The length, scope and success of the Quebec student strike has compelled many English Canadian students to investigate the structures, methods and ideas underpinning the Quebec student movement. The most striking difference is the presence of the general assembly as decision-making body on the Quebec campus. Held at the departmental, faculty and even campus-wide level, tens of thousands of students have participated in general assemblies, involving open democratic discussion and debate on how best to confront Charest’s tuition fee hike. It was this form of direct democracy which delivered (or denied) limited and unlimited strike mandates again and again through the months-long campaign. The highly participatory and democratic nature of the general assembly laid the basis for the enormous numbers of students who sustained picket lines, mass marches and the now-famous casseroles against Bill 78’s repeal of civil liberties.
While Quebec’s post-war history under the authoritarian Duplessis regime and subsequent Quiet Revolution (which became increasingly loud through 1960s) created a student movement far larger and politically astute than anything seen in English Canada, questions still remain as to why English Canadian campuses remain so dormant in comparison. Is it a matter of culture, or structures, or both, that impedes the development of a comparable student movement?
This always raises the question of what role the Canadian Federation of Students plays in galvanzing or squandering the potentially large numbers of students outside Quebec opposed to annual tuition fee increases and the commodification of post-secondary education.
A Tale of Two Student Movements
Since the 1950s, the fundamental distinction in structures between Quebec and English Canadian student unionism is that of direct democracy versus representative democracy; the general assembly versus the student council.
The general assembly was imported from France in the late 1940s by Quebec exchange students. Many French students in the late 1940s had emerged from a Communist-led anti-Nazi resistance. These students organized themselves in 1946 and drafted La Charte de Grenoble. The document described students as “young intellectual workers” who were responsible for participating in a democratic and socially-progressive reconstruction of post-war France. It was not by accident that this philosophy was termed “student syndicalism” as the general assembly was seen as the equivalent to a labour union general meeting with its ultimate decision-making authority, including strike votes. Through general assemblies on each campus, these same French students organized and led massive student strikes in 1947 and 1948; strikes which won universial healthcare for students and a number of other progressive reforms.
Through the 1950s, opposition to the authoritarian Duplessis regime in Quebec provided the space for student syndicalism to gain a foothold as a philosophy underpinning a student movement that sought to modernize and democratize the education system. Quebec’s student unions still elected leaders, but decisions affecting the membership were addressed in the general assembly.
This Quebec student movement did influence the direction of the English Canadian student movement. The National Federation of Canadian University Students, changed its name to the Canadian Union of Students and adopted student syndicalism in its 1965 “Declaration of the Canadian Student.” Based on a groundbreaking socio-economic survey of students, CUS irrefutably confirmed severe class biases in the composition of the university student body and endorsed a policy of eliminating tuition fees as a financial barrier. Through demonstrations and lobbying, CUS was also able to secure a decade-long Ontario tuition fee freeze that lasted until 1976.
CUS would go on to take ever more radical stances, including support for women’s liberation, immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam, and the democratization of university governance. These radical pronouncements alienated a number of local student unions who initiated referendum campaigns on CUS membership. Through the 1968-69 school year, CUS membership collapsed, destroying the union's financial stability and forcing its dissolution in October 1969.
As CUS leaders learned, such radical policies had no substantial organized support on the campuses. CUS organizers did try to rectify this by helping to build “Students for a Democratic University” groups. Dozens of SDUs existed across Canada, and in early 1969, their combined membership surpassed six thousand. While the SDUs focused on winning representation on boards and senates, lowering book costs, and exposing the ties between industry and university administrations, democratizing student unions was not on their agenda. Despite the Quebec example, the general assembly was never adopted in English Canada.
The Canadian Federation of Students
The CFS was born at Carleton at a delegated conference in 1981. With CUS as a warning, CFS has been careful to moderate the scope of its political interventions on campus. Its advocacy efforts focus on issues such as tuition fee reductions and a variety of valuable and necessary anti-oppression initiatives. At certain times, it has taken anti-poverty, pro-labour and anti-war stances.
An attempt to destroy the CFS did take place in 1995 and 1996. Amidst a harsh recession in the early 1990s, provincial governments sought to restrain post-secondary spending through concurrent increases in tuition fees. This was amplified by the 1995 federal Liberal budget which saw the deepest cuts in Canadian history to health and education transfers.
To its credit, CFS spearheaded a campaign to stop the cuts. Political Action Committees were setup on the campuses and these bodies served to build a campaign which culminated in a one-day 100,000-strong student strike on January 25, 1995.
The strike was such an affront to Liberal and other right-wing-led student unions, that a wave of defederation votes were held. Some right-wing student leaders unilaterally pulled their respective student unions from CFS without a democratic referendum. This right-wing split from CFS laid the basis for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
Since then, CFS has devoted huge amounts of human and financial resources to combating defederation campaigns, often contending with calculated anti-CFS misinformation put out by Liberal and Tory campus groups, but also against the corruption scandals involving CFS-aligned student leaders.
The General Assembly
At Carleton and on other campuses, student activists are once again trapped in a battle between defending CFS from the right, while desiring something more democratic and capable of generating high levels of student participation in political action. It is no wonder many student activists identify not with CFS but l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), the Quebec student federation which led the victorious 2005 and 2012 student strikes.
Yet, ASSÉ itself is nothing without the general assembly. General assemblies are the forums in which students have ensured that the strike spread beyond the most radical campuses and into more conservatives ones aligned with other student federations. Furthermore, Quebec student federations have come and gone, but the general assembly has survived because it is the local form of democratic student decision-making. Direct democracy has provided a major obstacle for the student right and prevented them from making serious gains on Quebec’s Francophone campuses.
The general assembly and its threat of direct democracy is kept at bay with the current representative student council structure; a structure CFS activists continue to leave unchallenged. Its limited democratic nature and the power it places in the hands of the student union executive also allows a right-wing executive to do plenty of damage without any accountability outside of annual student union elections.
Student activists inside and outside CFS who recognize the need to build a powerful student movement in English Canada ought to being looking to the general assembly as the means to build such a movement. This would require a multi-level reform movement on each campus that can engage not only individual students, but make the introduction of the general assembly part of student union election campaigns, as well as a campaign within the CFS to compel the adoption and construction of general assemblies. More democracy will be the antidote to the student right as well as the prescription for a new student movement.