The cold war between Quebec's student associations is threatening to boil over this week, after the embattled Quebec Federation of College Students (FECQ) took to the media to denounce the rival Association for Syndical Solidarity among Students (ASSE).
The ASSE, who represented roughly 70 per cent of striking students during this year's strike under the umbrella of CLASSE, are considered to be the more "radical" student association, and there is a long history of internal feuds between them and the FECQ and their university counterpart, the FEUQ.
Although in the past the Federations have held the upper hand, they were largely sidelined in this year's strike, and saw their stock drop significantly among students as CLASSE reaped the rewards of a near-total victory over the previous Liberal government of Jean Charest.
In the wake of the strike the FECQ has been accused of a lack of democracy and transparency (a serious charge in Quebec's student movement, which values direct democracy uber alles) and has seen six member schools vote to disaffiliate, with several more disaffiliation votes looming. The student association at CEGEP St. Laurent, which is affiliated with ASSE, has even been given a mandate by their members to work towards the total destruction of the FECQ.
It's a state of affairs which FECQ spokesperson Vincent-Olivier Bastien admitted to Montreal daily La Presse represents a "crisis" for his organization.
Indeed, the worst may be yet to come. A petition calling a General Assembly on disaffiliation has been submitted at CEGEP de Rosemont. Although Rosemont has only around 3,000 students, it is also the administrative hub for the province-wide distance learning program which counts around 20,000 students.
While there is some debate about whether the distance students ever voted to join FECQ in the first place, or were dragooned into the organization when Rosemont students decided to join, if Rosemont leaves so will they.
Taking into account the recent spate of disaffiliations, the validity of some of which the FECQ contest, their membership currently sits at around 68,000, down from 80,000 during the strike. If Rosemont, and the distance students, were to leave, that number would drop to 45,000.
This is almost exactly the inverse of the ASSE, whose membership has grown from 45,000 to over 70,000 since January.
It is in this context, and no doubt with an eye to staunching the bleeding, that the FECQ launched a broadside attack on ASSE. Repeating allegations published in La Presse, Bastien told rabble.ca that the FECQ believes ASSE is responsible for the wave of disaffiliation campaigns.
"We have seen many people from ASSE on our campuses... in Rimouski [a CEGEP which recently voted to disaffiliate] we saw Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and many other current and former ASSE executives. The posters being used [to campaign for disaffiliation] all look like ASSE posters, they have the same frame, the same font, the same information. So we can say that this campaign is being organized by the ASSE, that it is people who want to join ASSE who are doing this.
It is not okay to do this when we should all be working towards the summit, working to make gains for students. Now we have to work on the summit and deal with this disaffiliation campaign being orchestrated by the ASSE.
Solidarity cannot continue just because we have been invited to the RNE [A student movement forum to coordinate strategy for the Education summit], when every single intervention there was bashing the FECQ."
Bastien told La Presse that FECQ would consider legal action against over-agressive militants and those defaming the organization. He backed off this statement slightly when speaking to rabble, only saying that "intimidation, on either side, will not be tolerated."
When rabble.ca reached out to Nadeau-Dubois for comment on his involvement in the Rimouski campaign he denied playing any part in it, explaining that he had been in Rimouski before the semester even began as part of a promotional tour for a book. FECQ press secretary Nicolas Groulx called back shortly thereafter to clarify that Bastien had misspoken, and that FECQ was not accusing Nadeau-Dubois of involvement in the disaffiliation campaign.
Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesperson for ASSE, was scathing in his rejection of FECQ's allegations.
"We are demanding a public apology from the FECQ, this has gone on long enough. The ridiculous conspiracy theories in the La Presse story have no basis in truth, and for the sake of both organizations FECQ should retract these statements and offer a public apology. Otherwise these claims are so vitriolic, especially around the crazy idea that we want to disaffiliate associations to go on a general strike in January, that they are grounds for legal action.
All of these claims are false. They're hyperbolic, vitriolic, and a clear indication that for FECQ, time is running out. Perhaps they should concentrate on answering criticism from their members instead of running dirty smear campaigns against other associations. We are sorry that the population has to be dragged into these internal debates in the student movement, but we had to react as soon as possible. I hope the FECQ will apologize promptly so that we can move forward to the summit and to mobilization ahead of the summit."
Whether or not the ASSE itself is involved in disaffiliation campaigns at FECQ schools it seems fairly self-evident that many of the students working to have their schools disaffiliate from FECQ are doing so because they want to join ASSE. After all, there are really only two games in town.
There is nothing wrong with students campaigning to withdraw from one student association and join another. On the contrary it is the essence of democracy. Furthermore, the competition can only help to keep associations accountable and responsive to their membership.
If I were the FECQ, I would be more concerned with discovering why the ASSE is such an appealing alternative for some of their members, and working to address the concerns being raised by their own students, rather than crying foul to the media.