After the rally: Which way forward?

Illustration by Jake Benaim.

After what seemed like years of inactivity, this month saw the first big push for student engagement from the Canadian Federation of Students—and it’s been pretty quiet since.

On Nov. 2, months of build up burst into a near nation-wide rally with, according to The Eyeopener, hundreds of students in Toronto alone marching to Queen’s Park demanding an end to austerity, the reversal of cuts and, with it, free education.

The march was met with warm reception from a good chunk of Canada’s civil society—the 15 and Fairness campaign came out as full in force as it has ever been, Cheri DiNovo likely turned down a few other rallies to show support and a few higher-ups at the Canadian Labour Congress endorsed the CFS’ free education mandate. Though fewer students than many would have liked turned out, those who did were damned well committed.

In most other cases, these would be encouraging signs, capable of pushing the movement forward.

Yet, the CFS has spent the past few weeks in virtual silence as the organization has turned much of its attention to lobbying.

CFS-O spokesperson Rajean Hoilett told The Eyeopener that the “next step is directing the discourse to individual members of provincial parliament. ‘We’re going to continue to take action and continue to escalate our tactics until this government feels the pressure enough, not just from students, but from the broader public around needing to do better to ensure access to postsecondary education.’”

Good luck with that.

Progressive rhetoric about bringing pressure to bear on government cannot eschew the fact that the organization’s focus is shifting. It is shifting away from mobilizing students and towards appealing to the better angles of the Liberal Party’s nature.

If the stakes weren’t so high this would be funny.

Directing discourse won’t achieve much other than burn student money and waste a perfectly good slogan like “fight the fees.” Appealing to the consciences of Liberal MPPs and MPs is a dead end and if the CFS doesn’t seize the moment and push engaged students into direct action, it will slip.

I was talking with a friend earlier this week about the movement for free education and their response was telling: “Oh, which movement? The CFS does a lot of those. Are they doing anything for this one?”After some mental gymnastics, I realized that I could only shrug. The CFS is losing widespread legitimacy and it’s self-inflicted.

There was a moderate return to form with the National Day of Action. If this energy dies, it will be a big setback for the nascent move for free education and those few passionate students will be demoralized and give up.

Unless the CFS shapes up and starts working for students, those de-federation campaigns will get more regular and more successful. The right wing of student politics will have an easier time winning people on an anti-CFS position, no one on the left will care enough to counter-organize and no one in the centre will see any reason to vote against it.

Students will stop coming out and getting involved unless they feel like their efforts are respected and that they either are or have some hope, however distant, of making gains.

Anything short of maximizing the energy of the Free Education rally into a sustained effort, by students themselves is a half measure. Students in debt don’t have the time or patience for half measures.

For the good of the students and for its own good, the CFS should take a cue from students in Quebec, and push its demand for free education forward—with an eye towards a strike vote.