If asked to pinpoint the glory days of the student movement, one might refer to the politically charged 1960s and 1970s as a particularly high point, when student groups were a vocal, and integral, faction of the era’s prevailing youth movement. Things have changed, with a greater sense of disjuncture and apathy taking hold of the student psyche. In Ontario, we can’t even hold claim to a united student movement.
It is probably fair to assume that the average University of Toronto student has never heard of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. OUSA is comprised of member groups from seven Ontario universities, but U of T isn’t one of them.
Since its formation in November 1992, media outlets have depicted relations between OUSA and the Canadian Federation of Students—to which the various U of T student unions do belong—as strained at best, combative at worst, and uneasy in general. When I launched into researching this article, I didn’t expect to find the story of a disjointed student movement whose two groups have more in common than anyone—including the parties themselves—may fully realize.
The saga begins nearly two decades ago, when all Ontario student groups fell under the jurisdiction of a branch of the CFS called the Ontario Federation of Students (now CFS-Ontario). Then came war.
“One of the inciting events at the local and national level was the first Gulf War,” explains Paris Meilleur, who served as OUSA’s president during the 2006-2007 academic year. “There was a sense that both the provincial and federal student organizations that existed at the time were taking positions on international affairs and a series of issues that weren’t directly related to the experience of students on campus.”
In the events that followed, members from various student groups approached the OFS to table a discussion about raising tuition. In their criticisms of OUSA, members of the CFS consider this a turning point in the establishment of a fundamentally divergent, and flawed, approach. As Meilleur concedes, “It’s not something I agree with, but it’s something that they were interested in having a discussion about.” At any rate, the moment proved vital: when the OFS halted the conversation, the dissenting student organizations started their own group, a proto-OUSA, in protest.
According to Meilleur, the permanence of the initial splinter group was neither intentional nor anticipated. “There was full expectation that the processes would change and that there would once again be a united student movement,” she says. “But that never happened.”
In 1994, two years after this informal alliance established itself, the group became federated. OUSA was officially born. As Meilleur describes it, “Different people will tell you different things about why [the groups] remained separate. I think you could argue that at a certain point personalities began to take over, relationships weakened, and there was sort of a strengthening of OUSA. There was a sense that this was more than just about one issue, but a different kind of approach to politics.”
This difference in approach is radical. While OUSA rarely opts to take part in such traditional forms of protest as demonstrations or rallies, the CFS logo has become analogous to images of tuition fees protests and “calls to action.” What the CFS views as its grassroots approach to student issues has been an ongoing source of criticism from outside organizations and media, especially since the Federation positions itself as an activist group rather than a governing body.
CFS-Ontario chairperson Shelley Melanson is cautious when confronted with such allegations. “It’s probably irresponsible to suggest that we’re bureaucrats because it would suggest that there’s this massive administration behind the CFS,” she says, choosing her words carefully. Though Melanson is the mouthpiece for CFS member-students in the province, she hardly speaks with the sort of loose cannon abandon one might expect from a student group whose most recognizable feature is arguably their opinionated fervor. She’s all business, peppering her phrases with “quite frankly” where another person might say, “um.”
I am surprised when Melanson does not jump to defend against the accusation that the CFS is a group of “student activists.” She seems more comfortable with the idea of portraying the Federation as a mobilized student movement than an administrative unit.
UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener, who serves as liaison between CFS-Ontario and the University of Toronto division of the Federation, is also leery of formalized designations. The morning after I speak with him about the university’s role in the CFS, he sends me a polite email requesting that I not refer to the CFS as a student “government.” This, he informs me, would paint an entirely skewed picture of that which the Federation—and, by association, the University of Toronto Students’ Union—seeks to accomplish. While I agree to abide by this request, I am admittedly taken off guard. If the CFS and its member-groups don’t govern, what exactly do they do?
Scrivener breaks it down. “At a U of T level we mainly focus on Governing Council and administrative bodies with lobbying, but we also participate and work on some more externally-focused lobbying, and sometimes, if we think it’s useful or necessary, we might take it to the Federation and see if other student unions across the province also want to work on a similar campaign.” He goes on to explain that that all campaigns involving the CFS are ones that a student union, or people involved in a student union, brought forward in a meeting. When he cites the current Drop Fees campaign as a prominent example, I realize the distinction: student groups do not view themselves as governing bodies, but as task forces who work in cooperation with governing bodies in order to pursue their own agendas. As Shelley Melanson describes it, they are simply “nothing more than students across the province who have decided to work collectively to advocate for post-secondary education issues.”
The approach of the CFS, within Ontario and throughout Canada, has three pillars: research, lobbying, and mobilization. It is that third and final component that most markedly separates the tactics of the CFS from those of OUSA.
At the core, OUSA views itself as a lobby organization. “I would argue that the approach of OUSA is that working with government, no matter who that government is, is always the best approach,” says Meilleur. “[OUSA believes] that it’s never appropriate to burn bridges and that it’s really appropriate to try to engage with decision-makers at their level. So that means, yes, having idealistic proposals, but also having ones that are really practical, and implementable, and pragmatic. There is a real focus on building relationships with government, with other stakeholder groups, building legitimacy within a sector.”
Through OUSA, student involvement in the decision-making process occurs through a streamlined approach built into the organization’s system of operation. As OUSA executive director Howie Bender explains, the organization’s goals are based upon a combination of research and student input. “We have a board composed of one member from every campus, so it’s one school, one vote on our board,” says Bender. “We also have a general assembly that gets together twice a year that sets the direction for the organization.” The general assembly, Bender explains, is the group’s highest decision-making unit. For every 3,000 students a member-campus counts in its student body, that campus is entitled to one assembly delegate. It is within the context of the general assembly that students are given the opportunity to discuss policy, direction of lobbying, and campus issues that fall within the realm of OUSA’s core targets: accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality. According to Bender, the discussions that take place in the general assembly will provide direction for the board which, in conjunction with the executive office, will pursue the interests of what students have asked for.
The CFS also views itself as a member-driven student lobby group and cites similar targets. The CFS, however, integrates the role of what Dave Scrivener describes as “campus mobilization” into the process. This is where student marches, rallies, and sit-ins come into play. “I don’t know how effective lobbying can really be in changing a government’s mind if you’re just showing up in a suit and tie every couple of months to give a position paper,” says Scrivener, who explains that, through the mobilization process, “you’re actually forced to take [issues] back to your membership. It allows and empowers the average person who’s on campus to get involved in a campaign.” This, says Scrivener, is the fundamental advantage of the CFS approach, and, by association, OUSA’s major flaw.
When asked for a response to this criticism, current OUSA president Trevor Mayoh is unflinchingly frank. “I think in certain ways [the criticism] is fair, to be perfectly honest. I am the chief advocate and representative of the organization. I am a student. But I don’t spend my entire year on campuses meeting with students and telling them about the issues. I don’t. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s the best use of anybody’s time.” Mayoh explains that OUSA gets its direction from its steering committee. The committee members are then charged with the task of “empowering, advocating, informing, and soliciting information from fellow students.” As Mayoh puts it, “We get our direction from students. Our steering committee members, not the organization, are charged with empowering, advocating, informing, and soliciting information from students. The organization is then charged with taking up [the students’] direction and what [the students] want to see, and then putting that in operation.”
Despite differences in methods and rhetoric, it is difficult to pinpoint a strong divergence between OUSA’s goals and those of the CFS. Says Shelley Melanson: “I think that fundamentally, all students want to see a high quality, properly publicly funded post-secondary education system, and I think that it’s in the best interest of students to work collectively together to win those goals.”
Mayoh concurs. “We definitely do have different strategies and I’m not saying one is more right than the other, they’re just very different. We ultimately do have the same goal: we’re both advocating for a better higher education system in the province.”
Comparing the two groups’ victories proves as challenging as trying to distinguish between their separate goals. Point by point, their official statements read almost identically. When asked for examples of recent keystone accomplishments, members from both groups cited the 2004-2006 tuition freeze and the 2001 tuition cap as fruits of their respective group’s labours.
“We both did contribute to the system,” admits Mayoh. “I think by [the CFS] having the grassroots model and getting students involved and politicians actually being able to see that students care and aren’t apathetic, along with our having students on the inside, in Queen’s Park, meeting with [politicians] and giving them actual policy recommendations, is useful.” Mayoh concedes that the methods of the CFS and OUSA are complementary to one another, “whether we realize and like it or not.”
Melanson acknowledges that, ideally, the two groups would be reunited as a single, cohesive student movement. “I think that we’re most effective when our voices are united and we’re working together. No one’s going to deny that we’ve had difficulties here in Ontario. No one will deny that we’ve faced tuition fees increases. But, quite frankly, in this province the student movement isn’t united. Where we are united, we’ve been able to win victories and sustain them for a number of years.” When I ask Melanson if she thinks this ever will happen, she is somewhat optimistic: “I think that eventually we will see a united student movement, but that’s going to require students wanting to come together and work through democratic structures to provide the kind of advocacy that our students need.”
Realistically, it seems as though this kind of reunification can only occur if both member groups are willing to compromise. At this point, however, both OUSA and the CFS are strictly abiding by their own terms.