Tag Archives: Québec

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.

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.

Ontario students: it’s time to step up

10 Sep

In 2005 during the last college professor strike, CSA organized students to protest their professors by wearing pawn hats and making signs like these.

I’m writing this listening to April 26 1992 by Sublime. If you’ve never heard it, you must. It was in Québec City where I first heard this song many years ago and, having had the FTAA protests, it’s a pretty appropriate place to be introduced to such a song.

So, while writing this, I’m inspired by songs of rioting. I just thought it was useful for you to know that.

This week, Statistics Canada should release its tuition fee data. If it’s like the past two years it will come out late next week. Or, if it’s like the 2 years before that, late October.

Québec students just had a massive victory. After the longest student strike in Canadian history, a high profile campaign that embarrassed the hell out of the establishment and sticking to principles of direct democracy, they managed to block the hike like they said they would. They also embarrassed the hell out of Jean Charest who’s next political step will have to be behind the veil of patronage that is given to all failed politicians who, despite having received a veritable shit kicking, still slide their selves into high paying consultant positions or new, high profile law firms.

Actually, if Charest receives anything less than a Senate appointment, my guess is that we can assume he was snubbed. Or maybe he’ll take over for Dalton McGuinty.

Now, for activists who believe that higher education should be free, this isn’t a total victory. The PQ will continue to increase tuition fees by the rate of inflation, but it’s much better than what Charest was promising.

Indeed, the students have won enough hearts and minds of Québecers to truly influence government.

Québec’s fees will remain relatively stable next week in StatsCan’s data. So will Newfoundland and Labrador’s, where students, united, have been successful at rolling back tuition fees at a rate unseen in any other Canadian province.

For Ontario, the data will demonstrate, again, that students will be paying more. With the seventh consecutive tuition fee increase of up to 8%, Ontario’s tuition fee gap as the most expensive province in which to study will continue to widen. On average, undergrad tuition fees will likely rise from $6,640 per year to $6,972. That’s nearly $7K *on average*.  For graduate students, their average fees will likely be around $8,184 (this number is misleading: StatsCan has admitted to excluding MBA tuition fees from this calculation because, as they told us at the CFS at the start of this practice, it skews the average…. wtf).

None of what I’ve written here, though, will be a surprise to any student who has just received their tuition fee bill.

This is the fault of neo-liberal wolves wearing some sheepskin trying to pretend that they’re of the enlightened humanist class (just read the Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities says online…) Ontario students cannot afford to keep accepting these tuition fee hikes.

And yet, “student” organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the College Student Alliance strangle any hope of activism on their campus through their confusing use of doublespeak, faulty logic and outright lies. OUSA’s last major submission boasted that they had the plan to increase quality without any additional cost. This, coming from an organization that supports higher tuition fees, is outrageous and certainly not reflecting the opinions of anyone on their campuses who aren’t members of the Young Liberals or babysitting the houses of their university administrators. The College Student Alliance was too busy playing a public relations game to support college management during OPSEU’s recent round of negotiations to even discuss quality or tuition fees any time recently on their website, though their last coherent position on tuition fees was that they should rise by (wait for it………) five per cent.

Ontario students have to take back the student organizing on their campuses. They have to approach their students’ unions, use their resources and organize through the structures that they can access. If, like at McMaster University, their General Assemblies have been taken over by Liberal/Conservative students who are only interested in raising student fees to give the administration more money for student activities, the students have to rise up and take back their students’ union.

It’s absurd that Ontario students, studying right beside Québec, pay three times more for the same education. The only difference is that students in Ontario have been betrayed by all three political parties and the popular movements that support lower fees are more organized in Québec.  So, some lessons:

College students: take back your students’ unions. College students in Québec have *free* education and you can too. You need to get organized, take control back from student union staff who have built fiefdoms around them and kick them out. It’s your money, it’s your campus and it’s your right.

University students: everything I said for college students goes for you too, other than the free education part. Get organized. Reject the rhetoric of “pragmatic lobbying” that so many Liberal-controlled students’ unions hide behind and democratize your students’ unions.

If you go to a school where your students’ union is a member of the Canadian Federation of Students, your task will be easier. Show up one day and volunteer, call a general assembly or organize an action. If you find it isn’t that simple, leave a message below and I’ll hook you up.

Québec (and Newfoundland and Labrador) show Ontario students that it is possible. It’s totally possible. All it takes is strategy, solidarity, some risk-taking, creativity and a relentless drive for fairness and justice for you and your classmates.

Welcome back to school. I too have three classes this semester and will be feeling your pain..though as a student through the University of Saskatchewan, my tuition fees this year were lower than they were at Ryerson when I started in 2003.

Fear not a discussion on sovereignty.

4 Sep

“If you look at Québec solidaire, they’re a hard left political party that believes in the separation of our country” –unhelpful rhetoric from Ian Capstick, former NDP staffer, this morning on The Current.

Tonight, eyes across Canada will be on Québec. It’s nice to have everyone pay attention. I didn’t feel like during the last Ontario election the outcome mattered all that much and so no one was watching. It was clear that the PCs had fumbled and the NDP would pick up a few protest votes cast to spite the Liberals more than support the NDP. In retrospect, there probably would have been no difference between a McGuinty ultra majority, or a Conservative majority, so Québec’s election is a good reminder that sometimes, yes, elections matter.

There’s been a lot of scary writing by people about how we’re all doomed if (when) the PQ wins.

In the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election, the best insult Liberals could hurl at Mulcair is that he’s a separatist (which, to argue this must ignore nearly all of his political past).

Inspired by what I’ve seen online this past week, I’m writing to assure you, dear Canadian, that there’s no reason to be worried about the future of Canada as it may or may not hinge on tonight’s results. No, you should worry about the future of Canada for other reasons.

Some people use Québec to scare non-Québec Canadians to whip up nationalistic feelings of patriotism so that we simply fall in line. Just like Marois has done to avoid talking about real policies, commentators in the ROC are doing the same thing. It’s easy to scare people with the belief that Canada is about to collapse because of Québec than to allow Canadians to see which public policies are possible, like 7$/day daycare. If Canadians knew about Québec’s approach to social programs they might just start demanding them in Nova Scotia or Ontario. They might start taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands.

Instead: fear separation. Fear the separatists who hate Canada like terrorists hate freedom.

I can’t bring myself to the level of nationalistic, Canadian fervor to become concerned with the protection and maintenance of Canada’s borders. Despite being an Anglophone living in Québec, studying in Saskatchewan and with all my family in Ontario, I don’t understand the fear that it seems folks have with having this discussion.

Our borders are invented. They run through national lines that had evolved through war, cooperation, familial lines and trade. We had no part in shaping them. They were imposed upon this land by a few people in England and a few people in Canada. Like the myths that surround Pierre Trudeau, our borders have taken on a place in our consciousness that builds them up to be something that they aren’t really.

Québecers have a history of being hyper aware of their place, or non-place, in the Canadian confederation, so it’s no surprise to me that the conversation has traditionally been of sovereignty or federalism. But this dichotomy isn’t good enough. It’s clear to me that we have to evolve this discussion beyond “will I need a passport to visit Québec?”

Québec isn’t going to change the make-up of this Canada. New models of self-governance emerging from First Nations communities are the biggest “threat” to Canadian federalism, and I support these struggles. If First Nations communities can succeed in winning their autonomy from local authorities, and if they can enter into new kinds of relationships with existing provinces or municipalities, well then, we will have a new model on our hands. And it may work for the rest of us too. It would change the face of the Canadian federation for the better.

When I hear about sovereignty, I hear people who are legitimately frustrated and angry with a federal government that they, by in large, did not elect. I hear people outraged that their money is being spent on war rather than education or pharmacare. I hear people who are scared that the relentless drive toward English that exists around the world through the movement of global capital will also wash out the French from this province.

I hear similar frustrations in Ontario and Saskatchewan too. The difference is that the answer isn’t to have a full-scale reexamination of our borders. Instead, there is no answer. It’s normally just sighing, disenfranchisement and anger washed down by a beer.

Our people make up Canada: WE are Canada and people are hurting, bad. When can we talk about the hurt that our borders and our political system have inflicted upon us? And, for the ROC, when can we/you ask the question, what must change to make it better for our communities?

I’ve avoided dissecting the problems with the PQ version of sovereignty so far, of which there are many, just because it’s another post altogether. But the PQ’s wants the easiest path to a free Québec: have a vote, win, declare independence. This isn’t sufficient. It takes on the same nationalistic xenophobia that exists in the rest of Canada, translates it, and uses it to create a mini, French version of what Québec just ceded from. Parizeau’s “money and the ethnic vote” comment in 1995 was a good indication of the problems with how the last push for sovereignty was formulated. I wrote an essay on it in Grade 10 history.

But the current rhetoric from Marois is just real politik. She’s trying to get elected. Her polls are saying that this rhetoric will work in target ridings and she’s going for it. That’s how our democracy works. She’s playing by the same rulebook as all the other mainstream parties. Taking issue with Marois’ approach is to take issue with the manifestation of Canadian democracy itself.

This is why new discussions emerging from Québec solidaire, for example, are so important. Their’s is a new way to approach this issue. It’s inclusive. It offers the rest of Canada a potential model for the reenfranchisement of people everywhere.

Why are partisan political commentators so concerned when we talk about changing those borders?

These debates are dangerous because they threaten the only thing that gives our federal government its legitimacy. Partisans know that if Québec has this discussion, confederation is threatened. Alberta will go next. Then Newfoundland. Then Northwestern Ontario. Political parties could no longer fight each other for total control of the world’s second-largest land mass, the home to 20% of the world’s fresh water.

As you’ve probably heard from an ex…this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

Handwringing over sovereignty is a game of political elites. Don’t get caught up in this debate on their terms. Redefine the terms of the debate and ask yourself critical questions: is there a better way to organize ourselves? How does it look? What would it take to move us there?

As a progressive person, I have to believe that the local decision-making of engaged and involved communities is the most important node of power. I have to believe that community empowerment is the first line of defense in the struggle to take back our democracy and I have to believe that this may result in a rejection of the borders that were imposed on all of us by people we didn’t elect.

I also have to believe that people are near-universally awesome and solidarity means that we create experiences for us to travel, live among communities that we’re unfamiliar with, explore landscapes where we’ve never been and honour the traditions that have come from these lands regardless of the political structure that exists around us.

Controlling borders, granting access to some to enter and imprisoning others is all about power. I don’t want to be part of a system that treats people this way and I’m prepared for the challenge and the work it will take to change this.

To end, I want to acknowledge how painful a process of going through a discussion like this is. I imagine that for many Québecers, the thought of enduring a referendum process is worse than the possible outcomes and the anticipation of this pain (and the memory of it from 1995 and 1980) is enough to not want to touch this question ever again. The question of sovereignty divided people here: neighbours, families and communities. It wasn’t the process that I advocate above. Québecers who endured these campaigns are right to be nervous, frustrated and angry with the PQ’s rhetoric.

But all ye in the rest of Canada do not have a similar right. It’s like feeling like you earned a gold medal when you’re watching someone on the TV flip back and forth on a trampoline. You didn’t earn it. You can’t even flip once on a trampoline.

Don’t fear conversations about sovereignty. Instead, use this discussion to open a space in your community have your own discussions: does the political system we have, accompanied by the borders created to control our movement, our identities and commerce, serve us or oppress us?

And what about for people who aren’t “us”?

Québec’s fragile democracy: the canaries that have died

27 Aug

I’m always on the look out for signs that our democracy is suffering. Luckily, such a hobby means that I’m constantly busy and frustrated with what I see. I wrote this about the threat to our rights to protest that have been obvious both during the student protests of this past year and in Toronto during the G20. Our civil liberties have been under attack since Sept. 11 2001 and those organizations that track this attack are doing really important work.

Democracy is premised on a couple of things: citizens being educated enough to know what’s going on, citizens being allowed to have and demonstrate their own opinions, and citizens having access to run, vote or spoil their ballot during general or special elections. There’s also a bunch of shit that the press is responsible to do, and that it’s mostly failing at, but that’s the subject for another post.

Québec’s election has been fascinating for a lot of reasons, but the persistent assault on democracy is one of the most interesting.

The biggest culprit of playing fast and loose with democracy is the Parti Québecois. Last week, they announced that they would prohibit some Qubécers from running in provincial and municipal elections based on whether or not you can pass a French test, details to be worked out later.

Some facts: in a democracy, all citizens should be allowed to seek office. No political party should be able to declare who can/not run for office. In a free and fair election, people have the right to elect whoever they want regardless of if the person is an old white dude who doesn’t represent people who aren’t old white dudes, someone lacking style, someone with too much style, someone who speaks a language that is not one of Canada’s official languages, and so on. That’s the beauty of democracy. The winner was supported by the largest group of people who voted.

There was an instant backlash. There are some ridings in Québec where English or Cree are the dominant languages and where someone could easily be elected whose French may not pass a language test.

One argument I heard was that it just makes “sense” to ensure that people could speak French. But, I was left wondering: how many sitting MPs would have failed a French test? How many MPs would fail an English test, outside of Québec? Who’s in charge of this new, highly political French test? How hard will it be? (would I pass?)

In response to the backlash, the PQ announced that it would only apply to immigrants (who would only be voting if they were citizens, so, it’s unclear how they’re level of “Anglo/Franco/Allophone-ness” would be measured). It’d be an easy way for the PQ to get rid of a Liberal candidate who could threaten the local PQ candidate.

The PQ is in that grey area that separates majority governments from minority ones, so it’s not surprising that schemes such as these would be pulled out as a way to bolster their support.

Nipping at their heels is Québec Solidaire. They’re the progressive alternative to the PQ and a political party that is also destined for something big, in relative terms. They’ll be fighting for a few more seats, but the places where those seats will be won will likely come from support where the PQ has a chance at winning.

Enter assault on democracy 2: the spectre of “strategic voting.” Similar to every election in Ontario where the NDP has threatened the Liberal votes, the PQ has managed to spin the message in the media that a vote for QS is a vote for Charest. (Although, a vote for the CAQ is a vote for the PQ, says the Liberals. You see how this works?)

Strategic voting attempts to convince people to suspend their critical faculties, hold their nose and vote for someone they wouldn’t vote for normally. They do this because the option of having Charest in for another four years is a worse outcome than voting for the PQ even though your heart belongs to the Khadir-David dream team.

No one should vote under duress but that’s exactly what this argument does. Scare people.

It’s total bullshit.

Luckily, it probably wont work. Especially not with QS. They’re building a movement. If they have 10 people elected or two people elected, the power of QS is the daily work of building a political movement that isn’t just seeking power (like some social democratic parties out there), but that seeks to overhaul the entire system. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t vote for QS either. Vote for that candidate who makes your heart jump. Then hound your MNA as much as you can later on.

Third sign: The Director General of the Québec election has deemed that the red square is a political sign.

Yup, a patch of red felt is a political sign.

Here’s some things that aren’t political signs: Nike shirts, NHL team ball caps, hemp pants, expensive jewelry…

Clothing can make all sorts of political statements. Buttons can too. Short of partisan political material at the polling booth, however, this limit to freedom of expression is another example of how fragile democracy is. The carré rouge is a political symbol but it doesn’t belong to or signify the support of any political party. Just like many people who wear shirts that say Québec Libre with a Québec flag on them may vote PQ (or ON, or QS or CAQ…whoever), people wearing a carré rouge may be more likely to vote for a particular party (or, more accurately, most unlikely to vote Liberal). But demographically speaking, certain kinds of people may also vote for someone based on their age, their language, their sex.

Why signal out young people, the folks who are wearing the carré rouge the most?

People’s electoral convictions must be strong for a democracy to work. The DGE’s attempt to argue that the carré rouge is a partisan symbol is targeting youth who have been politicized through the Printemps Érables and who are exercising their democratic right (many for the first time). What’s worse is that poll clerks are vested with this authority and, on today’s first day of advanced polls, have been reported as barring electors from entering the voting area if they’re wearing a carré rouge.

Yes, democracy is fragile. It’s fragile everywhere but obviously so in Québec.

I didn’t get to write about things like this during the Ontario election, but it’s not because it was a great election. In some ways, Québec is a reminder of what an election looks like when the parties actually stand for something different. HST off [fill in the blank] seems like a ridiculous common chorus from where I sit today.

But with the province on fire politically, it’s the citizens’ responsibility to ensure that democracy is protected.

Even if we’d fail the French test.

DISCLAIMER: Like with many of the other things I’ve written, me focusing on this issue does not mean that I don’t think that other provinces are bastions of democracy or that Québec is the closest it’s been to a fascist state since the 1930s. Just saying that so that it’s clear.

UPDATE 1: Ethan Cox has told me on Twitter that the DGE has said that voters will be allowed to wear the red square. Poll clerks cannot. Too bad that this had to be tested on day one of voting. Great news, though.

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.

Students VS Asbestos THE ULTIMATE SMACK DOWN

3 Jul

Back in April, Québec Premier Jean Charest announced $21 million for college/university grants and loans. After several months of a student strike, that was apparently the most Charest could find.

All in, CLASSE argues that of the $85 million dedicated to grants and loans, just $26.6 million in new money will reach students to offset the proposed tuition fee hike.

Students who argue for craaaazzzyyyyy ideas like lower or free tuition fees are often confronted with the question “where’s the money coming from.” While the answer to this question is usually pretty straightforward (um, from anything that’s stupid and wasteful like….corporate bailouts/Pan AM Games/G20/some account related to the celebration of the Queen/her son/his sons etc), in Québec, the argument just became really easy.

On Friday, Charest announced a boost to the asbestos industry. A large boost. A boost to the ratio of 2:1 for asbestos over students.

$58 million to be exact.

First off, anyone who passed Grade 7 and saw this shot of the winning asbestos mine, who doesn’t invest the millions into a modern version of the Globe theatre is a down-right plebe.

Secondly, if all it takes for the millions to roll out is for a town to be named after an industry, Université Laval should immediately name itself it Institute of Higher Learning Laval. But anyway.

Maybe Charest is on to something. Sure, the residents of Asbestos Québec are drooling, but does it really make economic sense to pour $58 million into 435 jobs and some local honour? Why not spend it on students?

Well.

$58M could give free university education to 23,025 students. Instead it’s paying for 435 jobs, hoping for 1000 spin off jobs and maybe enough votes for Asbestosers to vote Liberal in the next election.

Let’s look at this more logically.

After the $58 million investment…

ASBESTOS–1 year: 435 happy miners are working away like crazy. They’re thrilled to be employed. Their kids are thrilled to be in a middle class family.
UNIVERSITY–1 year: Thanks to a full scholarship, 23,025 happy students are studying full time. No economic benefit to their communities as they’ve saved enough money to avoid jobs during the school year. Instead, probably being loud on Friday nights in the streets.

ASBESTOS–4 years: ~370 happy miners are working even harder. Some have quit, some have died in unfortunate accidents, some are injured. But, the mine is pumping away. The town voted Liberal.
UNIVERSITY–4 years: just 1000 students found employment right out of graduation. 10,000 are working part-time or contract work not earning enough to contribute to the economy. 10,000 have gone on to a higher tier of education to better their job prospects, 3,025 have left Québec for Europe or similarly exciting life escapes. Each cohort has spent too much time listening to Democracy Now! and reading Marx. Those remaining in Québec are split between supporting Québec Solidaire and anarcho-syndacalism. A third of those fully employed support the Parti Libéral du Québec.

ASBESTOS–10 years: ~200 happy miners. Their kids are nearly grown up. Some can afford CEGEP! Jobs are starting to dry up as countries are slowing their demand for asbestos due to lawsuits. 30 or so are experiencing respiratory illnesses. Global asbestos deaths have surpassed 1,070,000 people.
UNIVERSITY–10 years: nearly all 23,025 students are or have been married. Most of their loveless marriages have fallen apart, with a few heart-warming exceptions. Not enough have children to buoy Québec’s birthrate. Some have created new industries but who the hell cares, they’re socialists.

ASBESTOS–30 years: all originally employed workers have died. The industry has contributed to nearly 50 million deaths world wide due to a surge in asbestos-related deaths, predicted in 2011.
UNIVERSITY– 30 years: ~20,000 of the original students are still living and working. None are voting Liberal because of how they treated youth when they were young. Charest spins in his grave.
I’ve talked myself into understanding the logic behind this decision. I hope you see it too.

You can’t fault Charest for doing what Conservatives and Liberals do best: self-preservation, sucking up to industry, not giving two shits about the future, spending accordingly.