On Nov. 6, students at Toronto universities made history by holding the first post-secondary student strike in English Canada for 23 years. The strike involved three universities: Ryerson, York and OCAD, which in total have around 100,000 students. At each campus, picket lines were set up at major entrances, involving a few hundred students. Some campuses were virtually shut down, while students from Ryerson managed to briefly blockade a major downtown intersection.
These accomplishments are all the more impressive given that English Canada has no living tradition of student strikes. Moreover, a majority of students were not granted amnesty for Nov. 6, meaning they would be penalized for missing class. Those who did participate braved academic penalty, police intimidation, and the harsh Canadian cold to do so.
Fightback is proud to say we played a leading role in this historic strike, in particular through our student activists at Ryerson, which is where the strike campaign was initiated.
At York University, students picketed one of the major entrances to campus for two hours. Some 200 students and their supporters participated, making it impossible to cross. Students were joined by teaching assistants from CUPE 3903, who offered critical support in marshalling the picket line. Students were also joined by a class of high school students, who visited the the rally later in the day with their teacher.
Unfortunately, the campus administration refused to grant amnesty for Nov. 6, making it difficult for more students to participate. Moreover, the administration is believed by some to have called the police on students, attempting to intimidate those who did attend. Despite this, the action carried on unafraid and undeterred.
Afterwards, a lively rally was held outside of the campus subway station, featuring Fightback’s Kiam Lam-Belissimo, among others.
The success at York University was due in part to the long-standing tradition of activism on campus. Many of those who participated belonged to various student clubs, college associations, or campus unions, all of whom were prepared to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, the York Federation of Students (YFS), which represents over 50,000 students on campus, had conducted outreach for the Nov. 6 “action” for over two months, although it was unclear until recently what that action would in fact be.
The York University Fightback club played the main role in pushing the YFS to organize a strike on Nov. 6, releasing multiple public statements in October to that effect. These efforts were made easier by the already existing student strike campaigns at Ryerson and OCAD, which showed the way forward and helped to push the YFS into announcing a strike.
At OCAD and Ryerson, picketing began at 7am, and lasted into the early afternoon. Anywhere from 70-100 students participated in pickets at each campus, many of whom stayed for the entire five or six hours without significant breaks.
At OCAD, students succeeded in virtually shutting the campus down. Despite holding “soft” picket lines (meaning people can only be encouraged not to cross, not entirely barred), a large number of students were convinced by those standing outside not to enter campus. The building was therefore partially abandoned, with many classes being cancelled due to low attendance.
The victory at OCAD was due in large part to the efforts of the OCAD Student Union (OCADSU), the first student union to announce their support for the strike campaign that started at Ryerson. On Oct. 30 and 31, OCADSU held general assemblies (GAs) where students voted unanimously to go on strike. The idea of GAs was directly inspired by Ryerson, which was in turn inspired by the Quebec student movement.
In addition, OCADSU conducted regular outreach on campus to promote the strike, aided by Fightback OCAD activists with experience from the campaign at Ryerson. Due to their combined efforts, the strike campaign received overwhelming support from both students and faculty, the latter of which overwhelmingly encouraged their students to join the strike, or just cancelled classes altogether.
The successful OCAD campaign demonstrates what is possible when student unions confidently advocate strike action, commit their resources to it, and put the power in the hands of students through democratic forums like GAs. Furthermore, it also shows what can be accomplished when student union leaders take on ideas from pro-strike student groups, such as Fightback, rather than walling themselves off for fear of losing control.
At Ryerson, a permanent picket line was held at the main entrance to campus, located at a busy downtown intersection. Given this, students were required to direct traffic, which they did by pausing vehicles for five minutes before allowing them to cross. Picketers motivated themselves by chanting, singing songs, and listening to the impassioned speeches from students and faculty members. Thousands of leaflets were distributed to students approaching the picket line, with hundreds of conversations being held throughout the day.
Despite their support for the strike, the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) played no role in running the main picket line. Instead, it was directed by the Ryerson Student Strike Committee (RSSC), a grassroots coalition of students that launched the strike campaign, and in which Fightback activists play a lead role. Most students who participated in the picket line first learned about it through the RSSC, despite having far less resources than the student union. Picket captains were also trained by and placed under the direction of the RSSC.
At 1:30pm, the picket line was disbanded, and a joint march was held between the RSSC, RSU, and supporters from the labour movement. The 200-strong march paraded south from Ryerson to Yonge and Dundas—a busy downtown intersection. The intersection was then occupied by students for a short period of time, interrupting traffic. From there, the march continued along Dundas St. in the direction of OCAD, where picket lines were still being held. As the march approached OCAD, students erupted into deafening cheers, before the two campuses were ultimately united.
After a short period of celebration, the united march of 400 or so pressed on to Queen’s Park—home of the provincial legislature. Upon arrival, students once again broke out into cheers, before directing the anger at the towering building in front of them. At this point, numerous speakers delivered impromptu speeches, including an activist from Fightback. It was clear from conversations later that, after such a momentous day, students were already beginning to consider their next steps.
How to build a strike
The Toronto Student Strike did not drop from the sky. Before late-September, almost no one aside from Fightback was seriously raising the proposal for such an action. This changed after Sept. 25, when the recently formed RSSC held their first GA at Ryerson, in which over 200 students voted in favour of a strike. That meeting, one of the largest in Ryerson’s history, was organized independently of the student union leadership, despite a mandate requiring them to hold a GA. Not long after, enthusiasm for the strike spread to OCAD, and then to York.
However, while the strike campaign may have started at Ryerson, students there also faced the greatest obstacles in bringing it to fruition. For an entire month, the RSU leadership refused to acknowledge the vote at the GA, and avoided the question of if they would endorse the strike. However, this didn’t deter the RSSC, which continued to agitate for a strike and involve ever more students in strike mobilizations.
Before long, the RSSC began to build real momentum for a strike on campus. They did this, not with piles of money or bureaucratic connections, but with tireless work, the correct ideas, and an unswerving faith in students. At a certain point, the RSU leadership had no choice but to endorse the strike, lest they lose whatever authority they still had.
Had it not been for the few dozen students who made up the RSSC and worked tirelessly promoting the strike, it is hard to imagine any student strikes taking place on Nov. 6. The RSSC not only proposed the idea of organizing a strike (anyone can do this)—they showed in practice how it could be done.
The student movement in English Canada is entering a period of rebirth. Students from across the country are now wondering how to repeat the Toronto Student Strike on their own campuses. In Toronto itself, students are wondering how to move beyond a one day strike and broaden its scope. These are questions that, mere days ago, never seriously entered people’s minds. Now they are practical considerations for a student body on the move.
For years, student leaders led the movement astray by arguing “Ontario isn’t Quebec,” in reference to the Quebec Student Strike of 2012. However, the Quebec student movement had to start somewhere, as do students here. On Nov. 6, Ontario students took a huge step in that direction—the first of many. However, now that students have taken that step, it will be impossible to go back.
The old ways of doing things is dead. Ontario students are building new traditions, better traditions, fighting traditions. The student movement needs to build a new fighting leadership that can act as the spark to a movement encompassing hundreds of thousands—and one that has at its aim the downfall of the Ford regime.