Tag Archives: Canadian Federation of Students

The enemy of my enemy is never my ally: A critique of the CFS disaffiliation drives

5 Sep

“16 schools want to leave CFS,” declares Ethan Cox at his rabble.ca and Canada.com blogs. 16 schools — sensationalized even from the press release it references, issued by the students organizing the disaffiliation petition drive.

Like a playbook from a Manning Centre workshop, the release dropped during the first week back to school at most campuses, right in time to feed the student press.

We expect these attacks from the right. We, progressives who work within organizations that are well-resourced and have the potential to seriously disrupt the status quo, face these attacks regularly. They’re easy to understand when they come from the right. They’re harder to square when the come from the so-called left.

I say “so-called” because I don’t think anyone who allies themselves with the right to call for the whole-scale destruction of a progressive entity, especially without building an alternative, can call themselves progressive without being laughed at.

This goes for unions, this goes for the NDP and it goes for the Canadian Federation of Students.

The CFS is impressive for a lot of reasons. After decades of growth, it has the resources to drive higher education policy in many provinces, and can offer students services that do save money. In the 1990s, when the organization was taken over by Liberals, the idea that the CFS would take a position against war, Islamophobia, racism or even call for free education would have been hilarious.

Fast forward a decade and a half and the CFS is on the front lines of each of those struggles. It defends students’ right to choose in the face of extreme backlash. It staunchly opposes war and militarism. It defends free higher education.

I mention these victories to not say that the organization doesn’t deserve criticism, but to try and contextualize the current “attack.” When you get past the petty personal shit (and, I assure you, every single person who isn’t controlled by the Liberal or Conservative party has been burned by or developed beefs with someone at the CFS), there’s simply no current, progressive argument in favour of disaffiliation on which to stand.

Advocating for the mass exodus of membership in the CFS does only two things. Spoiler alert: neither of those things is to build the communist, revolutionary organization that some claim they want.

The first result is that it will open a space for the most resourced campus activists to fill it. While it can be hard for anarchists or socialists to accept, these activists will not be progressive. They will be funded by the Liberal and Conservative parties. They will hide behind the veneer of the left until the left falls apart because it divides itself even further and they will win.

While the dissenters’ press release says that some of the students who are mobilizing to leave the CFS want to create an ASSE-like alternative, they idiotically state: “But even if students have no desire to join a new organizing body, they should still consider terminating their membership in the CFS.”

Real progressive, folks. Damn the CFS and, in its place, we’ll take nothing.

Nothing comes of nothing and nothing isn’t an alternative.

The other natural outcome is what worries me the most. As a former staff person of the organization, I have had more than my share of grievances with the organization. As I know how hard it is to work and make change, build consensus, actually organize and realize a new, progressive project, I also know that writing a blog littered with factual inaccuracies to burn an organization that once burned your friends is way easier.

But these kinds of attacks will actually stop the leadership of the CFS from implementing the reforms, campaigns or new organizing strategies that it desperately needs. Instead, they’ll focus on these disaffiliation campaigns, fight them on the ground and resources for broad-based organizing will vanish.

Well-meaning students who want their national federation to be more militant, will find themselves stuck defending the very existence of the CFS rather than organizing for free education. These attacks stymie the expression of the very politics it claims to promote.

Many of those named on this petition went about “reforming” the CFS through hammering its bureaucracy: its bylaws and policies. It must have been a huge surprise to find out that, by and large, unless you have severe social awkwardness issues, no one cares about bylaw changes.

What students care about is the campaigns, the demands, the militant action and the ability of their national or provincial organization to influence the public debate. Claiming that the CFS cannot be reformed because you un-strategically walked in with a crowbar, swung it at some bylaws and talked about lawsuits in vague enough terms that most delegates tuned out, is living in a fantasy world.

You want to reform the CFS? You have to engage. You have to win the arguments at general meetings and the actually do the work on the ground. You have to lead with campaigns and services and build community — the aspects of the organization that students actually care about, rather than engaging in some spun-out tale about how your former roommate was once called a name by a national office staffer (for example).

You have to work toward progressive change in a good way, with good intentions and with lots of hard work. If you can’t see that the CFS is an organization with the resources to be turned into a dangerously progressive force, your personal rage is clouding your judgment.

I chose to not take on the facts contained within blog posts already written (even though since yesterday, Cox’s blog went from the CFS was suing Concordia Students’ Union to it being the opposite, but what are a few facts when a personal vendetta is on the line?) and I also chose to not focus on another legitimate but issue-obscuring argument (like, why is there not one list of all 15 or 16 schools? Are we talking 16 students at 16 schools? 30 students at 10 schools but different students’ unions? 10,000 students at U of T? etc.) I could do both, and will if there’s enough demand.

I also didn’t investigate the actual ties to the Conservative party (though, it’s worth mentioning that the Laurentian undergraduate CFS rep, presumably included in the disgruntled Laurentian University group, is a former staffer for Tony Clement and Conservative Party activist.) I didn’t do this because it’s well documented. I’ve written about it before and, as more “leaders” emerge from behind the so-called radical left leading this charge, its face will become more obvious.

Just like in 2009, the last time this strategy was attempted, the left may be the face now, but on the ground, the pieces will be set up and knocked down by the right.

Any so-called progressive that’s willing to ally with these forces to settle a score should have their head shaken.

 

Personal disclosure: Until August, I was a member of the Canadian Federation of Students/CFS-Saskatchewan. That’s my only formal interaction with the organization since I left my job there in June 2012. I was previously Communications and Government Relations Coordinator for the CFS-Ontario. I now live in Québec where, contrary to what some Anglophones say in Montreal, I’ve found that no one here cares about the Canadian Federation of Students. I have been asked by several people to respond, not one of which works or holds a position with the CFS currently or ever.

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Drawing blood from stones: the relentless tuition fee hike

28 Mar

ABasQPsmallOntario announced a new tuition fee framework today. It’s the first time that the Liberal government has changed it in seven years

In 2006, Dalton McGuinty punched students in the face with a five per cent, on average, fee increase. It was supposed to last four years, but was extended, painfully, until 2012.

During the 2011 Ontario election, the Liberals introduced a grant to help offset the burden of these fees for some students. To those of us who spent days analyzing the Liberal proposal and strategy, it was clear that they had hoped to divert some of the negative attention on their tuition policy by offering a confusing, runner-up prize.

In the same vein, the kinder, gentler Liberal party, now lead by a grandmother rather than a seemingly ageless dad, is trying to help students out.

Today, they announced that the fee increases: 5% for most programs, 8% for the programs where university administrators want to screw students the hardest, has been replaced with 3% and 5% respectively.

McGuinty’s (and now Wynne’s) fee increases were historic: they pushed Ontario’s fees to be the most expensive and they allowed for different fees to be charged to different programs. Today’s increase puts tuition on track to double under the Liberal reign alone.

Now, students sitting in a second-year elective are paying a combination of a bunch of different fees for the same class. I say “a bunch” because I stopped counting at 10 different combinations, depending on the year they started, the actual year of the class, their program of study or their citizenship. Yes, added bureaucracy is necessary to keep track of these divisions. Yes, students will pay more and receive the same instruction as other students.

This was a clever idea: charge incoming students the most (because high school students don’t protest), charge engineering students the most (because they’re way too busy to protest), charge graduate students the most (because they’re too busy rocking back and forth under their desks to protest) and charge international students the most (because Jason Kenney will deport them if they protest).

For some, it has meant an increase of more than 71%.

High tuition fees are the best example of the insanity of austerity. Despite the fact that people who are better educated will earn more and pay more taxes (thereby paying for the cost of their education), Kathleen Wynne and her Neoliberal crew don’t care about the facts. They care about privatization. They care about eliminating the public system by stealth so that they don’t have to pay for it.

Indeed, Liberal, Tory… you know the rest.

Some “student groups” call it a step in the right direction. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a smaller step in the same direction. And, when walking towards a cliff, any steps in the direction of the cliff will lead to the same result. Wynne has smaller legs than McGuinty, this is just a difference in stride.

Actual students know that any tuition fee increase is simply going to exacerbate an already crisis situation. The Liberals hope that the pressures that are created by high tuition fees will be enough to continue to keep Ontario students quiet. And, it may. The crushing combination of high fees, high rents, youth unemployment and needing to, you know, live, depoliticizes and disenfranchises.

But, there is a breaking point. The question will just be how it manifests among Ontarians.

Today’s announcement does not come in a vacuum. The sustained political pressure that students have placed on the Liberals has helped to “win” this policy. The highly unpopular 30% off grant exposed a floundering, rudderless Liberal party that realized that they were losing the war over the message. Ontario students should take some comfort in that.

But the other political context, the waves made by the student protests last year in Québec must also be considered. The impact their protests had on Ontarians, to teach that another system is possible, cannot be understated. The Maple Spring created spaces in Ontario where student activists could actually talk about free tuition fees and be taken seriously by their peers.

That’s the power of a peoples’ movement: raising consciousness and building capacity. Ontario was lucky to benefit from some side effects. Québec students will be reaping the harvest of their work for years to come, and the story isn’t anywhere near finished yet.

But the 3% fee increase is a necessary reminder: Wynne, bowing to pressure and trying to distance herself publicly from McGuinty settled on a tuition fee increase lower than the past seven years. In Québec, Pauline Marois picked the same percentage to increase students’ fees, despite the fact that she rolled in on a wave that was absolutely opposing a hike. What’s the lesson here?

The line between demands made by social movements and minor policy changes is sometimes direct, sometimes crooked and most times non-existent. Marois tricked Québecers into voting PQ and turned around and went all Charest on them. Wynne was elected as the moderately progressive alternative and has turned around and gone all McGuinty on Ontarians.

Meanwhile, students in both provinces will be paying 3% more next fall.

Political ideology is the domain of the Conservatives. Today, the remaining Neoliberal parties are populist, gauging where public interest is and governing accordingly. Under these conditions neither Ontarians nor Québecers have any chance of witnessing fundamental change. Austerity and populism has too great a control over the brains of our politicians. Instead, we’ll have to force it.

What the student movement in Québec does is reminds us that these battles, if fought and won in the streets, will be won by the people. The campaign will last longer than a semester. It’s origins will be theorizable but it’s effects can only be told in retrospect. Its existence gives hope and a path to follow.

So Ontarians, how will you play your hand?

Allegations of allegations of racism and debate obscuring at the CFS general meeting

5 Dec

Racism, accusations of racism and white people.

This trio has stymied many an activist, especially when he or she believes the stakes to be high enough to warrant pulling out this special collision of criticism. When the three collide, accidents are bound to be made.

At the last meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students, this collision played out on Twitter. Representatives from the Dawson Students’ Union claimed either the entire CFS, the national executive or about 100 delegates said that Québec’s student movement is racist (the variations on a theme are from DSU representative Morgan Crockett’s Twitter feed). Crockett neglected to be less ambiguous, instead fanning the rumour mill online and repeating the claim rather than identifying the source or providing context, leaving questions about whether or not anyone actually said anything close to this.

Technically unrelated, though perhaps related to this tactic, the motions that her students’ union served were rejected by other students there. Two DSU reps were unsuccessful in their electoral bids for National Executive positions.

She argued that saying that the students’ union general assembly model privileges the involvement of people with privilege was tantamount to declaring an entire province’s student population as racist.

With 300 delegates at a General Meeting, characterizing anything other than a motion being passed as something that “the CFS” supports is a lie. Thanks to the system of motions passing and failing, determining what it is that the CFS supports or opposes is really easy to figure out.

Last May, for example, the CFS lauded the Québec student movement, encouraged civil disobedience against Law 78, organized two casseroles protests to join with local Gatineau students during the five-day meeting and made a donation of $30,000 to defend students who were targeted during the protests.

So, if Crockett is to be believed, all of the work in May was done to support what many of the same people now think is a racist movement?

I can’t do the necessary mental gymnastics to get myself to believe that.

Crockett didn’t explain the source of the comments, so we’re left to either ignore her, challenge her or believe her. Unfortunately, folks at ASSÉ chose to believe her.

In response to Crockett’s Tweets, Jérémie Bédard-Wien from ASSÉ wrote “Racism and perceptions of the Quebec student movement.” It assumes that Crockett’s Twitter ranting characterized some actual position or discussion. He finishes his article with this: “However, to discount general assemblies or, more generally, structural change on that basis is not only mistaken: it is a political smokescreen used to draw attention away from awkward, yet necessary debates about direct democracy. Because the Quebec example is not one of racism.”

I have yet been able to find proof of anyone discounting general assemblies or structural changes within the Canadian student movement as being necessary to build something similar to what transpired in Québec this year. There were no motions calling for the use of or reorientation towards a general assembly model at the meeting.

Crockett is a vocal critic of the other student federations in Québec, and I suspect ASSÉ has identified DSU as a potential member. However, as membership in ASSÉ and CFS would be possible, I see no reason for the approach taken by Bédard-Wien in his article.

The other question is the one that is at the heart of the debate: the role of anti-oppressive structures in decision making versus the open, general assembly model that will undoubtedly reproduce society’s oppression when in action if oppression is unaddressed. Our societies (here, I refer to Canada, the society I have the most experience with, and Québec, my new home) were built to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. Structures that we create are naturally going to reproduce this inequality.

But identifying this as a fact doesn’t say that the people who participate in these structures are all racist. Claiming so could be seen as an annoying distortion, perhaps leveled by someone frustrated with another aspect of a general meeting in which she (or he) was participating.

Gender speaking lists and identity caucuses try to mitigate the influence of oppression reproducing itself. Where CFS has work to do in other areas, it remains a leader in its approach to ensuring that decisions are discussed and motions are amended in spaces where people of various shared identities are able to meet, organize and be heard.

Rather than being dismissive or even defensive when claims of racism or exclusion are leveled against us or organizations in which we are involved, progressive people should step back and take the time to reflect. This is not a criticism of Bédard-Wien.

For him and ASSÉ, my criticism is this: I don’t think his article reflected the solidarity needed between the two organizations. Allegations like this deserve a phone call to the CFS Chairperson and a demand for clarification, not a response to a fabricated or exaggerated story.

But the more than 300 student representatives present at this general meeting have a responsibility too. They must ensure that the characterization of their meeting was how they experienced it.

The stories about the good, the bad, the inspiring and the frustrating add to the collective history of the student movement on this territory. Don’t leave it up to a few people with Twitter accounts to erase your story and alter how you experienced your meeting.

After all, if someone claims you’ve said people are racists and you don’t respond, the vacuum of voices will respond for you.

Lobbying, activism and non mutual exclusivity

22 Oct

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.