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Changing the course of the Canadian Federation of Students

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There are few organizations that polarize people more than the Canadian Federation of Students. Despite its origins going back to the 1920s, the organization's very existence is often the subject of heated debates from people on all ends of the political spectrum.

Over the decades, the organization has ebbed and flowed, drifted from the right to the left. It has grown, collapsed and has certainly evolved.

For example, a recent motion passed by at an Ontario General Meeting took a position in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign called for by Palestinian activists. Just seven years ago, a similar motion was rejected for consideration at a National General Meeting. In 1969, the organization collapsed over a decision made to oppose the Vietnam War. In the 2000s, student activists and the CFS were at the fore of the anti-war movement in Canada.

The organization has continued to push leftward, taken impressive stances on a wide range of political issues and currently demands free education for college and university students.

But these political stances are only a barometer of where the organization is; it does not gauge its strength or judge its activities.

I was involved in the CFS as a rank-and-file student from 2003-2005, as local student union executive from 2005-2008, as provincial executive member from 2008-2009 and as a staff person from 2009-2012. I've seen the organization from the outside, and the inside. I know its weaknesses better than any critic shouting from the outside. I know the political climate in which it operates and, most importantly, the threats that it faces.

At the most basic level, the CFS is as important as any provincial or national union federation. Students need to have a provincial and national framework to help amplify their demands, to break out of the silos of their individual institutions and to bring together students who would otherwise not work together.

In absence of such a uniting force, student unions simply cannot see what's happening elsewhere, what attacks look like in other regions of Canada, what tactics worked and which failed. They need the coordination of the CFS to help strengthen local campaigns and make student issues mainstream, outside of the campus.

And, as university presidents collude through organizations like the Council of Ontario Universities or the AUCC, Canadian students not doing the same thing would be a deadly strategic error. A look at the state of college student unions in Ontario, and how the student union councils routinely approve outrageous fee increases annually, demonstrates this.

But this isn't to say that the CFS should continue along its current course.

Over the past decade, as attacks from administrators and right-wing forces have intensified, paranoia has sometimes replaced political analysis. And, as tuition fee increases have battered several generations of students, feelings of failure have manifested themselves within how the organization undertakes its campaigns.

There are really only two routes for any large federation to take to challenge something that is unjust: one is through campaigns and the other is through the courts. As campaigns organizing has been less of a priority for the organization, the legal strategy has become more important. This has created the single, most parroted criticism of the CFS: that it sues schools.

Of course, often it's the CFS that is being sued by other students' unions. But that hardly matters. A legal campaign is a political campaign and an overreliance on going to the courts disenfranchises people.

Recently, a referendum was held by the Graduate Student Union at U of T to leave the CFS. Despite not even being able to reach quorum, a measly 10 per cent, the people who did vote, voted at a significant threshold to walk away from the CFS. 

With bylaws that require quorum to be met, the CFS should apply for a judicial review of the process if the GSU decides to declare the results valid.

However, I suspect that they would lose the review. Regardless, the CFS should let go of the GSU and start a process of intense renewal.

Young people are disenfranchised. They're being failed by a system that they've been told is supposed to help them. They've been handed a turd and told that it's their future. Politicians are corrupt. Banks steal from the people. Conspiracy theories are attractive narratives.

In such a climate, students really do need the CFS. They need an apparatus to give voice to their concerns, to challenge politicians, to organize actions and to take bold and progressive positions.

The CFS has to reorient itself toward basic, on-the-ground organizing: the kind of organizing that first attracted me to be involved at Ryerson.  It has to hire for the vacant fieldworker positions that exist across the country. Those fieldworkers need to organize with local student unions, professors, PIRGs and other progressive organizations on campus and in their communities.

There has to be an emphasis on campaign organizing that seizes on the anger and creativity of students. They must facilitate cross-campus exchanges of ideas and support creative and radical actions that students organize. Campaigns need to evolve to reflect student demands. They need to be radical and diverse, centred on free higher education but broad enough to advocate for the demands of the broadest possible set of students.

They should also hire student organizers: pay them enough to drop their course load to part time and go back to the basic work of building a movement from the ground up.

They need to clean up the services they provide. They need to be the only place in the market that can sell fairly-made and traded materials at the quantities required of student unions, offer a health and dental plan with profit eliminated from the equation and constantly look for new ways to save students money and influence broader markets that prey on students.

They need to retake their role in the mainstream press as an advocate for students and assert over and over that government policies that seek to disenfranchise, indebt or otherwise harm students will be met with strong and effective opposition.

And, they need to borrow organizing tactics from other student movement models and implement them on campuses in a way that works for the local community. In Ontario, this means creating a coalition of students, faculty and staff from across the province comprised of members of the CFS and people who work or attend school at non-CFS schools.

For me, whether or not the CFS should even exist is not the debate that progressives should be having: there are more than enough conservatives that have formed a consensus on the question that would probably welcome that kind of zeal.

The CFS is not beyond renewal. This claim is simply an excuse for some to disengage. Disengaging from the CFS is fine, but it shouldn't be touted as being a political analysis that will bring about the change that is badly needed.

Changing the CFS requires clever, intelligent activists who are operating in good faith. It requires students who are rooted in the grassroots, who believe in the fundamental necessity of unity and solidarity and who are willing to sacrifice some of the most exciting years of their life to do the difficult work of building an infrastructure that can support a social movement.

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