As many of you know, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the ex-spokesperson of CLASSE, was recently in town. Some of us had the opportunity of having a much more in depth conversation with him where we discussed, in some detail, the structure and strategy employed by CLASSE. There are some great lessons to be learned.
The greatest thing that we can learn from the Quebec student uprisings is that if we are able to mobilize en masse, if we are able to get thousands and thousands of people to coordinate activity, we can take down the government and bring about the changes that we all envision.
With that in mind we now have the opportunity to explore how we might be able to import some of the structural elements from the CLASSE model and use them as the basis to build a grassroots mobilization strategy in Vancouver and then, if we are successful, the rest of the country.
There were a few key points that Gabriel made that I think are worthy of emphasizing: structure is essential if you want to mass mobilize; mobilize around simple demands and let systemic relationships emerge; pick an issue that has broad relevance to the local community; develop a coalition building strategy to include other allies/organizations.
What we need to be able to figure out is how, precisely, we can import what worked in Quebec to the B.C. context. What are the similarities and differences between the two contexts?
Structure, structure, structure!
One thing Gabriel emphasized over and over again is that the Quebec student uprisings were not the result of coincidence or 'the spirit of the moment.' They were the result of years of hard work in building a firm foundation. Student activists in all the universities invested a lot of energy in building the systems and establishing confidence in the systems over a period of years. So what does the structure look like?
In contrast to the way that universities are organized in B.C., the student unions within the universities are organized department by department -- political science, humanities, commerce, etc. Each of these departments has its own caucus which meets regularly and identifies issues that they want to put on the agenda for the general assembly. This makes possible a high level of affinity at the grassroots level since students within particular departments have common interests. Issues that are considered to be of wider concern are then brought forward to the general assembly.
Motions are passed if there is a 50 per cent + 1 majority. In contrast to, for example, the consensus model that was in place within the Occupy movement, the voting threshold is a simple 50 per cent + 1 majority. It's important to note that a 'low' threshold such as this only works if there if the institutional mechanism's themselves are respected. This is to say that the 49 per cent that did not support a vote will follow the majority simply because the respect the democratic institution.
Those that are spokespeople for the departments at the national general assembly are only allowed to speak to the issues voted for at the department level. They have no representative power, no 'autonomy.'
In order to ensure to maintain the integrity of the direct democracy process, the spokesperson's responsibility is re-voted every meeting ensuring that he/she acts strictly as a spokesperson and maintains the confidence of the caucus. This allows spokespeople absolutely no leeway.
Once issues are voted on at the department level, they can be submitted in writing and placed on the agenda at the national assembly. The submissions must be four days in advance of national assembly meetings to ensure that participants have a chance to review the issues.
At these meetings department caucus spokespeople are responsible for speaking on behalf of the issue that was put forth by the department.
In Quebec the strike was re-voted every week, providing people with an opportunity to discuss issues as well as regain confidence in the collective enterprise.
The national assembly has no power to identify issues for discussion or make decisions on anything whatsoever that does not arise from the department caucus level. It is strictly a decision making body that makes it possible to develop a broad based consensus that can support collective action. It is the mechanism that made it possible for all of the departments to support the strike.
Mobilize around simple demands
Gabriel emphasized that the decision to mobilize around the issue of the tuition increases was no coincidence. This does not mean that they did not discuss other, more sophisticated, implications of the neo-liberal agenda. He emphasized the importance of mobilizing around simple, understandable, demands with specific, measurable outcomes.
Obviously the issue of tuition fees was very relevant to students, and therefore they were able to mobilize students on the issue. In my view the university context in B.C. is drastically different than the one in Quebec so it will be much more difficult to pull things together in the universities here.
Developing a broad-based coalition
A significant contributor to the success of the Quebec student movement was the 'Red Hand Coalition,' which comprised 125 organizations that had formed in 2009 to oppose the pending Quebec budget (which proposed unpalatable austerity measures). This coalition was formed for the specific purpose of opposing the budget, but the infrastructure was maintained and supported the student strike.
Again, the lesson is that the coalition was formed in response to a very specific issue that groups were able to mobilize around.
In advance of introducing the details of a possible coalition structure in B.C., it's best to remind ourselves of why we should bother investing in creating such a structure. In short, we need to develop a coalition because there are many organizations working towards similar -- if not the same -- ends, and our effectiveness will be substantially increased if we can massively mobilize, and if we can coordinate activity around certain projects.
It's important to note that it does not follow from this that we need to coordinate activity around everything. We can imagine coalition members conducting business as usual until there is something that they want to engage other coalition members around -- like a massive action or a call for solidarity.
What issue can we mobilize around in B.C.? The issue that we will have the most success mobilizing people and organizations from all over the province around is anti pipeline and tanker resistance.
A proposed structure for the coalition in B.C.
The most important lesson from Quebec is, again, the importance of structure. What we must do is realize that a broader based movement in B.C. will not be a student-led movement, but a broader movement comprising of a wide range of civil society participants; First Nations, NGOs, labour and the general public.
The reason for this is that the structure within universities in B.C. is not the same as in Quebec. Not only do we not have the same department caucus structures, the student unions at B.C. universities tend not to be progressive. This is not a cause for concern because we can still identify what is essential about the Quebec model and import it to our movement building processes in BC.
In B.C. the analogue for the department caucus is an affinity group; a group of freely associating individuals that, based upon some commonality, come together to organize activity. This could be a small community group opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline, a feminist group, Occupy Vancouver's Environmental Justice Working Group, the SFU Activist Network, the Men's Feminist Group, or anything else that one can think of.
Note that we can also include any group of people that convenes under any circumstances. This could, therefore, also include existing NGOs such as Greenpeace, the Wilderness Committee, Forest Ethics etc. We could also include labour unions.
In order for this model to work there will need to some basic criteria to establish the 'legitimacy' of the affinity group. We might, for example, require that a group meets at least monthly and that they provide minutes for the past three meetings if they want to join the coalition. We might also require that, moving forward, that minutes be compiled and made available to the public to ensure transparency.
We could allow specific affinity groups to conduct voting as they wish. Some groups might have well defined procedures; the NGOs and labour unions that participate, for example, might operate under 50 per cent +1 voting thresholds. Other groups that are newly formed, or formed on the basis of different principles, might prefer to use variants on a consensus model.
Since low threshold (50 per cent +1 for example) voting criteria require that the institution be well established and legitimized, it makes sense as we get started to utilize a higher threshold consensus model (say 75 per cent). This can always be modified moving forward.
The elements of the CLASSE model that establish its essentially directly democratic nature should be maintained.
Hopefully the above provides some insight into the structure of the successful Quebec-based student movement, as well as providing a hint as to how we can implement the key lessons here in B.C.
Suresh Fernando is an activist who has been heavily involved with Occupy Vancouver since last fall.