an ancillary fee hike, the administration pulled its original funding of welcome week to instead be covered entirely by the new ancillary student fees.

    This revolution by rote is totally bullshit dogma. The conditions and requirements for social change cannot simply be imported from one area to the next. We can simply learn. I find it incredible that people so passionated and inspired by the Quebec student strike dont realize that these same structures are in place in many Ontario Campuses. We have departmental associations, we have faculty associations, we also have general assemblies. Do we have an advanced political consciousness on our campuses? Usually the answer is no.

    The structure is far less important than organized and mobilized students. You do not organize a workplace by having general assemblies, you do it by winning over the workers. Why is it so different for students?

  3. Doug at 10:24 pm #

    Thanks for responding/adding to the article!

    The CEGEPs, the different history of struggle, lower fees and other factors are all involved. The GA is definitely not the only difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada, but it is a difference that we could get rid of in a short period of time while hopefully opening up space for organizing and educating students and making collective decisions in an empowering way. There’s certainly no guarantee that the GA will radicalize students and marginalize the right – this will take a lot of organizing. But I think in principle introducing the GAs a democratic reform is important.

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