On 1st February, thousands of students across Canada rallied on the National Day of Action against tuition fees. Tuition fees across Canada have skyrocketed. In Ontario, where tuition fees are the highest in Canada, fees have increased by over 300% since the early 1990s and now stand at an average of $6,640. Students are increasingly realizing that unless they take a stand against a government agenda of neglect for post-secondary education, their financial situation and debt load will continue to deteriorate. For many working-class youth, education is out of reach altogether.
The CFS’ National Day of Action wonderfully demonstrated the fighting energy of Ontario students in a spirited march to Queen’s Park. Students from the three Toronto universities, in addition to numerous colleges and campuses outside of the city, converged in a rally that demonstrated that young people are anything but apathetic.
This demonstration, organized by Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) locals across Canada, is a very important step forward for the student movement. The sense of empowerment and collective struggle was evident. The demonstration, just months after the massive Occupy Toronto movement of 2011, displays the mood of anger among young people, and their willingness to take political action to fight for a society where unemployment, poverty, debt, and inequality are addressed.
The activists of Fightback are proud to be part of the Drop Fees movement, and the campus clubs in which we are active wholeheartedly mobilized for this demonstration. With such a magnificent demonstration of youth and student resistance, the pressing question is, where forward from here? How do we build a grassroots, activist, and effective student movement that can actually win free post-secondary education?
Capitalist crisis & post-secondary education
This demonstration has shown students that they are not alone. Thousands of their fellow students are in the same situation, and like them, want to do something about it. Even beyond the students who attended the demonstrations, tens of thousands of other students will have been inspired by this energetic show of collective struggle by their classmates.
At the same time, it should be clear that we are still far from winning our goal. The February 1st protest alone will not bring about free post-secondary education. On the contrary; tuition fees will continue to skyrocket. The Dalton McGuinty tuition “rebate”, which excludes thousands of students, will be overshadowed within a couple years by his continued annual fee increases. In fact, even for those students who are eligible for the grant, their tuition fees will still be higher than when the McGuinty Liberals first took office in 2003. The CFS has correctly exposed this hypocrisy, pointing out the fraction of tuition fees paid out by the Ontario premier when he was a student himself.
The statements made by Prime Minister Harper and Ontario Premier McGuinty, over the past week, have all emphasized the “necessity” for fiscal restraint. They are both proposing to carry out the first wave of austerity cuts this year. The cuts that have been discussed thus far include attacks on pensions, layoffs, wage restraint on public sector workers, and cuts to healthcare and education. One way or another, young people will face the brunt of these austerity cuts, or “fiscal restraint”.
Canada has been no exception from the global capitalist crisis. Just as in the rest of Europe and in the USA, big business and banks were massively bailed out and received corporate tax breaks. The wealth of the rich is protected despite the fact that they caused the crisis. Massive government deficits have been accrued as a result of these corporate handouts, and it will be working people who will be made to pay the bill.
The common refrain that our generation is told continuously is that “there is not enough money” for education, good jobs, housing, childcare, and healthcare. All that capitalism can offer for millions of working-class Canadians is the demand that we take sacrifice after sacrifice. The depth of hypocrisy in this agenda is displayed by the $125-billon handed to the banks by the bailout of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the $9-billion in bonuses raked in by executives of the top five Canadian banks in 2010 and 2011, or the tens of billions in corporate tax breaks approved by McGuinty and Harper.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Workers and youth can win the fight for good jobs, free education, and decent services. However, this will not be an easy struggle. The one-day demonstration on 1st February is an important start, but it is far from enough to win. We must build from this momentum. Thousands of students have attended their first rally and are becoming politicized. We must use this energy to built an activist culture on the campuses and escalate the struggle for free education.
Participation and activism
The Drop Fees campaign must be taken further. The student movement will be ignored if it only organizes a protest every year or two. This has been the situation in Ontario over the past decade, and university administrations and pro-business politicians have responded by continuously hiking tuition fees. If we do not escalate the movement, they will continue to increase the financial burden of students.
The student movement must develop in terms of increasing political activity and building broader participation. This task must be carried out primarily by our student unions, which are the basic vehicle through which students will express themselves. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which represents the majority of undergraduates outside of Quebec, has a membership of approximately 500,000 members. This establishment of the student union federation in 1981, which occurred through the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s, was an important victory. It established a united and well-organized student organization, with a general left-wing orientation, that is capable of national mobilization.
The CFS has huge a potential that has unfortunately not been realized. The activists of Fightback are proud student unionists, but there are important critiques we put forward in terms of political perspective and tactics. The issue of access to education is much too pressing to allow the status quo to continue. We must build an effect movement for free education, which will require much larger participation of students.
The immediate step that should be taken, after the successful Day of Action, is building the vehicles for students to continue to be political active. These activist bodies would provide an avenue for students to regularly participate in student politics, debate their political views, and mobilize actions. The bodies would build the movement’s campaigns, particularly for free education, and fight around day-to-day issues of students as well as the broader working class. These committees would not be limited to organizing around tuition fees, but would also take up issues such as public transit fees, academic freedom, racism, international solidarity, the minimum wage, and support for labour struggles.
In addition to promoting and supporting activism, the task of political education and building awareness is vital. The CFS locals should organize regular forums, townhalls, and discussion groups around current political issues and the history of past struggles. Many students on the campuses, though opposed to tuition fees, have been influenced by the bias of the corporate press into believing that such expectations are unrealistic. Holding regular townhalls on topics such as wealth inequality in Canada would strengthen the student movement tremendously.
Furthermore, drawing on the experiences of student and labour movements across the world would empower students in Canada. Recent examples of the ongoing Quebec student strikes and demonstrations, or the mass movements in Chile and Britain, would raise the scope of what is “possible” through political activity.
The CFS locals have significant resources at their disposal, both in terms of finances and in full-time organizers and staff on campuses. They also have significant authority among the tens of thousands of undergraduates on each campus. They have an obligation to be the voice of opposition against the inequalities facing working-class, immigrant, and poor students, and to create a movement that can succeed in addressing them.
Risk of disillusionment
As it currently stands, the semi-annual Drop Fees protests serve as an exercise in letting off steam by the thousands of frustrated and financially pressed students. Students will attend the demonstration, and are then told to go home. No action is followed up with. There is no escalation of the movement. The student unions provide no channels through which newly mobilized students can get involved.
Often the result is disillusionment. Students who are struggling with heavy course loads, part-time jobs, uncertainty of employment after graduation, and massive debts do not have time to waste on an ineffective movement. If students see the drop fees campaign as ineffective, they will go back to political inactivity. Many honest students come to the conclusion that these inequalities will never change, and therefore there is no point to protesting. They argue that they might as well hit the books with the faint hope of some kind of future financial security.
This ineffectiveness of the student movement is linked to the political perspective of the Canadian Federation of Students. Naturally, there are a myriad of opinions among various student union leaders. Generally, however, there is an approach to campaigning against tuition fees where lobbying is the primary emphasis, and one-day demonstrations are used to increase the public pressure. The CFS locals have not adopted a grassroots and fighting strategy to eliminate tuition fees.
We believe that many of our student leaders are genuine in their intentions. There is, however, a pressing need for our student unions to mobilize the power of hundreds of thousands of students in Canada. Millions of working-class youth in Canada are struggling with debt, poverty, minimum wage jobs, and some resorting to criminal activity to make ends meet. The issue of access to education cannot be taken lightly. We must move forward to build an activist and consistent student movement to abolish tuition fees for all!
Militant tactics are necessary to win
In addition to building a participatory movement to bring students into regular political activity, we must also determine the correct methods of struggle. The alliance between university bosses, the politicians at Queen’s Park and Ottawa, and the big business interests on Bay Street is a formidable force that we must contend with.
The capitalist class will not pay attention to good arguments or research proposals presented by students. No matter how just the demand for free education is, their profit-interests will come first. That is, unless workers, students, and youth are able to force these concessions from the bosses. The student unions must escalate the struggle. Regular demonstrations, occupations, and student walkouts will build the confidence and momentum of the movement. With growing momentum, the student unions can organize mass strikes and campus occupations, with the bold demand for free post-secondary education.
Just as a trade union resorts to picket lines and strikes to put pressure when the bosses refuse to meet the demands of the workers, we must escalate our tactics in the face of a disregard for working-class youth by the politicians and the university administration.
Some elected representatives involved with the CFS locals will say that this is unrealistic — that students are not ready for such actions. This is simply not true. The mass turnout and energetic spirit we witness in the irregular Drop Fees demonstrations over the past years are indicative of a willingness to fight back. The Occupy Toronto movement drew over 10,000 young people into protests and direct action, and that was without any prior organization!
In Quebec, the student unions were able to organize a strike of over 200,000 students this past November, and a mass demonstration of 30,000 in the downtown of Montreal. This movement continues to develop, and there are plans for larger movements in March of 2012. It is this willingness to fight that has allowed Quebec tuitions to be the lowest in Canada — less than half of those in Ontario. For example, in 2005, Quebec students were able to prevent $100-million in cuts to post-secondary funding through a militant strike and campus occupations. The important point that is illustrated by the Quebec student movement is that working people of Canada will never win any concession from the ruling class, unless we force it from their hands. Corporations, and their politician friends, will not be convinced by intelligent arguments of the student movement. What will force their hand is relentless and militant action.
The only thing preventing such a student movement from developing in the rest of Canada is a grassroots-oriented and militant student leadership. The development of such a movement is entirely possible. We call on our elected student union representatives to take the necessary steps to move forward. The Marxists pledge their support in regard to building this movement.
Students must connect with the working-class movement
It must be clearly stated that students, in and of themselves, can be isolated and ignored by the bosses. Mass demonstrations and student strikes can have an important effect on mass consciousness and cause some disruption to business as usual. However, it is the working class that is the most powerful force in Canada. Workers can paralyze the economy, hitting the bosses where it hurts.
The student movement must also actively reach out to workers, particularly the millions of workers organized into labour unions. This alliance of youth, students, and workers would be a powerful force that could win not just free post-secondary education, but address the more deeply rooted problem of inequality and corporate ownership of the economy. Students do not just face barriers at school; some of the most extreme barriers emerge after they have graduated and are looking for a good, well-paying job in their field of study. This intrinsically links up the needs of the labour movement with those of students.
To the credit of the Canadian Federation of Students, there have been some important campaigns to build student-worker solidarity. The student unions organized an important showing of solidarity with the postal workers who were on strike, and then locked-out, in 2011. Many student union leaders have also been outspoken in their support of unions representing academic workers and other campus workers.
These alliances must be further entrenched. Rank-and-file students should be encouraged to get directly involved in the struggles of the working class. The fight of tenants for affordable housing, the fight of city workers facing layoffs and privatization, or the struggle against police brutality are all issues that students should be, and often are, interested in getting organized around. Indeed, these issues directly affect many students. An activist student movement could act as a spark, as it often has been in history, to broader movements of the entire working class.
At the February 1 Drop Fees protest, Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) president Sid Ryan made an excellent speech to over a thousand students at Queen’s Park. He explained, “With the billions of public dollars that McGuinty has handed out in tax cuts to profitable corporations, he could have eliminated tuition fees for every student.” Most importantly, however, was his call to build a unified movement. Sid spoke about the need to unite the student movement with the labour movement, the Occupy movement, and the “social-democratic movement”, which likely referred to the New Democratic Party (NDP). This is precisely the broad perspective our student movement needs, and it is important that Sid Ryan, leader of the OFL which represents one-million workers in the province, has made this gesture of solidarity.
The student movement has enormous potential to grow. Across the world, from Cairo to London, young people are sparking mass movements and revolutions. Our generation will not accept obscene inequality, unemployment, and poverty. The university and college students can play an enormous role in the coming movements of working people in Canada. It is vital that we build a participatory, activist, and militant students’ movement, and our elected student union representatives must provide such a leadership. Let us move forward to bring free post-secondary education to Canada, and address the range of social and economic problems in our society.
For an activist and militant student movement!
Free post-secondary education now!
Students and workers unite against austerity!