Can Canada's student groups come together?
By Laura Katsirdakis
In a conference last week, many different student groups met to collaborate. This was notable because of the long-standing divide that has existed in the Canadian student movement. The relationship between the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, two federal student lobby groups, provides an example of this divide.
The CFS was formed in 1981 as an amalgamation of provincial and federal student groups, said Joel Duff, Ontario chairperson for the CFS. "We were unified in the belief that education is a right [and] not a privilege," he said, adding CFS is also the oldest and largest student group in Canada.
While CFS is interested in a broad range of social issues, "CASA focuses on government policies that affect students in their capacity as students," said Dave Ford, Ontario regional director for CASA and Western's University Students' Council's VP-education.
"CASA feels the most effective way of improving accessibility, affordability and quality of Canada's post-secondary education system is by engaging politicians in a formal setting and providing them with educated solutions," Ford explained. In fact, just last week CASA met with former finance minister Paul Martin and other federal politicians, he said.
"CFS comes more out a tradition of 1960s student radicalism," said Jacquetta Newman, an assistant professor of political science at King's University College who specializes in social movements. CFS seeks to provide a service to students and it uses more radical tactics such as protest, whereas groups like CASA are much more conservative, she said.
Jim Walden, who was general manager of the USC from 1991 to 2001, shed some light on the reasons for this philosophical and tactical divide.
Several things contributed to the formation of CASA as an alternative national student organization.
"The weighted voting issues left larger schools feeling [like they didn't have enough control]," Walden said, explaining each school, no matter how many students it has, gets one vote in CFS despite the fact larger schools pay the lion's share of the dues. "There is no proportional representation."
"The CFS is concerned with a broad range of social issues," Walden said, noting these include not only post-secondary issues, but concern for environment, gender issues and so on. "As it evolved, it kept getting more and more diversified." CASA was formed as an alternative to this, because it was devoted solely to post-secondary education issues, he explained.
The "macaroni incident" was a significant moment leading to the formation of alternative student groups. Walden confirmed when hot macaroni was thrown on federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy's face at a CFS rally, many students were upset an organization purporting to represent them would behave this way. "Many felt this image was hurting their chance to get their message [to politicians]," Walden said.
The result is a student movement divided - one side more activist and broadly focused, the other choosing to lobby governments, providing suggestions for policy solutions and focusing on a specific set of issues.
To be successful, a social movement must have both the grassroots ability to mobilize protest [that CFS has] and the resources, knowledge and connections [that CASA has], Newman said.
"As long as they are competing with each other for membership [they will be] undercutting each other," Walden explained.
Another factor is students are only at post-secondary institutions for three to four years, so there is not much continuity to these student movements, Walden pointed out.
Ford offered the issue of parental contribution as an example of the divide. Some students cannot receive government financial assistance because their parents have money but refuse to help their child pay for tuition a typical CASA solution would be to lobby politicians to create an appeals process to help students in this position. In contrast, CFS would see this as a symptom of a larger problem and rather than seeking a solution within the system, would advocate for a national system of grants.
"Unity? Good luck," Walden said, adding he has seen numerous attempts and none have succeeded. "It's just [the] nature of the beast, [the student movement] can't be affiliated."