Some 300 students in Toronto came out in solidarity with the 250,000-strong demonstration in Montreal on Tuesday, 23rd May. The Toronto rally was spontaneously organized by a loose alliance of Ontario student activists who wished to demonstrate that Quebec students are not alone. The rally began at Hart House at the University of Toronto, and then marched to the campus of Ryerson University.
The rally coincided with a mass demonstration in Montreal, estimated to have had over 250,000 participants, which commemorated the 100th day of the strike, and intended to defy the Charest government’s “special” emergency law, Bill 78, which banned protests attended by more than 50 people. The Montreal demonstration’s size shows the anger in society and was a huge challenge to Charest’s attempt to curtail democratic rights. Legal scholars have already declared the bill to be unconstitutional; however, Charest’s hope is that through severe repression and intimidation, he can break the movement. Within the past three days, some 450 students have been arrested, including some who have faced serious injuries.
It is also significant that the solidarity rally in Toronto was not organized by any student federation in Ontario, yet was able to mobilize significant support. This is a direct challenge to the attempts by the corporate-owned press and among pro-business politicians, especially in English Canada, to isolate Quebec students by labelling them as “entitled”. This point has been used to justify state repression. This demonstration served to cut across this isolation, and to show that students across Canada are willing to fight.
At the demonstration, calls made by speakers and participants for spreading the Quebec movement to Ontario — by building the momentum for a student strike — were met with significant enthusiasm and applause. Sandy Hudson, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) in Ontario, gave a rousing speech in support of the Quebec student movement. She also called for mobilization committees to be established. After her speech, a chant of “student strike” was raised in the crowd.
Unfortunately, it has been starkly clear that the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the leading student union outside of Quebec, has not been providing much concrete leadership in spreading the student movement in the rest of Canada. It shouldn’t be that a socialist group such as ourselves, Fightback, or the organizing bodies around Occupy Toronto, are the organizers of a demonstration like this.
If the CFS was to begin organizing in earnest, it could build a massive movement in English Canada. This would be a huge boost to the movement in Quebec, and it would prepare the grounds for an Ontario-wide student strike in the coming school semester. The CFS has enormous resources and authority amongst rank-and-file students at its disposal.
Indeed, 300 students and workers have already signed onto an online open letter to the Canadian Federation of Students, calling for the CFS to mobilize towards a strike ballot in the autumn 2012 semester. This letter has been significantly promoted on Facebook and Twitter. The letter has garnered over 2,000 shares on Facebook after it was published on two news websites, by the Toronto Media Co-op and the Montreal Gazette, the leading English-language daily newspaper in Quebec. Last week, the Globe and Mail ran a poll of 2,200 students, which found 69% of Ontario students wanted to go on strike against rising tuition fees. This shows the immense base of support that the student federations can draw upon.
Some have criticized the letter saying that the movement needs to built. We agree. An important part of building such a movement in English Canada is a clear statement from our leaders that they believe strike votes, and if necessary, strike action are the next step. We believe that given the events in Quebec, students will support strike votes in the fall if there is a positive lead given. We can debate precise timelines; however, we fear that those who repeat the elementary statement that “it has to be built,” without proposing a concrete timeline of when they believe it is possible, are merely throwing up a smokescreen to hide their opposition to student strikes at any time. We are asking the CFS to give us leadership in just the same way as no labour union leadership would be silent or organizationally inactive when it is necessary to take a strike vote to defend the interests of their membership.
Our sincere hope is that these fighting words by Sandy Hudson at the demonstration will translate into action. It is very easy to make appeals to the grassroots, or for “ground-up” organizing. Of course, we agree that a student movement needs to have the participation of rank-and-file students. But, this appeal to the grassroots, especially in relation to organizing an intensive student strike, should not be taken to the extreme of an abdication of the responsibilities of leadership.
Let us remember that the student movement in Quebec, which has a powerful grassroots base, was actively built and consolidated by a student union leadership that was willing to openly promote and demand free education, to explain the necessity of strike action, and was prepared to actually carry it out!
Furthermore, the recent statement by Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), encouraging students in Ontario to go on strike displays the powerful reserves of support which also exist in the labour movement. The OFL represents some 700,000 workers, who are themselves facing austerity in the forms of layoffs, wage freezes, back-to-work legislation, and severe attacks at the bargaining table. This student-worker alliance against austerity, not just in Ontario but across Canada, could translate into a powerful movement that could shake the corporate elites.
Student activists, workers, and community members must continue to organize and raise consciousness in English Canada. Tuesday’s rallies have given an important momentum to student activists across Quebec interested in building a fighting movement. We invite all university, college and high school students, workers, and allies to join us in spreading the message of struggle and solidarity.
Fightback activists have been organizing weekly tabling sessions at Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, and York University to raise awareness, to get signatures to our open letter, and to build a base of student activists that are willing to take lessons from Quebec, and bring them to our campuses in the rest of Canada. Join Fightback in building concrete solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Quebec.
Victory to the Quebec students!
Bring the student strikes to the rest of Canada!
Fight for free education!