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The latest drama in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)

Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Oh there's a lot of history here, sure. There's the formation of CASA, there's unpleasant lawsuits, there's a bunch of stuff I have no idea about. But here's the latest controversy just in time to celebrate Frosh Week (and a lot of it is playing out on rabble.ca).

It all begins when a loose grouping of students issued a press release announcing that 15 schools were planning to defederate from the CFS:

College and University students across the country are beginning the process to end their membership with national lobby group, the Canadian Federation of Students. This initiative to “defederate” includes petitions among students at Dawson College (Local 108), as well as the largest schools remaining in the Federation: the University of Toronto, York University, and Ryerson University. Over 15 student associations are currently taking part and this number may grow throughout the fall.  Their aim is to end the Canadian Federation of Students’ control over local campus affairs, but also to begin discussions about alternatives for provincial and national organizing that keep decision-making power in the hands of students.

“Many of us are longtime student organizers and have seen students attempt to reform the CFS from within for decades, but to no avail.  We are taking these steps to defederate because of our dedication to students and to the student movement,” said Ashleigh Ingle, a graduate student at the University of Toronto.  “Students are realizing that their interests are not served by the Canadian Federation of Students. We are not walking away from organizing at the national and provincial level; we are creating the space for that to happen effectively.”  

Ethan Cox posted this press release on his blog and then launched the first shot across the bow:

Whenever anyone tries to leave the CFS, the organization inevitably bleats that it is under attack by the right/Conservative Party and tries to rally progressives to defend it against this "union-busting."

Don't be fooled. In my experience the CFS is a top-down, bureaucratic institution which spends most of its time viciously attacking critics, and fighting off any attempt to reform its own anti-democratic processes. In this defederation, as in all of them, it is the architect of its own misfortune. 

In Quebec, we saw first hand the lengths the CFS would go to to maintain their hold on power. We also saw, last year, what a truly democratic and open student movement looks like. Far from advancing the cause of students, the CFS occupies space needed to organize, and does nothing with it. 

Then another rabble blogger and long-time staff member of CFS, Nora Loreto, responded with words not easily minced:

Advocating for the mass exodus of membership in the CFS does only two things. Spoiler alert: neither of those things is to build the communist, revolutionary organization that some claim they want.

The first result is that it will open a space for the most resourced campus activists to fill it. While it can be hard for anarchists or socialists to accept, these activists will not be progressive. They will be funded by the Liberal and Conservative parties. They will hide behind the veneer of the left until the left falls apart because it divides itself even further and they will win.

While the dissenters' press release says that some of the students who are mobilizing to leave the CFS want to create an ASSE-like alternative, they idiotically state: "But even if students have no desire to join a new organizing body, they should still consider terminating their membership in the CFS."

Real progressive, folks. Damn the CFS and, in its place, we'll take nothing.

Nothing comes of nothing and nothing isn't an alternative.

Another rabble blogger, David Bush, posted another defence of the CFS on a different website.

What was clear to anyone reading this is that the disaffiliation campaign purposes to craft a united front of sorts of the far-left and the right (anybody and everybody who wants to leave the CFS). This is a dangerous strategy that can only benefit reactionary forces on campus. The idea that somehow the far-left can work with forces that are in complete opposition to student power in order to empower students is absolute folly. A campaign such as this is based on a fundamental misreading of the broader political climate on most campuses in English Canada. The CFS has problems, but to work with campus conservatives and liberals to do away with the CFS and institute an ASSE-like structure out of thin air with reactionary allies is beyond ridiculous. This will split the left and benefit the right. I cannot think of an historical example where the far-left advanced struggle by working with the right.  It is an elementary political calculation. Those refusing to accept this are more concerned about their own political identities as radicals than they are about the balance of political force that enables radical struggle to occur.

A rabble reader, responding to Nora's blog, wrote this on our facebook page:

The CFS has massive governance issues. Its locals suffer from incredibly low voter turnout. It is a highly litigious organization that happily sues students if they deviate from the party line. But I'm not afraid to say any of this, because they can sue all they want! I'm broke, because their ineffectual, out of the box campaign on tuition prices failed and now I'm swimming in student debt.

CFS is an obstacle to social change, not just an imperfect institution. It obstructs, co-opts and bureaucratizes. If you're not looking for a career as a bureaucrat, it's your enemy....[H]owever sincere the motives of individuals defending the status quo, it has done nothing to help students. An article about all the bold "stands" the CFS has taken by lines it has drawn in the sand fails to address that the tide is coming in on this particular beach full of lines in the sand, and CFS will drown with one finger of righteous indignation raised uselessly in the air. Let's not let student radicalism drown with it.

Thoughts? Effigies?


Comments

Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

My own thoughts are conflicted, but I find myself siding with the pro-CFS folk in this particular dispute. I have never, ever gotten drawn into the morass of student politics, although I have tried to be an ally in organizing whenever possible -- and I admire the people who take that very difficult route. I would also like to see a nationwide student org similar to ASSE, but that takes years and years of organizing -- what happened in Quebec last year can be traced back decades. Dismantlilng CFS in the hopes that something organic and more radical will emerge in its place seems short sighted to me.

That said, I know many people who have expressed nothing but frustration with the CFS (although it's hard for me to get on board with some of the "clinging to power" rhetoric), so perhaps drastic action is needed. But leaving a union and established collective power for what looks like nothing? I'd like to hear someone who supports disaffiliation speak to that criticism, which seems very solid to me.


Caissa
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Joined: Jun 14 2006

Nora paints the 1990's with a broad brush. As a former CFS-O Chair from that decade of have responded to her contentions on her blog post.


janfromthebruce
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Joined: Apr 24 2007

I agree with this playing into certain hands. Also, a union, any union is only as strong as it's members solidarity. So if one thinks that by paying dues which are collected through student fees in your tuition is all one has to do and expect that the organization (made up of less than 1% of the total student body) is going to be able to keep the "finger in the dike" well that's pretty disillusional.

And agree with the one blogger that the best resourced will be the ones who pick up the pieces, as is usual and the resulting organization may be more unrepresentative of the student population. Those are my thoughts.


genstrike
Online
Joined: May 1 2008

Honestly, I don't feel I can support either side, and things are going to play out differently across the country because of different contexts.

I'm all for students' rights to choose which federation they affiliate to, and if there were a radical student federation like ASSE in English Canada, I'd be all for switching affiliations from the CFS to that.  And, if people are trying to organize a militant student movement in their area and are rubbing up against the CFS bureaucracy, more power to them if they want to split to build a better student movement.

But, it's also pretty well-documented that the right has had it in for the CFS for a long time, and one of the things they do whenever they get in at any local student union is try to quash their political enemies by defunding PIRGs, closing women's centres, shutting down Palestine solidarity organizations, etc.  And, in a lot of areas of the country, it's not going to be the left behind and benefiting from defederation drives, but the right - with the left as a junior partner.

So, for me it depends on context whether I would support defederation or not.

All I know is that any new student organization with any potential is going to have to be built from the ground up on principles of militancy and democracy, and it's not going to arise out of squabbling between student politicians and their cliques.


Aristotleded24
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Joined: May 24 2005

I find the talk of "liberal and conservative conspiracies" to be overblown, for one. As much as we disagree with the perspective, there are Conservative and Liberal students on campus as well, and they have just as much right to their viewpoints and to access services and go to school as the rest of us. While I agree that the anti-CFS forces are reactionary in their intention, it was ultimately CFS who failed to sell the student membership on benefits of being with the Federation, and instead of looking in the mirror, they are quick to blame others. Genstrike is absolutely correct that much of it amounts to squabbling, and is often a training ground for aspiring politicians concerned more about their political careers than advancing any type of agenda. Complicating matters is that they often only ever run for one term, so what are you going to do if they fail to live up to their promises? Vote them out? The typical turn-out for a student university election is very low, sometimes under 20%. So whether it's CFS/CASA or whatever, the big issue is getting the students themselves engaged.

And I say this as someone who both supports the policy prescriptions of CFS and saw what CFS was like as a university student.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

David Bush is the latest to weigh in: Think before you blow up the CFS

One of those quoted in the press release for the disaffiliation drive stated, "every student -- from every part of the political spectrum -- has a reason to want to leave the Canadian Federation of Students." The press release then went on to layout the reasons for wanting to leave the CFS: questionable financial decisions, a bloated bureaucracy, undemocratic decision-making and ineffective actions.

What was clear to anyone reading this is that the disaffiliation campaign purposes to craft a united front of sorts of the far-left and the right (anybody and everybody who wants to leave the CFS). This is a dangerous strategy that can only benefit reactionary forces on campus. The idea that somehow the far-left can work with forces that are in complete opposition to student power in order to empower students is absolute folly. A campaign such as this is based on a fundamental misreading of the broader political climate on most campuses in English Canada. The CFS has problems, but to work with campus conservatives and liberals to do away with the CFS and institute an ASSE-like structure out of thin air with reactionary allies is beyond ridiculous. This will split the left and benefit the right. I cannot think of an historical example where the far-left advanced struggle by working with the right.  It is an elementary political calculation. Those refusing to accept this are more concerned about their own political identities as radicals than they are about the balance of political force that enables radical struggle to occur.

 


genstrike
Online
Joined: May 1 2008

Also, I'd add that so far, from all the chatter on facebook that I've been following, it seems like the best advocates for each side is their opposition.

The pro-CFS side finds themselves insisting that the CFS is a healthy organization (a dubious proposition), and I've seen a lot of viciousness towards dissenters coming from that quarter - automatically assuming that people are working with the right or closet conservatives, or black-baiting anarchists or anyone who is concerned about the CFS bureaucracy and whether the CFS is really what we need to launch a Quebec-style student strike.

The pro-defed side, on the other hand, does a really poor job of inoculating themselves against the criticism that this may be playing into the hands of the right.  They don't seem to acknowledge the risks, and don't really satisfactorily address these concerns.  That is, when they don't just say "you're wrong" or "you're a CFS hack" when you point out the risks - getting defensive rather than addressing legitimate concerns.

It seems like positions have hardened on this issue very quickly, as to be expected.  Something about student politics being vicious precisely because...

So glad I'm only a (very) part time student...


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