How Radicals can Relate to the CFS

Corrie Sakaluk

Dear UTA,

I was happy to read Caelie Frampton’s “Strength in Numbers?: Why Radical Students Need a New Organizing Model” (UTA 5). Having worked as an organizer in various capacities with the York Federation of Students (Local 68 of the Canadian Federation of Students) between 2003 and 2007, I agree that it is politically crucial to encourage critique of and debate about Canada’s largest national student organization. I’d like to offer some reflections on my experiences with the CFS, my concerns about Eric Newstadt’s response to Frampton in UTA 6, and a few suggestions about how radical activists might relate to the CFS.

Newstadt’s article, “Accounting for the Student Movement in Canada,” affirms Frampton’s assertions that the CFS discourages meaningful debate about its role within the Canadian Left and that central CFS organizers are not interested in radicalizing the organization. His article reveals the cynical CFS commitment to social democratic principles and tactics. Newstadt suggests that social democracy and lobbying are our only option if “the Left is to win the day.” Although Newstadt fails to explain his conception of what might constitute a “win,” he indicates his harsh disapproval of anyone who challenges his line.

The CFS cultivates its loyalists by teaching them to respond to criticisms like Frampton’s with a stock line: “The direction of the Federation is decided upon solely by the members at bi-annual provincial and national meetings through a democratic process. There is no leadership of the CFS, we are all part of the CFS and we all get to decide!” I’ve used the line myself. The democratic process, however, is manipulated in the CFS, just as it is at every level of politics in large scale decision-making bodies. Student union organizers with similar principles and values from various campuses gather privately before each CFS meeting (national and provincial) to discuss how to kill motions they oppose and pass motions they support. These secret caucus meetings persist in both reactionary and progressive CFS currents. This is how the game is played: with smoke-and-mirrors and party lines.

In my experience, the core CFS crew has exceedingly tight ties with the NDP and provides the party with tacit support during elections and by-elections. It is thus unsurprising that the CFS core relates to radical activists in the same manner as the NDP: we are instrumental up to a point. Past that point, we are viewed as “loony lefties,” and we become the targets of organizational suppression and exclusion.

It is important for those of us whose politics fall to the left of the CFS and NDP to reflect critically upon why the CFS is operating in this way. For debate to be constructive, we must be self-critical and take into account relevant contextual factors to properly frame our engagement. Part of the CFS’s frustration with the so-called loony lefties is that some activists use the demand for debate merely as a way to serve up criticism, with no constructive purpose or intent. This is obviously going to get people’s backs up. Despite critiques of the organization, student union reps, staffers, and CFS reps and staffers work very, very hard.

Because of this, it’s important to recognize the value of the CFS. Its members conduct useful, rigorous research, and they use the findings to promote progressive values. Many committed social democrats remain involved with the CFS as staff members for long periods of time to support student representatives through the challenges of steep learning curves.

It is also important to remember the many constraints the CFS faces. The CFS membership is mostly made up of students from university campuses and some colleges, and is thus comprised of more privileged people than the population at large. Because of this finding and maintaining conscientious active students to run CFS locals requires a lot of hard work and support. Also, the majority of CFS members are undergraduate students, many of whom enter university at age 18 or younger and finish their degrees within three or four years. This frequent turnover has serious implications for the CFS, most notably the need for constant education about central CFS issues. This is intensified by the increasing commodification of university education; the prevailing get-in-and-get-out-with-your-piece-of-paper attitude deters people from political engagement and involvement while they’re in school. And we cannot ignore the reactionary student organizations, including the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Association of Managers in Canadian College, University and Student Centres, both of which actively oppose the CFS.

So, how do radical activists navigate the limits and opportunities of the current CFS? One, check out your students’ union for the possibility of building one-on-one, mutually respectful relationships with student union leaders. Some CFS organizers do make decisions for themselves, and these relationships can be fruitful. If there is no opportunity for this type of relationship, move on. Two, recognize that the work the CFS does is mostly motivated by principles around the accessibility of education and that people involved with the CFS are, for the most part, genuine and well-intentioned. Many are also highly skilled organizers, and becoming familiar with their strategies and tactics can be very useful. 

Three, if you do decide to get involved in your students’ union and attend CFS meetings, you will probably develop fantastic skills and learn a lot. You could also gain access to resources that enable you to do some political good. Just don’t go into it expecting that you can change the CFS from the inside. It’s a tight ship that’s probably not going to radicalize anytime soon. A lot of people in the CFS have stable jobs and political connections that they will struggle to maintain. Your revolutionary energy can be better spent elsewhere.

Four, build relationships with organizers on other campuses outside of the CFS structure. Build relationships with organizers off campus! There’s a big world out there, and there’s no need to live in a campus bubble. Campus is only one piece of the pie when it comes to revolutionary socio-political transformation. There is a lot of stuff going on in the community around our schools: indigenous resistance, resistance to police brutality and gentrification, anti-poverty organizing and immigrant rights organizing, to name a few. Campus organizers must stop operating in a vacuum and develop a more broad-based and comprehensive vision and network of cooperation to create change.

Thanks to the editors for printing Frampton and Newstadt’s pieces. I look forward to hearing more perspectives and debate on the role of campus-based activists in the broader revolutionary struggle.

In solidarity,
Corrie Sakaluk
Toronto, Ontario