The kind of youth movement that’s been going on in Quebec has yet to take hold in Ontario. Not even by a long shot.
But student leaders in Quebec are optimistic that their passion for a stop to tuition increases – and for a more left-leaning economy in general – can spread.
Representatives of the united student movement, and from the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), made a stop in Hamilton on Saturday. The stop was part of their Student Solidarity Speaking Tour, through which they hope to mobilize Ontario’s students to join the cause.
“It’s not about [tuition] numbers. It’s about what kind of future we want,” said Marianne Breton-Fontaine, former student union Executive Member at Cégep du Vieux Montréal, student at Université du Québec à Montréal and editor of Jeunesse Militante Magazine.
But of the 80 or so in attendance at the July 14 event inside Council Chambers of Hamilton’s City Hall, few were undergraduate students. The audience included a diverse mix of community members, as well as a strong showing of labour union representatives from the city’s steel industry.
In Hamilton, at least, it’s been the labourers rather than the students who have been particularly active. About a year and a half ago, locked-out workers and pensioners of US Steel took to downtown Hamilton streets in the thousands to protest the actions of their employer.
Outside of the speakers themselves, even the most vocal support for youth at the Solidarity event came from a union member. Retired steelworker Bill Mohoney, who has been called the poet of Hamilton’s labour movement, recited a few verses during question-and-answer period:
“Johnny’s smart and kind of cool
He’s doing very well in school
You won’t catch Johnny smoking grass
He studies hard, he’s going to pass
But tell me then, what will he do,
Sell you coffee or shine your shoes?”
The poem went on to juxtapose fat-cat bankers with starving young people in search of decent jobs.
The message from the speakers, though, was one of persistence, particularly on the part of those young people that might have been interested in joining the red-square movement.
“It’s true that there is a particular culture of social movements on Quebec campuses. They’ve always been radical; they’ve always been the vanguard of social movements,” said Jérémie Bédard-Wien, executive committee member of CLASSE, the main Quebec student union coalition behind the protests.
“But at the same time, we managed to [mobilize] some Anglophone unions at Concordia and McGill, two universities in Montreal. They had never been on strike before, and in six months, without their 40 years of history behind them, they still managed to get strikes going.”
Direct democracy, he explained, is a founding principle of CLASSE. During the protests, general assemblies were being held as often as once or twice per week.
“This is not your grandfather’s general assembly,” said Bédard-Wien. “This is not your rubber-stamping general assembly held once a year to adopt a budget. They are the supreme decision-making body of every one of our member unions.”
In Ontario, which side each student union stands on is generally apparent by which lobbying group they belong to. The Canadian Federation of Students has taken a clear position of support for the protests, and some student unions have a direct association with CFS. The University of Toronto Students’ Union, for example, is “Local 98” of the Federation.
On the other hand, organizations representing the McMaster Students Union – including the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) – are generally more conservative than CFS. Although the MSU’s leadership has generally been satisfied with its relationship with OUSA, certain members of the Student Representative Assembly (SRA) have expressed an interest in joining CFS.
“I organized at many campuses where the student union itself, the executive, the so-called leaders, were not at all interested in the strike. They were against the strike, and did everything in their power hide this idea,” said Bédard-Wien.
Through ‘mobilization committees,’ rather than top-down direction, the movement grew among students, he said.
“At some point, the mobilization committees invert the structure of the union, replace the shitty executive that are against the strike … that’s happened in several campuses, notably in Anglophone schools around Quebec,” said Bédard-Wien.
Before Hamilton, the Solidarity Tour made stops in Ottawa and Kingston. St. Catherines, Windsor, London, Guelph, Toronto and Peterborough were next on the ten-stop, nine-day tour.