Originally published at the New Socialist Webzine, September 28 2013
A September 4 press release published on Rabble
has once again stirred debate among left-wing student activists about
the Canadian Federation of Students. A network of left-wing students are
at the forefront of a coordinated effort across 15 different campuses
to gather sufficient signatures to initiate referendum campaigns on CFS
Other left-wing students have responded with incredibly sharp criticisms, the most incendiary being the claim that defederation will actually aid the Right on campuses.
Seen increasingly through the lens of last year's Quebec student
strike and the role played by l'Association pour une solidarité
syndicale étudiante (ASSE), much of this debate centres on whether the
CFS is a hindrance to the English-Canadian student movement, and to the
student left's goal of a free, accessible and well-funded post-secondary
Rather than getting sucked into this specific debate, there is
another question that needs to be asked: what is the overarching
strategy of the student left outside Quebec? Before we can answer this
question, a recap of the press release available here is necessary.
press release claims that efforts "to reform the CFS from within for
decades" have failed and that the organization could be left "without
representation in British Columbia, Manitoba and Québec." It follows
that the CFS is not a national organization.
The press release
also quotes Brendan Lehman, a Laurentian University student in Sudbury,
saying that the CFS has "ineffective organizing practices and lobbying
efforts, a bloated bureaucracy, questionable financial decisions, and
low standards of democratic processes."
The document ends by
announcing that "Some students plan to create new organizing bodies
directed by principles of free association and direct membership
control, the founding congress of which is planned for 2014."
Shortcut Or Detour?
project looks like a shortcut, or maybe a huge detour. While the future
is unwritten, it is difficult to see the broad-based student left
(anarchists, Marxists, NDPers, non-aligned/non-defined lefties) getting
behind a campaign to ditch the CFS, mainly because there is no consensus
on how to grapple with the dilemma of the CFS.
Many people on the student left have criticisms of the CFS, but there
is no infrastructure which allows for the student left to communicate,
debate and coordinate across multiple campuses. There are no
publications, websites, conferences or organizations independent of the
CFS through which the student left can develop a strategy for relating
to the CFS. This, I would contend, is one of the major problems with the
student left: that the CFS is actually our substitute for a student
There is no organization or publication in
which our specific and common struggles are documented in a manner that
contributes to the collective knowledge and historical memory of the
student left. Without this, the student left's institutional memory is
wedded to other organizations, like CFS, which are not designed for this
purpose. Is it any wonder the left debate over the CFS has gone nowhere
since at least the late 1990s? We remain stuck between defending the
CFS and an impulse for something more radical and democratic.
how much ink the left spills in trying to understand the world in order
to change it, remarkably little has been spilled by the student left
with regards to CFS. Most of what is available is dispersed across
obscure, rarely-visited blogs and presented in a manner only
understandable to those in-the-know, or on a specific campus. Little
effort goes into contextualization and explanation. To its credit,
Upping the Anti has bucked this trend, allowing a debate to unfold over
several issues in which an effort was made to go beyond CFS and dig up
some history on the Canadian Union of Students.
This leads me to
the next problem: there is no serious, rigorously-researched historical
treatment of the CFS that could serve to inform our current struggles
or our relationship to CFS. The substantive contributions to English
Canadian student movement history can be counted on one hand. This
profound lack of knowledge about our own movement is embarrassing when
compared to what is available on the history of the Quebec student
The student left has been trapped in this analytical
dead-end for years. This feeds into to sharp disagreements, a lack of
political clarity, and the near inability of the student left's pro- and
anti-CFS camps to communicate with one another. Toxic disagreements
continue to spill over into the wider left.
An absence of
historical knowledge about the student movement also becomes an
impediment to left strategy. One can expect a large number of student
lefties (who may not be a very large group on campuses) to balk at
ditching the CFS while we're faced with further neoliberal restructuring
of post-secondary education that's designed to serve the needs of
employers, shackle thousands more students with debt, and undermine
education as a public good and cornerstone of a self-governing
Campus Right on the Offensive
large structural shifts are also accompanied, at least in Ontario, by a
resurgence of the student right initially spurred by Harper's first
victory in 2006. Where the right has captured power, as at Carleton
University, a one-time CFS stronghold, student services and resource
centres have been under severe assault.
Last year, without any democratic mandate or vote, the right-wing
student union executive busted up the non-profit joint undergrad/grad
health and dental plan, replacing it with an undergrad-only plan run by a
for-profit insurance company. Campus-community radio stations, Public
Interest Research Groups and other non-CFS student organizations are
facing destructive defunding campaigns. Some of these have succeeded, as
in the case of OPIRG-Kingston at Queen's University.
How does a
left-wing defederation campaign help with these struggles? How does it
not weaken these other critical aspects of the multi-faceted struggle on
campus? Where is the literature laying out the politics of the
defederation campaign? Where are the public meetings? Is there something
more than a press release and sympathetic introductory commentary?
These are real questions that deserve real answers. So far, those
favouring defederation have published nothing publicly beyond the press
Which brings me to the question of organization vs
defederation. If there is coordination across multiple campuses, why not
focus on building a student left network through which the student
left, with its many varied criticisms of the CFS, can organize meetings,
websites and publications? This would allow us to do a lot, including
really researching, discussing and debating how the left should relate
to the CFS. I would love to be part of such a project and would do what I
can to build it. Such a network should exist and needs to exist.
if getting rid of CFS is in the cards, would not a student left network
with an open, democratic culture be a far greater asset in any attempt
to rebuild national student organizations? We should also not forget
that ASSÉ - with its well-documented achievements in terms of democratic
culture, leadership deferral to the membership, principled
coalition-building, and tenacity in the face of enormous state
repression and media vilification - is smaller than both FEUQ and FECQ,
the more conservative student federations in Quebec.
this square with a campaign to get rid of CFS altogether? Are conditions
across English Canada sufficiently similar to Quebec that we can set up
rival student organizations? Should the student left operate inside and
outside of CFS? Or both? The repeated use of question marks is
indicative of how little we discuss these questions as a student left.
The absence of accessible, well-developed analyses from those on the
student left pushing defederation is worrying to say the least. What
sort of left is this building?
I have been at three Ontario
campuses -- Carleton, Trent, Queen's -- in the past decade, and have
always been a member of a CFS local or prospective local. Despite being
heavily involved in or at least informed of the local campus struggles
over these years, I have yet to witness a left challenge to CFS
orthodoxy manifest itself in a grassroots campaign. That I'm learning
about this new challenge via a press release that had the good fortune
(or good connection) to be published on Rabble, smacks of the same
bureaucratic who-is-calling-the-shots student politics that CFS is so
routinely criticized for.