Defederate or Organize? The Student Left and the Canadian Federation of Students

Defederate or Organize? The Student Left and the Canadian Federation of Students

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 education system.

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.

The 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?

This 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 left organization.

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.

Considering 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 movement.

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 democratic society.

Campus Right on the Offensive

These 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 release.

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.

Even 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.

How does 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.

Doug Nesbitt is a member and former president of PSAC 901 representing Queen’s University Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, and Post-doctoral Fellows. He is a co-editor of