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How can we build the student movement across Canada?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
How can we build the student movement across Canada?
How can we build the student movement across Canada?
How can we build the student movement across Canada?
How can we build the student movement across Canada?

Written by: Farshad Azadian and Alex Grant

The Quebec student movement has provided a beacon of hope for working people and youth across the world. The attempt by the Charest government to nearly double tuition fees in the province has sparked massive resistance. After some 16-weeks of student strikes and mass demonstrations, the government is shaking. This experience displays that mass mobilization, not lobbying, is the most effective method of fighting for accessible and free education.

Many people held the view that class struggle, at least in Canada, was a thing of the past. The view that Canada would be an exception to the rise of the youth and workers movement has been shattered by recent events. Even radical students, including the leaders of the left-wing CLASSE student union coalition, have been taken aback by the perseverance of the students.

The momentum of the movement has not only been spread to traditionally more conservative sections of the students, but has even spread to the working class. The magnificent “casserole” protests in the working class neighbourhoods have brought huge layers of society into the movement. The pressure from the grassroots is so enormous that every attempt by the Charest government to negotiate a sell-out with the more conservative student union leaders, and to isolate the CLASSE leaders, has come to no avail.

This is bigger than a tuition hike in Quebec

The continuation of the movement in the face of brutal police repression, and the complete disregard for Charest’s laws, has displayed the strength of this youth movement. The resignation of the hated education minister, Line Beauchamp, as well as Charest’s chief of staff, has openly displayed the weakness of the government. This challenge to the Charest tuition hikes has become in reality something much larger. It is telling millions of workers that they can challenge austerity, that they can win, and that the bosses are not invincible. An important example is being set.

The corporate press and the pro-business politicians fully understand this, and they are afraid. It is for this reason that the ruling elite is hysterically pressing for the movement to be crushed – in order that it does NOT spread. Indeed, the money already spent on police repression could have paid for concessions to the Quebec students.

Bay Street and the pro-business politicians correctly fear that the forest fire of class struggle will spread across Canada and North America. This would make it very difficult to carry out the austerity cuts that Canadian capitalism requires. The resistance of the youth, and the confidence that would come with a victory, could spread like a virus to the workers who are facing layoffs, privatization, wage freezes and service cuts.

The following article’s purpose is to outline how students across Canada can spread the movement to their campuses — to do precisely what the corporate elite fear — and to outline some important lessons that can be drawn from Quebec. We do not pretend that the efforts to spread the student movement will be easy.

Nonetheless, we believe that we must seize the current opportunity, provided by the momentum from Quebec, to advance the fight for affordable and free education. Furthermore, we believe spreading the movement is the best solidarity we can give to students in Quebec.

This will require a serious and consistent attitude by student activists to organize their campuses. It will require raising and popularizing the lessons from Quebec at the grassroots levels – efforts in which Fightback has been taking a leading role.

Growing frustration among Canadian youth

Young people across Canada are entering political activity with a thirst. The bourgeois commentators used to demagogically attack youth as being “apathetic”. With the entrance of youth onto the political scene, these same commentators hypocritically attack every movement and political act of the youth. These attacks are because the pent up frustration of the youth, due to unemployment, debt, poverty and police harassment, has expressed itself in a massive swing to the left.

The massive G20 demonstrations in 2010 marked the beginning of this process. Tens of thousands protesting in the streets, against the agenda of the pro-capitalist politicians, were met with brutal repression and the then-record mass arrest in Canadian history. Following the G20, the 2011 federal elections displayed an electoral swing to the left through the NDP’s “orange surge”. Commentators noted that youth overwhelmingly flocked towards to the NDP. Then, in the fall of 2011, the Occupy movement spread across North America. Tens of thousands of youth across Canada attended the Occupy demonstration. In Toronto alone, there were daily protests for six continuous weeks.

Even the mainstream corporate press has been forced to confirm this shift to the left. A recent Globe & Mail article argued that there is “no room for centrist compromise in a left-right split Canada”, noting the electoral shift towards the NDP while examining the fall of the Liberal Party, “which is entrenched in a distant third place”. The National Post also reported that “the Canadian public is on a distinct tilt to the left”, and that “concern over wealth distribution has traction beyond the Occupy tents and protest parades.” There is no question that this shift in consciousness is most pronounced among youth.

After the historic events in 2010 and 2011, the struggle shifted to the campuses in Quebec. The youth of Quebec have begun to move, and have brought with them the largest protests in Canadian history. These protests have struck a chord with students across Canada.

The Globe & Mail reported that 62% of students in Canada would go on strike to support the Quebec student movement; the percentage was highest in Ontario, at 69% (in a poll of 2,200 students). That the movement in Quebec resonates with youth in Canada is not surprising if one looks at the studies by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which have shown that student debt has skyrocketed to an average of $40,000. In Ontario, tuition fees have increased by well over 300% since the early 1990s.

This spirit of resistance has been displayed in the many solidarity actions in support of Quebec that have been organized across Canada. This included massive casserole protests in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and other cities, which brought several thousand youth and workers to the streets. These solidarity actions are notable in that they have typically had no organizational lead from the student federations in English Canada. All it takes is for an activist to make a Facebook event page, and thousands flock to spread the movement!

Youth are feeling the burden of the capitalist crisis on their backs. They can feel that there is little future for them, that they have fewer opportunities than previous generations. At the same time, they juxtapose their own lack of opportunities to the immense and obscene wealth of the ruling elite. There is a burning sense of indignation at the status quo. It is in this context that the Quebec student movement is providing a potential spark to students and youth across Canada.

The bourgeois press is terribly afraid of this. They have been carrying out a campaign of slander against the movement in Quebec, particularly when providing coverage to English Canada. They have tried to present the largest movement in Canadian history as an irrational riot.

Any attempt to draw inspiration from Quebec is met with right-wing hysteria from the corporate press. The "Open letter to the Canadian Federation of Students" has come under enormous demonization in the media. The press is trying to pressure the student leaders of the CFS into shying away from mobilizing, and to get them to condemn the “violence” of Quebec students. The president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), Sid Ryan, has been vilified for openly supporting the Quebec students and encouraging Ontario students to go out on strike.

The potential exists for this movement to spread. Bay Street is keenly aware of this possibility. However, we must clearly understand that just because the potential exists, that potential will not necessarily be realized. The role of the leadership of the student federations, as well as the efforts of grassroots student activists who want to fight for free education, will play a decisive role.

Student leadership is needed

A mass movement on the scale that we see in Quebec cannot simply be declared. It is true that there is significant spontaneous energy among Canadian youth. This energy must find an effective organizational vehicle if it is to become a serious mass movement that could culminate in strike activity, if the government does not back down.

It is a general truth that the tens of thousands of students will not enter serious political action simply because left-wing students call for it. Young people will not risk failing courses, losing a semester, or even worse, facing expulsions and arrests, if they do not believe the movement can win. Students are under enormous financial pressure and debt, and are burdened with balancing jobs just to make it through university. The hundreds of thousands of Canadian students, especially those from working-class backgrounds, do not take the question of political activity lightly.

Student organizers, who are trying to build the student movement and support the students in Quebec, must understand these difficulties. We must reach the mass of students, but we must be acutely aware of the obstacles that the average youth faces for entering political activity.  Having an organized student federation that is willing to advance the struggle is a huge factor. The resources, the public authority, the organizational apparatus, and, importantly, the elected mandate of the student federations would give the tens of thousands of students the necessary confidence that this is a fight that can be won.

The role of the student organizations, and their elected leaders, plays a decisive role. In English Canada, this leadership is most likely going to be found in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). It is the only left-leaning students’ union across Canada, and it represents the bulk share of Canadian students. Despite being relatively inactive in recent decades, it actually finds its origins in the radical student movements of the 1960s and 70s.

The Canadian Union of Students (CUS), one of the main precursors of our student federation, was founded in the early 1960s and went through a massive radicalization during that decade. The CUS not only demanded free education, but also fought for living stipends for students, and the abolishing of the university administrations for democratic student-faculty control. They were vocally opposed to the war in Vietnam and carried forward agitation on a variety of social issues. The leaders of the CUS were clearly influenced by radical Marxist ideas, which had become very popular in the social movements of the 60s and 70s.

The CUS declined at the end of the 1960s, but massive tuition hikes, which the federal government proposed in the early 1970s, sparked the establishment of the National Union of Students (NUS). The NUS continued the traditions of the CUS demanding free education and agitating on a broad range of social issues. At the end of the 1970s, the NUS looked to build alliances, proposing a merger with Association of Student Councils (AOSC) and other student unions.

Through this amalgamation, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) was formed in October 1981, with the rallying cry, “We are no longer unorganized; we are the Canadian Federation of Students. We are going to work as students; we're going to fight the cuts, and we're going to stop the cuts.” They also committed to building alliances with public sector workers and community groups in the fight against service cuts.

In 1994, the Liberal Chrétien government cut federal funding to a host of social programs, including education. They tried to introduce an “income-contingent loan repayment scheme”, which hurt working class students in particular, to fill the gaps of their cuts to funding. In response, the CFS mobilized for a national student strike on January 25, 1995. The strike hit 44-campuses nation-wide, with many campuses being shutdown altogether. The CFS’ own executive report declared the action as a huge success, forcing “all government discussion about post-secondary education [to be] shelved,” and resulted in numerous provincial governments committing to oppose these counter-reforms.

We have taken the time to go into a little bit of the history of the CFS to show that this student federation is a natural vehicle through which to spread the student movement and wage a fight for free education. The ideas of fighting for free education and mobilizing for student strikes, which are proposed in this piece, are not alien to the tradition of the CFS, despite what some have claimed. Furthermore, the mass of students, as we explained before, will not enter political activity unless they feel that they have the organizational strength that can lead to victory.

It is vital that we reshape the CFS into a fighting student union. The role that the CFS leadership plays in the coming weeks and months is the major factor which determines whether the movement will gain traction across Canada.

How the Quebec student movement unfolded

In Quebec, certain campuses had student union leadership that was prepared to openly promote the necessity of a fighting student union. This included explaining to students that they should be prepared to strike against tuition hikes, and that this tactic has been historically an effective method of struggle.

These student leaders were typically associated with the ASSÉ student union. The role that these leaders played was decisive. They raised the confidence and political consciousness of the students on those particular campuses. They educated and popularized the strike tactic. They encouraged participation, and contributed to developing a significant grassroots base of student activists.

We post this lengthy quote to highlight the role of the ASSÉ leadership. We note that this was written months before the assemblies took any strike votes. It is taken from the ASSÉ newspaper, Ultimatum, Vol. 11 n.1 August 2011, from an editorial called "Finally, here we are":

"Around the world, in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Great Britain, Syria, Egypt or Tunisia, people are rising up and demanding what is theirs. Here, as elsewhere, Charest's elected Liberal government acts in the interest of the rich and big corporations at the expense of the collective interest…After the Arab Spring, will we see a spring in Quebec? Will we express our anger?

"ASSÉ's answer is absolute: we must. And we will take the means we have. This semester, it will begin with a massive mobilization on all campuses in Quebec. Mobilization will culminate with a great national demonstration in November. And after that? After, if the government still hasn't backed down, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: how far are we willing to go to stop the hike?....The rumour, since last spring, is becoming more and more insistent. GGI: grève générale illimitée (unlimited general strike). This is the tool we must consider if, in a few months, Jean Charest does not go back on his decision to impose these regressive measures. We will not use it pleasure out of pleasure, but out of necessity. The same necessity which has set people in motion around the world for over a year now. ….. Given the scale of the challenge, no hesitation is allowed: let us mobilize today, in large numbers and with determination. It's up to us." - Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, on behalf of ASSÉ's executive committee, August 2011.

This method of activity stood in sharp contrast to the typical conduct of the student leaders associated with FEUQ and FÉCQ. These two student unions tended to be hostile to student strikes, and had strong associations to the Parti Québecois, which is one of the pro-business parties in Quebec. Typically, their efforts to stop rising tuition fees were associated with lobbying and token demonstrations.

The ASSÉ associated campuses and activists, however, were able to set a positive example to students in other campuses. The spirit of a fighting and activist student union actually spread to other, non- ASSÉ, campuses. This caused the development of a broader coalition, where many campuses joined the ASSÉ student union locals to form CLASSE.

It was the CLASSE-organized schools that were the first to take positive strike votes and stopped classes. The students at these campuses had developed a strong collective confidence, and had built an impressive grassroots base. After the first schools went on strike, their example began to spill over to other campuses. The pressure of the mass movement pushed the more conservative student leaders, associated with FEUQ- FÉCQ, to support and help organize strikes on their own campuses.

There are two key lessons that can be drawn from how the student movement begun in Quebec. Firstly, it was in the schools where the student leaders were willing to openly promote and popularize the student strikes, and organize for them, where the movement and strikes first began. The role of a fighting leadership, based upon an active and militant grassroots, was the spark to the forest fire.

The second lesson that can be drawn is that pressure at the grassroots level can push even the more conservative and bureaucratic student unions to the left. The traditionally anti-strike FEUQ- FÉCQ unions were actually forced to help organize strikes and to openly defend them. Some of these leaders were genuinely radicalized through the movement, while others were forced to move to the left to maintain some authority in the eyes of the students.

Spread fighting student unionism to “English” Canada!

The tradition of fighting student unionism must be spread to Canada. This requires that a significant change occur to student activism, and particularly the activities of the CFS locals, on campuses across Canada.

The old methods of lobbying and the lack of grassroots campaigns are totally discredited. For example, in Ontario tuition fees have increased by over 300% since the early 1990s. We cannot continue being satisfied with an ineffective “Drop Fees” protest every year or two, while the federal and provincial governments, and local university administrations, effectively shut out thousands of working-class, poor, and immigrant youth from the accessing education, or drive them into enormous debt.

It is clear to any observer that the fighting methods in Quebec are far more effective than any of the methods used in the rest of Canada over the past few decades. The Charest government is clearly trembling, and the movement has become intensely popular.

The methods of mass participation, general assemblies, and mobilization, instead of the emphasis on lobbying, have created a confident grassroots in Quebec. The willingness to openly stand for free post-secondary education, instead of the ambiguous slogan of “drop fees”, has increased the enthusiasm of the movement. The willingness to organize a continuous mass movement, and to shut down the universities and colleges, has been much more effective than the timid demonstration that we witness every year in the rest of Canada. The fighting student unionism in Quebec shows the way forward for English Canada.

Some activists, however, have argued that the CFS student unions are totally incapable of being changed and re-shaped to meet the needs of the student movement and the growing radicalization across Canada. This is an incorrect approach.

Even the more conservative student unions in Quebec were pushed into strike activity. To think that this cannot occur in the rest of Canada is to deny the power of a mobilized grassroots that could pressure, or if necessary replace, the student leaders. To deny the strength of the students to change their organizations then logically poses the question, “How can students possibly hope to fight to defeat the government and the tools of state repression they wield?” Activists who study the events in Quebec will necessarily draw the conclusion that traditionally inactive student unions can be changed by grassroots pressure.

Some have counter-posed leadership to grassroots organizing. In our opinion this is a false dichotomy that either comes from an honest misunderstanding or a deliberate attempt to shield a bureaucracy that does not wish to mobilize. We need to start our organizing at the grassroots —  just like Fightback has done by tabling at numerous campuses to popularize the need to spread the Quebec student strike to the rest of Canada. However, this grassroots mobilization is 100-times harder if there is no support from the recognized student unions. Leadership in the form of clear statements, by democratically elected representatives, in favour of free education, and strike votes is essential to give rank-and-file students the confidence that their efforts are not being wasted.

Next is the issue of general assemblies (GAs). We are in favour of general assemblies — but for what purpose? A GA is just a democratic structure and can be filled with either revolutionary, or reactionary, content. To counter-pose a GA to real leadership really just serves to spread confusion. Firstly, who calls a GA? Can any individual student call a GA? Of course they cannot. The elected representatives of a student union can call a GA fairly easily. Alternatively, some union constitutions have clauses allowing grassroots activists to call a GA if they can organize thousands of signatures on a petition. Is the second option a worthwhile expenditure of bottom-up time and resources when the elected representatives can organize it so easily?

Secondly, what is the agenda of the GA? The elected leadership can either promote mobilizing towards a strike vote, or they can throw roadblocks in the way. They can also be “neutral”, which serves to undermine the confidence of the rank-and-file and make them feel like nobody will support them if they do take the difficult decision to strike. Obviously a leadership that speaks, educates, and mobilizes in favour of strike action is far preferable to the other options.

Finally, is the GA a democratically sovereign body or is it just a talking shop? Can the grassroots direct the leaders to take actions by democratic majority vote? The CLASSE GA follows this model and we see no reason why other student unions cannot also adopt it. Some may say it is not in the constitution — we say change the constitution! Some may say changing the constitution is difficult — we say let those who are opposed to democratic sovereign GAs come forward publicly so we can see who exactly is bureaucratically blocking the movement. Others say that GAs cannot be done school-wide and have to be department-by-department. In our view, this is not a principled matter; department-school-province-country is all good. Our advice is to do what works at whatever level and to not let bureaucratic excuses to get in the way of genuine mobilizing.

Furthermore, as has been explained, the mass student organizations have enormous authority and mobilizing power. The decisive factor is whether the student leaders will actually educate and mobilize their members. If they do, this will create a powerful movement across English Canada. It was precisely this factor of leadership, which caused the first strikes to break out on campuses in Quebec. The massive response to Quebec shows us that students are prepared to fight — they just need to be given the opportunities to do so by their elected representatives.

What, then, are the tasks of militant students?

The activists of Fightback argue that students who wish to build a fighting student movement should focus on building militant student consciousness and organization at the grassroots level. This is much easier to do today because of the inspiring effect of the Quebec student movement. The grassroots base we build should be public and vocal about pressuring the student leaders in the CFS to provide the necessary leadership.

It is entirely possible that our grassroots pressure can push the CFS to the left, and towards more serious grassroots mobilizing. Our ability to shift the CFS towards the left in favour of free education, genuinely democratic general assemblies, and strike votes will be the decisive factor in building an effective student movement across English Canada.

We are not saying that the tradition of general inactivity, within CFS locals, will be hard to shake. However, Quebec students have shown time and time again that even the conservative student organizations can be shaken from the ground-up, if the pressure is effectively applied on the leadership.

This process has already begun with the significant support that the “Open letter to the CFS” has garnered; the solidarity demonstration in Toronto, Ottawa, and other cities; and the active attempts by student organizers on campuses to explain the necessity of spreading the Quebec student movement to Ontario.  The CFS-Ontario leaders are visibly being forced to come out with more left-wing statements, such as in favour of “free education” at the meeting where they discussed the creation of the Student Solidarity Network (though we must question the need to create a “network” that is separate from the student unions themselves). The CFS leaders also made a press conference to promote the solidarity rally that has been planned for 5th June in Toronto.

We can already see the effect of our pressure on the student leaders. We must continue to press forward! Statements must translate into demonstrations. Fiery speeches must translate into action. Public support for the Quebec student movement must translate into explaining and promoting the strike tactic among students across Canada. The strike cannot be just declared; it must be built with clear statements letting students know that this is where we are heading.

We must continue to build at the grassroots, and we must continue to fight for a student leadership that is willing to build a fighting student movement. We do not pretend that this will be easy. Nonetheless, it is a necessary task to help our heroic brothers and sisters in Quebec. It is necessary to advance the fight for free post-secondary education across Canada.

We must also understand a vital point; that this generalized movement of the youth is merely the harbinger of much-much bigger movements of the broader working class. The youth are traditionally more sensitive to the developing crisis in society and widespread discontent. It takes more for workers to get mobilized, but when they do they have the power to shake the whole of society. As night follows day, the youth are just preparing the way for the big battalions of labour to come onto the scene and we must be ready for this fight.

We encourage all students who are willing to commit themselves to these concrete tasks to get involved with Fightback, and our local campus organizations. The mood for struggle has never been higher among Canadian youth. Youth around the world are waking up. They are sparking mass movements and even revolutions. We must play our role in the coming struggles.

Spread the movement across Canada!

Build a fighting student movement!

Austerity can be defeated through struggle!


This article was originally published on

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