The return of thousands of university students to class in Quebec this month marks the end of Canada’s longest and largest student protest. Classrooms emptied in March when the provincial government under Jean Charest announced what would amount to a 75 per cent increase in tuition fees over five years. The planned tuition hikes would bring Quebec tuition rates to approximately $3,800 per year — a rate still 30 per cent below the Canadian average.
Quebec’s new premier, Pauline Marois, has committed the Parti Québécois to a tuition freeze. Spring 2012 will be remembered for the birth of a new political generation in Quebec — but what about the rest of Canada? As young student leaders in Quebec emerge with much success in their most recent battle, students on every other Canadian campus are asking “why not here?”
Medina Abdelkader, director of communications at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, acknowledges this confusion. “I honestly can’t tell you why we aren’t protesting,” she says, “because it is certainly an important topic.”
Her confusion is shared by Shaun Shepherd, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). “I’m not sure why we aren’t up in arms,” he says, “given our comparatively higher fees. It’s a paradox.”
History offers some explanation as to why Ontario and Quebec ended up in such different places. The origins of student unions in Canada can be traced as far back as the 1920s, when an ad hoc group of university student councils formed the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS). Changing its name to the Canadian Union of Student (CUS) in 1963, the group progressively became more established and expanded its services as far as travel. The student travel company we know today as Travel CUTS began as the Association of Student Councils, a service branch of the CUS.
Though the CUS began as a casual forum for discussion, it became a far more strategic, coordinated actor over the course of the twentieth century. It expanded its services and engaged more hot-button issues. It was not until the 1960s that the group began to unravel.
Student movements in the 1960s were part of a global protest movement. Activists fighting to end the Vietnam War and segregation in the United States, or for women’s rights, were also on university campuses, campaigning for more accessible education. The question of how engaged student unions should be with social movements arose. As Québécois identity became a contentious issue the stage was set the disintegration of CUS.
Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s marked a profound shift in the political consciousness of Canadian students. The Quiet Revolution was a movement of cultural empowerment experienced by the province in the 1960s. Under the slogan of Maîtres chez nous, Quebec citizens decided to wrest power from the Church and the federal government. The Québécois were asserting themselves as the rightful rulers of their province. Massive reforms in health and education were enacted. As the province itself seemed to reboot, so too did its student associations.
Having abandoned the CUS, student chapters in Quebec founded the Union Générale des Étudiants de Québec (UGEQ) in 1964. The lineage of UGEQ can be traced through l’Association Nationale des Etudiants du Québec (1975) all the way to the chief associations responsible for this summer’s protests, including La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec and Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE).
After the changes in Quebec, student unions in the rest of Canada had to reorganize. In 1972, a new federal students association emerged, without Quebecois members. The National Union of Students (NUS). They pledged to lobby on behalf of their constituents, but to remain clear of the tempting political battles then in progress. While they later received criticism for their narrower attitude, it may have helped mobilize their bases.
The NUS continued to grow, and through various amalgamations became the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) in 1981. The amalgamation was prompted by the federal government’s decision in the 1970s to cut $2 billion from Established Program Financing, including cuts to federal payments for health and education.
The CFS’ founding conference ended with a student presence in Question Period at the Canadian House of Commons, setting a precedent of government interaction and lobbying from the student union’s head office in Ottawa.
The split between Quebec student associations and the rest of country sent unions on different paths, everything from their personalities to overall structures evolving in opposite directions.
Significantly, the Quiet Revolution helped create a more politically active citizenry in Quebec. While answering questions of identity are beyond the scope of this article, the suggestion that activism is more valuable culturally in Quebec should not go unacknowledged. As Abdelkader attests, “Quebec brings with it a sprit of activism that makes it tough to compare provinces, as well as a system that functions very differently than ours.”
“In Quebec, students have a long history of striking and using this kind of action,” says Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Sudents-Ontario. “As they were going through high school to CEGEP they had probably experienced a small strike before, even just for a day. This culture is already created.” Shepherd also acknowledges that culture is a factor, but argues that it is not the only one. “Many have cited culture as a reason for their activism,” he says. “But I’m sure it’s a mélange of many factors at hand.” Indeed, in 1977 and 1978, student action against tuition hikes took place all across the country, belying the cultural thesis. In 1977, a group of 100 students at British Columbia’s University of Victoria stormed a meeting of their Board of Governors when a 20–30 per cent tuition hike was on the agenda.
The growing size of unions since then may be one of these other factors. Union membership is mandatory for all Canadian university students, but unions vary widely in size. Most students in English-speaking Canada are members of very large, very centralized student unions. The UTSU has over 45, 000 members,and the York Federation of Students boasts nearly 50, 000. With such large numbers, student associations are run almost like companies. A small core of leaders manage a plethora of responsibilities and services for thousands of students.
Most of these Anglophone unions are part of larger federations, whether provincial or national. There is undeniable power in numbers, and banding together makes lobbying for the union’s goals more obtainable. Since 2002, the UTSU has been a member of CFS and the CFS-O. CFS represents 500,000 Canadian students, some 300,000 of which are in the CFS-O branch. Considering such enormous constituencies, decision-making power in these institutions is relatively concentrated.
The result is a constituency rather disconnected from the union they are automatically members of. Students may reap the benefits of their union and federations but those are accepted as standard university services. The UTSU today can get you cheaper textbooks, TTC passes, travel discounts, and dental plans. They’ll help you with your income tax and save you money on tickets to Wonderland. They’ll help you pay for daycare. The UTSU is involved in the many diverse facets of student life in and out of the classroom, but to the degree that big issues can sometimes gets lost in the wash of discounts and events.
Quebec, as a smaller unit, represents a different model of student mobilization. Their student associations are indeed smaller, more diverse, and often representative of faculties, not colleges. “There’s something to be said for having structures that are academically linked,” says Shepherd, pointing to the Faculties of Engineering, Music, Dentistry and Nursing at U of T. “They have very strong ties as a collective. People that are linked academically are more cohesive in student life, and more willing to act as a group.”
The largest student group in Quebec today is La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, which represents 125,000 students. Individual chapters are small and can more easily establish personal ties with their constituents. As smaller groups, Quebec student associations tend to be more focused on the bread-and-butter issues of student unions: tuition fees and student loans. However, they are not able to offer the plethora of services that their counterparts in Ontario and elsewhere do.
The clash between a commitment to improving day-to-day life on campus and advocacy for broader political issues has effected unions in Ontario and the rest of English-speaking Canada before. At its founding conference, CFS delegates passed motions condemning human rights violations against students in El Salvador and Chile. Today, CFS is involved in such campaigns as Canadians for Equal Marriage, No Means No, and Where’s the Justice for Aboriginal Peoples. “These are student issues,” stress King. “Our campuses are not separate from the rest of society.”
But political participation can be controversial when unions speak on behalf of so many students. “Rest assured, we do speak to students about the issues, and we do solicit feedback,” says Shepherd. “The impetus to take a stand is set on the backs of students at large.”
Between 1992 and 1995, some chapters of the CFS felt that involvement with such social issues came at the expense of core student issues. Reoresentatives from former CFS chapters joined with U of T’s then unaffiliated Students’ Adminstrative Council (the UTSU’s precusor) to found the new Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA). Today it represents approximately 150,000 students. The OUSA website states that the group chose to “learn from the past mistakes of earlier groups,” and works to “provide research and ideas to governments and the public on how to improve the accessibility, accountability and quality of post-secondary education in Ontario.” What’s more, OUSA pledges to “maintain a decentralized structure, so that policy is set by the annually elected student leaders from our member campuses.”
But the creation of the OUSA didn’t necessarily usher in a golden age of activism in Ontario. There remained a tension between size and efficiency. An association of thousands may have more weight with respect to policy making, but it is harder to establish personal connections mobilize constituents.
King acknowledges the commitment necessary to mobilize such large numbers. With respect to student leaders in Quebec, she explains, “For the past two years, before the strike even started, there was mobilization on the ground. There were students out there every single day,” she continues, “making sure they knew that their fees were going to increase.”
“We do have a large membership and the power to influence change is immense,” says Shepherd. “It’s about harnessing that power and finding ways to get people on common ground.”
In addition to a mobilized base, it seems an imminent threat is necessary to spark progress. The alphabet soup that is CUS, NUS, OUSA, and CASA were all created in response to federal government plans to cut funding. To mobilize students at U of T today, says Shepherd, “we need an external factor. Something that moves students to action.”
In an attempt to inspire Ontario students to action, the CFS in July launched a nine-day “Student Solidarity Tour,” which brought some of Quebec’s prominent student leaders to 11 Ontario campuses. One of the featured speakers was Jérémie Bédard-Wien of CLASSE, who told CBC News that Ontario can learn much from Quebec’s example. “Many grassroots organizations are sprouting up in Ontario to learn from our organizational tactics,” he said. “It’s clear Ontario students are interested in learning how we mobilize and how to prepare for a general strike.”
But differences remain. Quebec’s students are members engaged with their unions for a very specific, honed reason; the threat of tuition hikes is a threat to their very raison d’être. Student participation is far lower in Ontario — last year only 10.5 per cent of U of T students voted in the UTSU election.
King feels that change is possible, and argues that Ontario unions have not fallen victim to over-centralization. “I wouldn’t agree that it’s top down,” she says. “The work I see happening on campuses is largely ground-up. We have volunteers that work and without their union on a variety of issues.”
While King reminds us that there are indeed many on-campus activists, are there enough to penetrate the consciousness of the greater student body? If that “external factor” presented itself tomorrow, would students be ready?
A final challenge to our unions and federations is the question of purpose after a key battle — the right to existence, representation in school governance, or a local hot button issue — has been fought. Unions can either address early on just how political and diverse they want to be, or they can leave it to the tides of the masses. Canada’s recent history is strewn with student associations that have dissolved and reformed in attempts to answer this question.