Over the past year, there has been an unprecedented interest amongst students across Canada in the fight against rocketing tuition fees. The major factor that has contributed to this growing political awakening among students, other than the unprecedented cost of education and student debt, has been the magnificent example set by the students in Quebec who were able to beat back tuition hikes, resist the attempt by the courts and the cops to repress their movement, and bring down the hated Liberal government of Jean Charest.

Impressive efforts were made by a growing layer of active students across Canada to learn from this example. This translated into the organizing of demonstrations in solidarity with Quebec, and attempts to spread the movement to the rest of the country during the past spring and summer. However, we need to be honest with ourselves; as we approach the end of the autumn semester, there is unfortunately little political activity to be seen among the students in English Canada.

Why isn’t a student movement being built in English Canada? Is it because the students are not interested in collective struggle? Are the youth content with the status quo?

The current era of the crisis of capitalism has been defined by instability, insecurity, and the shaking of all aspects of life. This has created a profound shift in the lives of billions across the globe. Every assumption and myth about the society in which we live in has come into question. The so-called harmony and stability that characterized Europe and North America is becoming a thing of the past. Millions are being forced, with their backs against the wall, into political life for the first time in their lives. The supposed apathy of the youth, even in Canada, is everyday becoming a thing of the past.

As socialists and activists, our study and analysis of the economic crisis is not due to a passing intellectual interest or for the purpose of writing clever academic commentary. Our concern is with its effects on the lives of working people and of the youth.

In North America, the ever-worsening new economic reality has been felt most harshly by the youth. It has largely been the youth who have begun to express their frustrations first, as evidenced by the #Occupy and Quebec student movements.  There has also been an explosive situation developing on campuses in English Canada and the USA, which thus far, has expressed itself in sporadic protest actions.

This is a parallel process to what occurred in the southern European countries where the youth, more sensitive to the effects of unemployment and cuts, entered into political struggle first. This foreshadowed the entrance of the broader working class into mass strike action. North America is simply at an earlier stage of a similar process of politicization and radicalization.

By and large, however, the anger of students and youth has not been able to find an outlet in English Canada.  Canadian youth have twice the rate of unemployment than the rest of the population. The overwhelming majority of students fear that there won’t be anything resembling decent employment waiting for them after they graduate. Part-time, contract, or low-paying work is the new reality.  A 2010 report in the Economist revealed that nearly 40% of graduates in Canada end up in low-skill jobs after graduation. Meanwhile, for most young people, getting out of the debt trap is, at best, a dim light in the far distant future. With this bleak future under capitalism awaiting them, it is little wonder why youth are particularly sensitive to the effects of the economic crisis.  Under austerity capitalism, today’s generation of youth are set to be the first generation since World War II to have a worse standard of living than their parents, and perhaps even their grandparents.

What has prevented this reality from translating into a mass movement against austerity, the rising costs of living, debt, and unemployment is the lack of a political vehicle through which youth can struggle collectively. The movements thus far have been predominantly spontaneous. The #Occupy movement and the “casserole” demonstrations, organized in solidarity with Quebec students, were organized almost out of thin air. This shows the immense potential that exists. It also shows the harsh reality that youth have no organization to turn towards. The trade unions, the student unions, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) have, thus far, generally failed to provide a vehicle for the youth.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)

The CFS, which is the main student union in English Canada, should be the natural co-ordinating body and vehicle to organize collective struggle among the students. During the spring and summer of 2012, the CFS rank-and-file took the initiative to organize mass demonstrations (or “casserole” demonstrations) and a number of forums, with little or no assistance of their leaders — even though at the time, the CFS leaders came out in support of building the Quebec student movement and committed to building the student movement in English Canada.

The “Open Letter to the CFS”, initiated by student unionists involved with Fightback during the spring/summer of 2012, called upon the CFS to prepare “a campaign of mass educationals, solidarity delegations, and mass mobilizations to lead up towards a student strike in Ontario,” with the aim to organize strike votes in the fall. It became very popular among students and was signed by hundreds across Canada, as well as getting national media attention.

The leaders of the CFS responded to the demand for a strike by saying that they, too, were interested in building the student movement, but that the open letter was making a mistake in calling for a strike to occur so soon.  They argued that “the student movement must be built”, that this task would take some time, and that the call to begin organizing a strike was, therefore, premature.  They assured the students that they were interested in organizing a student movement. The CFS leaders even began publicly calling for free post-secondary education, including at the “casserole” solidarity protests that had been organized by the effort of their student base. Furthermore, they publicly approved of the calls by the students for the establishment of democratic assemblies, following the Quebec model, so that students could participate in their student unions and hold them to account.

Many students were understandably quite excited by this development. A number of student activists accepted the arguments made by the CFS leadership — that the activists of Fightback were too much “in a hurry” in demanding that the CFS begin preparing for a strike. These students felt that we should give the CFS leaders time, as they had requested, to “build from the ground-up”. Besides, the CFS leaders were coming out in favour of building the student movement!

About five months have passed and we have to ask, what has come of these commitments made by the CFS leaders? Why is there no progress in building the student movement, and why has political activity declined even compared to the past school year? What are the CFS leaders actually doing to build the student movement?

What is actually being done?

The reality is that, since the school semester has begun, no progress been made in terms of building the student movement. Any politically active student can’t help but see that no organizing vehicles have been built for students and that no attempt has been made towards building the movement from the ground up. It is sufficient to simply outline one fact — not one single mass collective action (such as a rally) has been organized by the CFS leaders since the Quebec student movement took off in early spring of 2012.

In fact, the CFS has actually taken a step backwards from the already minimal level of organizing of past years. It is shocking that heading into their November annual general meeting, the CFS had no plans to organize the annual “Drop Fees” demonstration in 2013. We do not know whether the CFS leadership will organize any major demonstration this school year. We should say that the Drop Fees campaign has always been a very limited organizing effort. In past years, this campaign has made no effort to organize students in a continuous manner, and made absolutely no attempt to escalate the protests. It has served as a one-day symbolic demonstration which puts token pressure towards, and always subordinated to, the main strategy of lobbying politicians.

One would have expected the CFS leaders, after making commitments to their rank-and-file to build the student movement, to begin escalating the Drop Fees campaign or to build a new and more vigorous campaign to fight skyrocketing tuition fees. We should remember that the CFS has enormous resources at its disposal in the form of many dozens of full-time organizers, millions of dollars, a well-organized national federation, and the political clout that would give students the necessary confidence to feel that a student movement could actually win. The CFS leadership is even stepping back from their already-low level of activity!

Even at local campuses where the CFS leaders have organized public meetings on the topic of the student movement, there has been no attempt to organize or to give direction to the avid and large audiences of students that have flocked to these events. Many students leave these meetings inspired to fight, but also disoriented and confused as to how they can help build the movement.

Why have the CFS leaders failed to meet their commitments?

We need to be clear — words have not translated into action. This level of inactivity serves to paralyze the potential youth movement. One has to simply compare the lack of activity of the student leaders to the initiative of the rank-and-file in the past year to see that an enormous gulf exists between the youth and their leaders.

The only conclusion that we can come to, after the experience of Quebec and after the commitments made during the past summer, is that the current leadership of the CFS has no interest in organizing a student movement.

Fightback has warned that the reformist and lobbyist outlook of the student leadership leads to a lack of willingness to fight, and only serves to weaken the student movement. A weak student movement has been a gift to the bosses and politicians who have, and will continue to, hike our tuition fees and leave a generation in debt bondage.

The commitments and left speeches made to the rank-and-file are explained by the pressure felt by the CFS leaders. Many thousands of students in English Canada began to explicitly demand that the CFS leaders organize towards strike actions. They did this by taking to the streets, organizing marches, and by signing the “Open Letter to the CFS”. Unfortunately, as soon as the students temporarily grew tired, because of a lack of support and resources, the CFS leaders went back to business as usual.

We do note that there are some activists and elected representatives in various campus CFS locals that we consider to be genuinely interested in building a student movement. Their voice has, unfortunately, been kept at the margins and has not found any practical expression. We encourage these people to be vocal so that students looking to get active can connect with them, and that they help us in addressing the unacceptable conduct of the broader CFS leadership.

An urgent need for a united front against austerity

The capitalist class is already carrying out massive austerity cuts on the entire working class, a process that will only deepen in the coming years. The students and youth can play a very significant role in the fight to challenge austerity, and the broader capitalist system that requires the cuts to survive. The spirit of resistance already flows through the veins of the young generation. At the schools, colleges, and universities, this spirit must express itself into a front against austerity cuts, starting with the fight against tuition fees.

Historically, movements of the youth have acted as a spark to mass movements and revolutions. These movements also act as an important political school for the youth, who will tomorrow enter the workforce (if they haven’t already) and bring their experiences into the labour movement. Such collective struggle by the youth can have an electrifying effect on the entire society, as it already has in Quebec, Chile, Tunisia, or Spain.

The movement of students should therefore actively seek to connect with the struggle of the broader working class, and particularly organized labour, who are being ferociously targeted by austerity, factory closures, mass layoffs and the elimination of the democratic right to strike. The student unions must immediately reach out to the labour movement and the NDP to form a united front against austerity. The energy of the students can galvanize the anger of the rank-and-file of these organization, especially if active efforts were made to send contingents of students to every strike and demonstration organized by the labour movement.

The example of an active militant movement of students would quickly inspire the workers, who have not been provided with any direction by the passive and reformist leaders of the mass workers’ organizations (the trade unions and the NDP). The students, alone, will not be able to defeat austerity, and can win but temporary victories (such as in Quebec). In contrast, a united front with the working class would wield the tremendous power necessary to defeat austerity measures.

What is to be done

Educating the hundreds, and even thousands, of students who are actively seeking political activity is the immediate task. One key lesson is the role being played by the current leadership of the CFS. The active layer of students must organize to take back the student federation — to put the CFS locals into the hands of fighting leaders instead of lobbyists; to transform the student unions into bodies accountable to the democratic will of the grassroots rank-and-file, a concept that terrifies the current leadership.

Some left-wing students and activists have disagreed with some aspects of Fightback’s student program. Most of these disagreements have been on technical matters, such as timing, structure, or other smaller details. We think these things are not the major issue at the present and will be worked out in the course of building a fighting student movement.

One thing we should all agree on, and should be willing to work towards, is to take back the CFS and provide an active and militant pole to which students, who are looking to get active, can get attracted towards. No honest student militant can find the present state of affairs of inaction to be acceptable.

For the student movement to play a significant role in the fight against austerity, there must be a political struggle against the passive reformism and bureaucratization of the student unions. It is this task that defines the role of revolutionary students. Any political tendency that provides left cover for the unforgivable conduct of the student union leaders is binding itself to their failures, and takes responsibility for their inactivity.

There is, however, one perspective among a small minority of student militants that we must clearly challenge. These people put forward the idea that we should organize to break the campuses away from the CFS. Their view is that the CFS is not salvageable, and that the national federation should be dismantled. We believe that this strategy is ineffective and counter-productive. Wasting our efforts in lengthy de-federation campaigns would waste the valuable time of student activists. Our time is better spent educating and organizing fellow students.

A national and co-ordinated student federation was a significant step forward for Canadian students. It was only built by the struggle of past generations of students, and stands as a contrast to the scattered student organizations in the USA. Breaking the CFS apart would be a gift to the pro-business politicians and the university administrations. Instead, we should fight to reshape the CFS. Some will say this is impossible. We would like to ask the student activists who put forward this ultra-left position how they can expect the students to possibly defeat tuition hikes if the students are, at the same time, incapable of reshaping their student federations by taking them out of the hands of the reformists who are currently in control?

Other activists have laid heavy emphasis on structure and the need to emulate the departmental general assembly (GA) model of Quebec before there can be talk of militant actions against tuition hikes. We are in favour of genuinely democratic GAs, and we are in favour of building in departments. But, this “wait for a GA” mantra is actually serving to direct pressure away from the CFS leaders. When confronted by activists demanding action, the leaders say, “You must go to the departments,” as if activists were not already active in their departments! This absolves the elected representatives of any responsibility and puts the blame for any lack of progress on the rank-and-file who have minimal resources. Meanwhile the $2.7-million in CFS National’s war chest, in addition to the provincial and local resources and organizers, sit idle, while bureaucratic blockages are thrown in the way of the formation of GAs.

General assembly democracy is great, but questions of structure are a bit abstract for normal everyday students. People will ask, “Democracy for what?” You cannot eat democracy. Discussion on structure, isolated from the need to build a militant strategy against hikes and for free education, will not create mass activity. We ask those left-wing activists who have been promoting “departmental organizing”, as a supposed alternative to putting demands on the leadership, to give an account of how much has been achieved while the present CFS leadership is in place. It is not a question of “wait for a GA” or “wait for the leaders”. The real task is to fight for an elected and accountable leadership that believes in building a militant activist student federation based upon the principles of direct democracy and general assemblies. Don’t wait for anybody, fight now for both!

What does a fighting leadership look like?

There is an urgent task to educate the hundreds of thousands of students in the tradition of collective struggle, to raise their political confidence and prepare them for the austerity measures that, if unchallenged, will darken the lives of coming generations. With a fighting leadership, the student unions would become a training school for developing new activists. Political education and discussion would be promoted to instil the lessons from past struggles and to give a theoretical foundation to students. Democratic general assemblies would be encouraged at every level, with the aim of igniting the creativity of the students and cementing their ownership of the struggle. Students would be able to develop practical skills through their involvement in organizing the movement. Immediate preparations would be made to organize demonstrations, with the aim of encouraging and inspiring the students to prepare for a one-day student strike as a beginning. These would be the immediate tasks of a student union leadership genuinely interested in building a student movement.

Furthermore, a direct connection would be made between the difficulties facing the youth, and those of the entire working class. A direct alliance must be made between the student movement and the labour movement, one that is forged in real struggle on picket lines and mass demonstrations of the trade unions that are under fire by the bosses, by the politicians and by the courts. The energy of the youth could revitalize and strengthen the working class movement, and therefore, the fight against austerity.

The most consistent fighting leadership will be one that is armed with a revolutionary socialist perspective — with an understanding of the current era of capitalist crisis, the brutal austerity that capitalism requires for its survival, and therefore, the pressing necessity of overthrowing the dictatorship of bankers and industrialists. Only a socialist society, based on a workers’ government and workers’ democratic control of the commanding heights of the economy, can protect the past or present-won reforms and democratic rights, improve the conditions of life of the millions and build a society based on genuine equality.

Take back our student federation!

For free education and workers’ solidarity!

Transform the CFS into a fighting organization against austerity!