La conjoncture.

When I heard this word for the 60th time used in meetings, I thought I better ask someone what it meant. A friend of mine said to me that it’s a fundamental aspect of forming a political analysis or a strategy and that there must be a direct translation into English.

There is, and it’s conjuncture, and I’ve never heard it used in an organizing meeting in English. In Québec City, the care that activists take to analyze the current state of political affairs and the political context forms the basis of all other discussions. When a discussion happens that doesn’t properly consider la conjoncture, we risk developing a campaign or strategies that are irrelevant or impossible.  

This, I suspect, is the driving force behind the contorted and bizarre debate that perennially surrounds the Canadian Federation of Students.

Not one argument advanced in favour of leaving the Canadian Federation of Students includes an evaluation of the political reality of the student movement. The result is that arguments are made rooted in individual experiences (I was treated poorly by this person/my motions didn’t pass etc.), or that have no practical basis in reality.

Understanding the broader political context is critical. For example, some people conveniently forget about Newfoundland and Labrador when arguing that the CFS should be eliminated, to make their thesis work. This is despite the fact that there, all post-secondary students are members of the CFS and university tuition fees are lower than in Québec. Or they ignore Nova Scotia, where the CFS has routinely played a crucial role in progressive organizing both on campuses and in Halifax, generally. Maybe it’s easier for CFS Nova Scotia to be progressive, as the chairperson of the other provincial student group StudentsNS, was caught chanting a song encouraging underage rape, hot off of a campaign he helped lead to address the lack of women involved in student politics among his members’ schools. In such a context, maybe it’s easier for CFS-NS to be progressive. Or maybe, the organization works the way it should: it unites and helps to mobilize students to fight for progressive action.

Ontario is unlike any other province. The higher education system is huge. Regional differences are enormous. The student movement is under constant attack.

There, the CFS is the only autonomous provincial student federation. With the other half of Ontario students paying dues to organizations whose sole purposes are to prop up administrators or the government, the work of the organization is hindered.

The College Student Alliance, for example, was created by Colleges Ontario and routinely parrots their stances. In meetings, where CSA representatives have their speaking points whispered to them by Colleges Ontario representatives, it becomes clear that the CSA’s role is to crush any student organizing that doesn’t applaud the status quo.

When students at St. Clair College in Chatham considered joining CFS in 2012, for example, the president of the college opposed the move in the local paper. Students were suspended and faced expulsion. The student union office had their locks changed and files searched. It was stopped.

Colleges Ontario and the Ontario government know how important it is to keep college students from organizing. This enormous group of students has been prohibited from participating in autonomous, student-driven political action. Administrators hold positions on college student union councils. They advance arguments for higher tuition and ancillary fees at council meetings. As college student unions are the gatekeepers to approve nearly all auxiliary fees, this control has allowed for administrators to pressure students into agreeing to unfair and exorbitant fee increases.

CFS, to its credit, launched a lawsuit in 2007 against the college sector for charging many of these fees as they had been prohibited by the Ministry. With the organizational help of the Student Association at George Brown College (the one of two college members of CFS), and a student at Conestoga College, they forced a full review of how ancillary fees were charged and collected.

When administrators hold positions on student union boards, clearly, the issues run much deeper than whether or not CFS is counter-revolutionary. There are no direct democracy structures at Ontario colleges, and in many cases, staff tightly control student unions. Progressive college students are isolated from a broader student network and instead form small solidarity groups or work within their departments or communities.

With most college students under the thumbs of their administration, a new organizing model in Ontario is necessary to help mobilize students outside of their local students’ unions. I firmly believe that this organizing model can only be built from something that already has resources. Knowing the kind of pressure that administrations will exert on individual students to stifle debate, it’s unrealistic and naïve to believe that this work can be organized from the ground up, without the support and solidarity of an organization like the CFS.

CFS-Ontario’s membership is mostly university students. But even among university students, the movement is divided, with the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance representing fewer than 10 students’ unions. Their organization, established to support tuition fee increases in the 1990s, is a springboard into the Liberal Party. Their structure ensures that an alumni council who are normally staff within Ontario Minister’s offices, have tight control over what OUSA does. For example, their Executive Director isn’t allowed to remain there for more than two years, forcing the group to always be in a state of reformation as staff turn-over is so high.

OUSA student union councils include Ontario’s least progressive ones and, while their positions don’t tend to be as extreme as the College Student Alliance, they sway with the position and political priorities of the government of the day. The organization routinely takes positions that either quickly follow or anticipate new priorities of the Ontario government.

CFS is forced to be at the table with both organizations, arguing that no, in fact, students don’t want higher tuition fees. A great deal of the lobbying work that CFS does is the result of the existence of OUSA and CSA.

Of course, there’s the role that tuition fees play in all of this. Tuition fees and debt are deeply disenfranchising. Getting past these structural barriers to try and organize students is an entirely different task, one that requires new organizing models that I haven’t seen anyone suggest.

And, of course, conservative students salivate at the mention of every decertification campaign. Eager to please their political masters, these piranhas wait and attack the second they think their campaign could be successful. The well-documented attacks on OPIRGs and the CFS by the Conservative Party is also part of this story and to deny that a particular tactic plays into their hands is dishonest. As a network of people who have nailed appearing to be grassroots, and with access to money, organizers on the left ignore this reality at their peril. So-called progressives have to offer an alternative that will not be exploited by organized conservative forces on campus.

In Ontario, where Right to Work legislation and voluntary student unionism are likely under a future Progressive Conservative government, anti-CFS activists must also be accountable for how their campaigns help to fuel a general anti-union, anti-organized movement sentiment on campus.

As I argue in my book, From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement, neoliberalism has deeply disenfranchised young people and destroyed their notions of community. Building community in this context is the most difficult organizing activity activists can undertake, but it’s also the most important.

Convincing students that despite fighting for lower tuition fees and more funding, fighting racism, sexism and ableism on campus, fighting Canada Blood Service’s ban against men who have had sex with men, protecting public water, protecting research funding, fighting prohibitive copyright laws and acting as a consistent voice speaking out against rape, unpaid internships, students rights and public transit, their national organization is so corrupt it should be destroyed requires activists to convince students that none of this matters. Or, while it might matter, it’s nothing compared with the fact that CFS’ budget is confusing.

It exploits cynicism. It tells students that even their own community has failed and they need to reject it.

Analyzing the political context should not be construed as a proxy argument for maintaining the status quo. An analysis of the tactics and campaigns of the CFS is not the same thing as a political analysis of the CFS itself. But it is critical.

When considered against the realities of student organizing in Ontario, it seems to me that this campaign is nothing more than this: the CFS is the easiest object on which to project our anxieties about our own organizing failures. Tear it down, promise something later, then walk away when you realize just how hard that will be to build.

I await a solid counter analysis, grounded in la conjoncture.

Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association...