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Op-ed: We need a united national student union that works for everyone

Addressing a Canadian student movement that is divided
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SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

Student politics at U of T can sometimes seem confusing, with university students divided between unions both big and small. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond U of T there exists another layer of division: the divide between provincial and national student unions. This division could make provincial and national student advocacy incredibly difficult because advocacy initiatives uniting all students in Canada would require extensive negotiations between multiple organizations.

For successful student advocacy that changes policies, students across the country need to work together, pool resources, and speak with a unified voice. The best way to do this would be through a single national student union in which all campuses take part.

The average U of T student may not be aware of these larger student unions, so here is a brief summary.

National and provincial student unions

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is the largest postsecondary student union in Canada. It represents over 500,000 students and has a presence in every province except Québec. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) is the other national student union, consisting of member locals that formed an organization separate from the CFS. CASA represents 264,000 students and is partnered with the Quebec Student Union. Together, these two organizations represent around 355,000 students.

There are four provincial student unions whose memberships consist of students independent from national student unions. The British Columbia Federation of Students represents over 170,000 students, about 20,000 of which are part of CASA; the College Student Alliance represents more than 100,000 Ontario college students; the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) represents 150,000 students; and the Quebec Student Union represents 91,000 students.

Where are the rest of the students?

The total number of students represented by the aforementioned provincial and national student unions is around 1.2 million. However, there are over 2.1 million postsecondary students in Canada, which means over 860,000 students — an estimated 41 per cent — are not represented by any national or provincial student union.

These students may only have campus-level student unions that are generally limited in terms of enacting policy change beyond their respective campuses. In some cases, like the Royal Military College of Canada, these students may not even have a local student union.

Efforts need to be made to include these students with only local or no representation to ensure their perspectives and shared experiences are accounted for in student-driven provincial and national policy proposals, be it by welcoming them into existing structures or by creating new national and provincial student unions that represent all postsecondary students in Canada.

Critiques of the current systems

Students in Canada need to work together and present a united front in order to successfully advocate for improving the student experience at provincial and national levels, including but not limited to, lowering or eliminating tuition fees, increasing student representation within postsecondary institutions, ensuring student perspectives influence education policy, and advocating for a more equitable and inclusive world.

However, critiques of Canada’s national and provincial student unions call into question whether students who are represented beyond their local student unions are even able to maintain that united front.

CFS opponents allege that unelected, non-student staff have too much power over student democracy, the union lacks sufficient transparency, and the defederation process is too difficult.

Students have also critiqued CASA for a lack of grassroots student engagement and a need for proportional representation instead of one vote per member local.

Furthermore, Nigel Moses, a leading researcher on Canadian student unions, argues that “OUSA is strategically aligned with university administrators, whose interests are not necessarily in the public’s or students’ best interests” and goes as far as to describe OUSA as “a front organization for university administrators.” 

The future of student representation in Canada

While it seems that greater centralization in Canadian student politics doesn’t lead to favourable outcomes, these challenges — and those posed by the borders of campuses, provinces, and territories — should not stop students from collaborating and helping each other.

For some examples of what large-scale collaboration can do, check out the work of the All-Africa Students Union; European Students’ Union; and Organización Continental Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Estudiantes, which represents students from Latin America and the Caribbean. Their work has led to advocacy initiatives in solidarity with students in Zimbabwe protesting government corruption, Europe-wide student-driven policy research, and contributions to international education policy discourse.

For such a reality to be achieved in Canada, one national Canadian student union for the over 2.1 million postsecondary students would be ideal. This would make it easier to share resources and could help bring engagement in activism to levels sufficient to enact policy change. Furthermore, this union could be a space that welcomes critical thinking as an opportunity for improvement.

To avoid the same critiques as those levied against current national and provincial student unions, the united national union would need a fair democratic structure that is free from control by unelected, non-student actors, and in which unity is achieved and maintained by consent. It would also need to have strong grassroots engagement and effectively balance high-level advocacy with on-the-ground activism. It should never sacrifice student democracy in favour of conformity to external forces or its own hierarchy.

Obviously, this would not be easy, as decades of division would not be alleviated overnight. However, given the immense potential benefits, maybe it is time to try.

Justin Patrick is a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is the president of the International Association for Political Science Students. He served as the internal commissioner of the UTGSU from January to April 2019. He was a governance and policy analyst for the UTSU from June to September 2019.