"16 schools want to leave CFS," declares Ethan Cox at his rabble.ca and Canada.com blogs. 16 schools -- sensationalized even from the press release it references, issued by the students organizing the disaffiliation petition drive.
Like a playbook from a Manning Centre workshop, the release dropped during the first week back to school at most campuses, right in time to feed the student press.
We expect these attacks from the right. We, progressives who work within organizations that are well-resourced and have the potential to seriously disrupt the status quo, face these attacks regularly. They're easy to understand when they come from the right. They're harder to square when the come from the so-called left.
I say "so-called" because I don't think anyone who allies themselves with the right to call for the whole-scale destruction of a progressive entity, especially without building an alternative, can call themselves progressive without being laughed at.
This goes for unions, this goes for the NDP and it goes for the Canadian Federation of Students.
The CFS is impressive for a lot of reasons. After decades of growth, it has the resources to drive higher education policy in many provinces, and can offer students services that do save money. In the 1990s, when the organization was taken over by Liberals, the idea that the CFS would take a position against war, Islamophobia, racism or even call for free education would have been hilarious.
Fast forward a decade and a half and the CFS is on the front lines of each of those struggles. It defends students' right to choose in the face of extreme backlash. It staunchly opposes war and militarism. It defends free higher education.
I mention these victories to not say that the organization doesn't deserve criticism, but to try and contextualize the current "attack." When you get past the petty personal shit (and, I assure you, every single person who isn't controlled by the Liberal or Conservative party has been burned by or developed beefs with someone at the CFS), there's simply no current, progressive argument in favour of disaffiliation on which to stand.
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.
The other natural outcome is what worries me the most. As a former staff person of the organization, I have had more than my share of grievances with the organization. As I know how hard it is to work and make change, build consensus, actually organize and realize a new, progressive project, I also know that writing a blog littered with factual inaccuracies to burn an organization that once burned your friends is way easier.
But these kinds of attacks will actually stop the leadership of the CFS from implementing the reforms, campaigns or new organizing strategies that it desperately needs. Instead, they'll focus on these disaffiliation campaigns, fight them on the ground and resources for broad-based organizing will vanish.
Well-meaning students who want their national federation to be more militant, will find themselves stuck defending the very existence of the CFS rather than organizing for free education. These attacks stymie the expression of the very politics it claims to promote.
Many of those named on this petition went about "reforming" the CFS through hammering its bureaucracy: its bylaws and policies. It must have been a huge surprise to find out that, by and large, unless you have severe social awkwardness issues, no one cares about bylaw changes.
What students care about is the campaigns, the demands, the militant action and the ability of their national or provincial organization to influence the public debate. Claiming that the CFS cannot be reformed because you un-strategically walked in with a crowbar, swung it at some bylaws and talked about lawsuits in vague enough terms that most delegates tuned out, is living in a fantasy world.
You want to reform the CFS? You have to engage. You have to win the arguments at general meetings and the actually do the work on the ground. You have to lead with campaigns and services and build community -- the aspects of the organization that students actually care about, rather than engaging in some spun-out tale about how your former roommate was once called a name by a national office staffer (for example).
You have to work toward progressive change in a good way, with good intentions and with lots of hard work. If you can't see that the CFS is an organization with the resources to be turned into a dangerously progressive force, your personal rage is clouding your judgment.
I chose to not take on the facts contained within blog posts already written (even though since yesterday, Cox's blog went from the CFS was suing Concordia Students' Union to it being the opposite, but what are a few facts when a personal vendetta is on the line?) and I also chose to not focus on another legitimate but issue-obscuring argument (like, why is there not one list of all 15 or 16 schools? Are we talking 16 students at 16 schools? 30 students at 10 schools but different students' unions? 10,000 students at U of T? etc.) I could do both, and will if there's enough demand.
I also didn't investigate the actual ties to the Conservative party (though, it's worth mentioning that the Laurentian undergraduate CFS rep, presumably included in the disgruntled Laurentian University group, is a former staffer for Tony Clement and Conservative Party activist.) I didn't do this because it's well documented. I've written about it before and, as more "leaders" emerge from behind the so-called radical left leading this charge, its face will become more obvious.
Just like in 2009, the last time this strategy was attempted, the left may be the face now, but on the ground, the pieces will be set up and knocked down by the right.
Any so-called progressive that's willing to ally with these forces to settle a score should have their head shaken.
Personal disclosure: Until August, I was a member of the Canadian Federation of Students/CFS-Saskatchewan. That's my only formal interaction with the organization since I left my job there in June 2012. I was previously Communications and Government Relations Coordinator for the CFS-Ontario. I now live in Québec where, contrary to what some Anglophones say in Montreal, I've found that no one here cares about the Canadian Federation of Students. I have been asked by several people to respond, not one of which works or holds a position with the CFS currently or ever.
Photo from the 2010 anti-tuition fee rally held in Ottawa