Translating the Assembly: Student Organizing Beyond Quebec

It took a little while for the student struggle in Quebec to gain traction with activists outside of the province. The strike began in February, but it probably wasn’t until late March that activists in Ontario paid it much mind, and not until late April or May that large numbers of people began pouring across the borders into Quebec to demonstrate alongside the Quebecois, to talk to Quebec activists, and to learn from their organizing tactics and struggles so that we could push the movement beyond the confines of the Francophone province and into the rest of Canada.

The current strike in Quebec has been a long time coming. We can realistically say that activists there have been organizing for this strike not only since 2010, but since 1968, when the first student strike took place – demanding free tuition, the democratic administration of educational institutions and policies, and an expansion of the Francophone university system. Eight more student strikes were to follow, of varying degrees of success, and in each of these student activists consciously worked to learn from their experiences, from their successes and failures, and altered their organizing accordingly. Tuition fees in Quebec are directly related to this history of militant organizing and striking. There is absolutely no other explanation. Quebec students organized, Quebec students fought, and Quebec students won.

It was in 2001, with the formation of the Association for Student-Union Solidarity (ASSE), that a strategic perspective for effective mobilization developed. ASSE studied the history of the Quebec student movement and took on a radically democratic activist approach to student unionism, which has been carried forward by the Broad Coalition of the Association of Student-Union Solidarity (CLASSE) in the 2012 mobilization. This form of student unionism sees that students, like workers, have collective interests, and possess a collective power that must be harnessed and organized in order to defend these interests. It operates with direct democracy as its core, with general membership meetings and general assemblies as the site of decision-making for the union. Students gather together, debate, discuss, vote, and pass motions on the direction of their union. It is in this way that students themselves, not student leaders or representatives, decide the best direction for the student movement, the campaigns to adopt, and the strategies to enact in pursuit of these goals.

These directly democratic organizing structures simply don’t exist outside of Quebec in any official or organized capacity in the student movement. Student unions and broad-based student associations exist, primarily the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), but the structure that these student unions and federations have taken has been far less directly democratic and grassroots-oriented than the trajectory of the student unions and organizations that eventually gave way to ASSE and CLASSE. Much of what could be called a student movement in the rest of Canada has been, since its founding in the 1980s, coordinated and directed by the CFS. The CFS has strong ties to provincial and federal political parties (primarily the social-democratic New Democratic Party), and uses the lobbying of parliamentary representatives as the best way to achieve aims of lower tuition and more accessible education – a path that has for 30 years seemed woefully inadequate and has proven to be a terrific failure. Tuition fees in Ontario are wildly out of step with those in Quebec, with students paying an average of $6640 annually, compared to the $2519 annual tuition rate in Quebec, despite years of CFS campaigns to “drop fees,” an annual Day of Action in February (seemingly more and more sparsely attended each year), repeated “occupations” of provincial and federal politicians’ offices (ending at 5pm!), and lobbying efforts by CFS representatives. Obviously none of these tactics have worked, and something, it is clear, must change.

Based on my own experience in Ontario, I can speculate on some of the reasons for this disjuncture, and the delayed response to the current strike. One is that there is a significant language barrier between Quebec and Canada’s other provinces. Although Canada is an officially bilingual country, what this means realistically is that eight of the ten provinces are primarily English speaking, Quebec is primarily French speaking, and only New Brunswick is officially bilingual. Students in Anglo-Canada study French throughout elementary school and high school, but that does not mean in any way that the majority of Canadian students are able to read, let alone speak and understand, French. Initially, there was little coverage in English media – even alternative media – about the strike organizing, strike votes, and strike preparations that were happening in Quebec. A few mentions would trickle out, of course, but Translating the Printemps érable, a website that translates important documents and new stories from Francophone media, was not yet in constant operation. Because of linguistic barriers that have prevented strong collaborations between Francophone and Anglophone activists over the years, the strike initially stayed below the radar for student radicals outside of Quebec. Of course, the eventual participation of Anglophone students and organizers in the strike movement has helped to accelerate the process of expanding the struggle across linguistic boundaries.

A second reason for the slow uptake in Ontario is that at the time the strike broke out, we were engaged in a series of labour and community battles of our own – mostly in Toronto, but also throughout the Southwestern Ontario region. In Toronto the municipal government was going up against labor in a significant way, targeting indoor and outdoor workers and working to pit the public against them. The municipal budget was also being voted on in Toronto, and that budget was seeking to make cuts to many important services across the city, affecting thousands if not millions of people. Caterpillar – the owner of a locomotive assembly plant in London, Ontario – had decided to offer workers a near 50% wage and benefit cut in their recent round of contract negotiations, and on New Years’ Eve unceremoniously locked out workers. Many activists, including student activists, were engaged in both of these struggles, and so our minds were elsewhere.

Finally, and this is pure speculation on my part, we have all witnessed the decline of the university over the years, and the continual defeat of student and even faculty resistance movements. There is almost a mini-industry in protracted internal critique lobbed at “the university” these days, from students and professors alike, not to mention food service, maintenance, and custodial workers. I think that many people in Ontario heard that there would be a strike in Quebec and, unfamiliar with the history of Quebec student militancy, presumed it would go much like the tuition increase protests in England in 2010. Massive crowds, lots of energy, rage in the streets, smashed windows, a recalcitrant government, and ultimately a crushing defeat.

All this being said, there was only, relatively speaking, a minor lag for Ontario students. By the 22nd of March, when the massive protest against tuition strikes hit Montreal’s streets, Ontario students were fully aware of what was happening, if not already in Montreal providing support.

Of course, the desire to expand the struggle is great, but the landscape of the student movement outside of Quebec is very different. First of all, the student movement outside of Quebec could hardly even be said to exist in recent years, prior to the 2012 uprising, and second, we do not possess the institutional structures for organizing and channelling dissent into a collective strike across campuses in the same way that Quebec does. Much of the student movement in Ontario has been centered around the CFS, and other major events in campus organizing have tended to circulate around labour union struggles.

For example, in 2008 there was a long and bitter strike at York University in Toronto – but this was a labour strike. The teaching assistant, graduate assistant, and contract faculty union, which has always been one of Canada’s strongest academic unions and certainly has one of the best contracts in the country, went out against the employer. Lasting 85 days, this strike was the longest faculty strike in Canadian university history. That said, a labour strike is fundamentally different in shape, form, and structure than a student strike. For one thing, as officially recognized workers, members of labour unions have to abide by the Labour Relations Act, and wait to be in a legal strike position. The institutional structures for labour unions and student unions are very different; while labour unions have (some) coordination between locals and larger provincial or national bodies, outside of the reformist CFS, Ontario students have nothing of the sort. This is exactly the kind of coordination, organization, and institutional structure that Quebec students have. Finally, as radical as York University’s union is (Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903), it does not operate on CLASSE’s principles of assemblies or direct democracy. So while the York militants and the York strike serve as an interesting example of campus organizing and pushback in Ontario, structurally this example is fundamentally different than the grassroots student organizing and striking happening in Quebec.

Processes are already underway to create some sort of new model of organizing in Ontario. Meetings have been held to launch the formation of the Ontario Students’ Mobilization Coalition, but this does not seem to extend beyond a Facebook page. The CFS has tried to hold solidarity demonstrations in Toronto, but they have been only marginally successful and low on attendance, primarily because they were organized by the CFS and not by students themselves, and they were not decided upon in a directly democratic manner by any recognized group of students and student activists. The first obstacle to overcome, then, in expanding the student struggle beyond the borders of Quebec, is to begin the difficult process of pulling ourselves away from the top-down, bureaucratic structures that will impede our progress and have proven ineffective in consolidating and acting upon our demands, whatever those may be. Overcoming an adherence to bureaucratic and authoritarian modes of organizing will be difficult, certainly, but steps are already being taken. Students and activists from all across Canada have converged upon Quebec in recent weeks, meeting with CLASSE and ASSE organizers, with student radicals in various universities, colleges, departments, and faculties. Conversations that have started in Quebec have been carried back to our home provinces, and the slow process of instituting truly democratic structures within our universities slowly begins.

Already there are plans for some activists, primarily from the Anglo universities in Montreal (McGill and Concordia) to host a weekend workshop in Ontario to train student activists in the art of pushing for general assemblies at the departmental level, and forming mobilization committees within faculties to obtain broad participation in these assemblies. And activists within departments are already planning to call general assemblies in September, inviting all students out to begin the discussion about what campus mobilizing in Ontario would look like, and whether or not we want to organize towards a strike. Networks are developing, slowly and quietly, outside of official channels, between Quebec students and those of other provinces.

But simultaneously there is a small power struggle underway between these more autonomous activists and the already constituted (and more bureaucratic) organizers of the CFS. Entryist activists in Toronto – namely Fightback – have set themselves the task of reforming the CFS, encouraging the Federation to “organize strikes.” Meanwhile, other activists struggle to set the stage for directly democratic organizing, which may or may not result in a strike. But it is only through the development of an assembly process within university departments and faculties that activists and students can decide how and when to deal with the CFS, and whether or not the Federation should be abandoned altogether. Those who, like me, are grounded in decentralized modes of organizing and struggle, see the method of directly democratic assemblies as a necessary element of this process. Striking the balance between these two constituencies and learning to work together, and occasionally around each other, will be of utmost importance in the coming year.

After all, in Ontario there is much to organize and struggle around. Each year, 5% tuition increases are quietly instituted at the majority of Ontario universities, and each year Ontario students have a harder and harder time finding paid work upon graduation. Displeasure rumbles beneath an otherwise placid surface. The most powerful form of solidarity that we can show to our comrades in Quebec is to learn from them and effectively mobilize our own struggles – to organize ourselves and spread the movement. With new modes of organizing being slowly introduced into Ontario student unions and student federations, the possibility persists that the 2012-2013 school year will see the burgeoning and bursting forth of student discontentment across the entirety of Canada.

Author of the article

is an editor with Upping the Anti, and an organizer working with the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly. She is also a member of the Edu-Factory Collective and has published about education in the Journal for Occupied Studies.