Accounting for the Student Movement in Canada

A response to Caelie Frampton

Although we should be wary of idealizing the past and ignoring the extent to which the modern university has always been linked to corporate interests, the current state of North American campuses is alarming and calls for monumental change. We are witnessing a near total erosion of the spaces that once existed, small though they were, for meaningful criticism and research. With the advent of the neoliberal university has come the complete transformation of the landscape it encompasses: students and parents view, and are encouraged to view, education in highly instrumental terms; corporate-funded research is considered virtuous; lean and corporate-style administrative practices are championed unquestioningly; and the mainstream of the social sciences and the humanities is increasingly ignorant of radical ideas. The historic defeats suffered by labour from the 1980s onward have been mirrored in the university’s ever-narrowing ideological landscape where meaningful analyses of contemporary capitalism are either not undertaken or thought to be impossible.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the student movement in Canada is undergoing something of a transition. On the one hand, it must face off against a crisis-prone (but conflict-proof) capitalism increasingly rooted in the university. On the other hand, many students are reluctant to consider themselves as activists or even political subjects; those who are talking politics seem more likely to identify with right-wing ideals than anything mildly “progressive.” In light of our situation, if the left is to win the day, we must seriously consider how we will conceive of and organize for our immediate and longer-term goals. In such considerations, nothing is taboo and no suggestion is too radical or extreme to be considered. But this doesn’t mean that we can be careless in our deliberations or conduct our inquiries without adequate care and review.

Unfortunately, Caelie Frampton’s article, “Strength in Numbers? Why Radical Students Need a New Organizing Model,” in issue five of Upping the Anti falls far short of the kind of analysis required by today’s student movement. If we let Frampton’s mistakes stand, student activists could miss a golden opportunity for fruitful debate and reform. In what follows, I will attempt to outline Frampton’s errors and present some indication of the directions in which Canada’s student movement – including its left-most wing – might wish to head. I will argue that the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) does not need organizational reform, as Frampton proposed. Instead, it needs strategic redirection in three primary areas: research, campaigns, and coalition work.

Accounting for the CFS

Apart from being factually incorrect, Frampton’s analysis is exemplary of sentiments shared by a particular network of activists organizing on Canadian university campuses. In this way, it is indicative of the challenges the CFS faces from the “left” when seeking to mobilize students. Frampton alleges that, “because of its bureaucratic structure, the CFS has become incapable of responding productively to student initiatives or mobilizations from below.”1 This, she declares, is evidenced by a series of uncorroborated allegations that indicate that the CFS bureaucracy, in an effort to preserve and reproduce its “structure,” interferes with student elections; prevents member locals from developing “autonomous hiring practices”; doesn’t adequately address the concerns of aboriginal students; mongers fear of right-wing and far-left student movements to maintain control; organizes national and provincial meetings to prevent and control dissent; hires only former student politicians; and threatens student newspapers to prevent critique. The bureaucratic structure, which Frampton argues has led to the use of such tactics, arises from the desire of paid bureaucrats to preserve their positions, the capacity of CFS-Services to corral and direct the CFS to focus on the development of both more services and corporate friendly solutions to the problems that afflict higher education in Canada, and the apparently strong ties between the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the CFS.

Frampton never makes it clear how this all plays out within the CFS’s bureaucratic structure. We are given no idea as to the location of power, either between or within the CFS and its sister organization, CFS-Services; we are never shown how bureaucrats actually leverage their positions (which are subordinate to elected officials) so as to move the organization in a particular direction; the CFS’s role as tacit training-camp for NDP staffers is never explained. Despite Frampton’s sweeping claims, the only real information provided about the CFS’s bureaucracy is this: the number of students the CFS represents nationally (Frampton claims 400 000, but the number is in fact closer to 600,000); that there are two related national organizations, the CFS and the CFS-Services; that the CFS-Services offers things like bulk purchases of student handbooks and coordinates cell-phone providers and travel discounts, as well as maintaining a housing database; that all locals of the CFS are required to join the CFS-Services as members of the CFS (and vice versa). Based on this information, we are asked to believe that “the CFS has become a bureaucratic force that places its financial interests ahead of the policies it claims to uphold” (102). So powerful is this “bureaucratic structure” that Frampton wonders, “why does a national student organization that claims to be at the forefront of advancing student rights engage in actions that consistently work to marginalize the kinds of initiatives needed to accomplish these objectives?” (102).

It is noteworthy that mainstream (typically liberal and Weberian) analyses of bureaucratic structures generally proceed differently. In such works, the distribution of power between bureaucratic offices, elected officials, and the electorate are factually detailed. So too are mission statements and the conditions of competition between other such agencies and the larger political sphere. All of this is meant to isolate key causative variables associated with specific outcomes.2 Frampton does none of this. Instead, she gathers the critiques, accusations, and innuendo of unreliable sources and then neglects to check her facts.

Frampton’s allegation that the CFS is crippled by its “bureaucratic structure” must therefore be understood as either pure mystification or as the byproduct of a superficial understanding of what it would mean for an organization to be led by its bureaucratic structure. Ultimately, what Frampton argues is that the CFS is corrupt – that it is led by a cabal of venal and profit-minded social democrats anxious to implement an agenda she claims is little more than mildly left-of-centre. To corroborate this line, Frampton relies on doubtful sources: right-wing student journalists who purport to be “objective,” the drivel put out by right-wing bloggers, and a smattering of interviews. At no point does she check her facts with the CFS’s fairly extensive and detailed written record. It’s impossible to say with certainty why Frampton would choose to proceed in this manner. But her repeated allusions to some undefined notion of “grassroots” activism – a post-Marxist organizing model based on a very crude understanding of capitalism – give us a clue.

The closest Frampton comes to a logically sustainable argument is when she writes, “the transitory nature of student life means that the established bureaucracy, with its institutional memory and permanent staff, has a built-in advantage over rank-and-file student activists seeking to change the CFS” (107-108). The nature of student politics is transition. Students interested in plugging in to provincial and national debates through the only truly national students’ organization need to develop some understanding of how the CFS works (when national and provincial meetings are held, how votes and committees work, etc.). They need to familiarize themselves with the tactical and strategic decisions that have been made in order to evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and how best to move forward. Given that most students only remain active in the movement for a short period of time, this is a tall order. It also means that the CFS’s staffers have a built-in advantage, however limited their ability to leverage that advantage may be. Nonetheless, dedicated staffers and elected officials perform outreach on a near constant basis; records of meetings, by-laws, budgets, campaigns, and research and strategy documents are all readily available in the offices of member locals; and good chunks of time at national, provincial, and more informal meetings held before larger meetings are dedicated to delegate education.

Had Frampton checked such documents, which should be available in the office of her local students’ union, she would have found that the services offered by CFS-Services operate on a not-for-profit basis. They do not generate surpluses and are not intended to. Consequently, there is nothing for the CFS to gain by competing aggressively and gaining market share except affordable services for its members. She would also have seen that the CFS-Services developed at the behest of students, not staffers, and that its operation involves elected student representatives and constant consultation with the general membership. She might have noticed too that the services offered through the CFS have tended to lower industry prices (as with extended health care insurance) and have frequently been identified by student leaders active on the ground as vital to the campaign work with which the CFS is most concerned. Finally, she would have seen that there is nothing mildly left about the CFS’s campaigns. They are, if anything, hard left.

Although the executive at McGill’s Post-Graduate Student Society (upon whom Frampton relies for facts), has not done so, the CFS has steadfastly opposed the commercialization of research. It has championed the cause of open source and open access initiatives and worked to ensure that universities and colleges remain public. It has also opposed pecuniary social “technologies” associated with governmental efforts to ensure “quality” and “quality assessment.” It is also unclear why Frampton characterizes the pooling of resources to provide high-quality, low-cost alternatives to programs that otherwise treat students as individual customers as “social democratic.”

Before considering how the student movement can best organize, two of Frampton’s more serious accusations must be responded to directly. First, as the minutes of various meetings of the National Graduate Caucus (NGC) make clear, the efforts of McGill’s Post-Graduate Student Society to impose submission deadlines upon the part-time executives (who are all also full-time students and part-time TAs and RAs) was massively and repeatedly defeated by member locals of the NGC. The rationale for defeating the PGSS’s efforts is germane: students agreed that repeated email requests for indications of what issues they would like to discuss beginning more than six weeks before meetings, the binders of campaign research and materials provided, and the fact that the Executive of the NGC frequently outlined what issues would be discussed at upcoming meetings was more than sufficient to encourage input and participation. Member locals bore a responsibility in terms of their attendance, and the vast majority recognized this. Indeed, the feeling was that any student leader claiming a lack of information was being negligent in their duties, though we all are, admittedly, busy people.3

The other issue that deserves some attention is Frampton’s desire to implicate the CFS as engineer of student union election outcomes. Though she does not say so explicitly, Frampton wants readers to believe that the CFS heavily resources pro-CFS slates during election season. Instead of coming right out and saying that the CFS pays for anything, she uses the relatively amorphous verb “control”: “the CFS needs to control students’ union locals in order to ensure the overall stability of its bureaucratic structure and moneymaking ‘services’” (106). By control, Frampton means that local student union staffers, as well as former and current student leaders might, during their off-hours, get involved in supporting their friends and allies running as candidates in student union elections. This revelation is akin to saying that government workers, when not working for the government, should not support specific candidates or political parties, or that workers for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union shouldn’t become involved in local union drives. That those who work to advance progressive politics might have an interest in developing the capacity of like-minded allies to win elections should come as no surprise; that those who devote themselves to national and provincial campaigns should choose to showcase such campaigns in their electoral platforms should go without saying. Staff and students taking a personal interest in student politics is something to be lauded, not criticized.

But Frampton seems dedicated to painting such practices in a bad light. It is as though she intends for us to believe that it is a bad thing when networks of activists work cooperatively to preserve a well-resourced organizational apparatus. Frampton goes further by noting that former officers of the CFS subsequently worked as elections officials and casts aspersions on election results in Manitoba and Ontario. Here, she manages to make it unethical for elections officials to have any history of political involvement or commitment to the student movement. She never mentions elections oversight bodies, or the degree to which receipts, reports, and the like are publicly available. She never mentions how vote counting is scrutinized or the whole slate of different mechanisms that protect against tampering by anyone (let alone election officials).

In making so much of so little, Frampton misses the persistent involvement of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, both of which have supported slates across the country. The Conservative Party supported the Orwellian-named Progress Not Politics slate, which won the York Federation of Student elections at York University in 2003/2004. After coming to power, the alliance of Conservative Party faithful and members of the Young Zionist Partnership that made up the Progress not Politics slate cut funding to both the Black Students Association and the Native Students Association. The Conservative Party also financed the Millennium Leadership Fund, which was used as a conduit to deliver resources to campus conservatives during elections on campuses across the country. According to the University of Western Ontario’s Gazette, “numerous sources indicate the Ontario Progressive Conservative party has been actively recruiting and funding student election bids in order to fill as many high-profile student government positions as possible.”4 The Liberal Party is hardly innocent here, either. As Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith make clear, Lloyd Axworthy (then Minister of Human Resources and Development) “put his office and department on war footing…”

He ordered the establishment of a Quick Response Unit to speedily counter the students [organized chiefly through the CFS] with letters to campus newspapers, leaflets, and the like. He also sought to identify sympathetic academics and student leaders as spokespeople for his reforms. He tapped into the networks of young staffers in his office, former summer interns, and Young Liberal organizations to provide intelligence on campus activities across the country. Axworthy came to loathe the Canadian Federation of Students…5

Part of Axworthy’s “war footing” involved support for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), an organization that leans to the right and supports tuition-fee levels linked to what they describe as “reasonable” and “supportable” amounts of student debt. CASA and a handful of similar provincial organizations (the Ontario Alliance of Student Associations and the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations, for example) have provided neoliberal governments with easy access to Liberal and Conservative Party insiders willing to shill for them during important public policy debates.6 In contrast, the CFS’s budgets are reviewed and decided democratically by delegates from member locals. Slush funds to finance campaigns are simply nowhere to be seen.

Understanding Apathy

In light of the depoliticizing effects of neoliberalism, how should students and student activists organize? In the 1990s, the CFS demanded not just tuition-fee reductions, but their total elimination. More recently, that has morphed into a national campaign to “freeze tuition fees.” Nevertheless, the CFS is quite clear that, once frozen, tuition fees should be progressively eliminated. The CFS has also remained committed to lobbying governments for change and supplementing direct action campaigns with well-coordinated efforts at legislative houses across the country. While I disagree with Frampton’s characterization of such efforts (they are creative, radical, and directed policy changes that are more than just mildly ameliorative), I readily admit that such efforts are not revolutionary in and of themselves – unless one gives careful consideration to our current neoliberal moment.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, scholars began theorizing neoliberalism as a process by which global markets began to discipline governments and direct policy outcomes through punitive movements of capital. By the mid- to late-1990s, discussion about the “withering away of the nation-state” had virtually disappeared. So clear was the state’s role in constructing the neoliberal world order that it had become difficult to sustain arguments about the apparent lack of policy alternatives for state actors. Critics and radicals realized that neoliberalism was not only a policy program but also a sustained attack on organized labour carried out by key state agencies. The blows dealt to labour through the ’80s, ’90s, and which continue today, have been neither universal nor absolute. Neoliberalism has evolved piecemeal. Defeats suffered in one jurisdiction have been used as examples in another. So it is that neoliberal health care and higher education “reforms” in Canada have been modelled in obvious ways on strategies deployed by capital and the state in places like the United Kingdom.

This brief overview of neoliberalism is vital for a couple of reasons. First, it highlights the degree to which the state has been instrumental in the creation and imposition of neoliberalism. Second, we can see the importance of the state’s ability to tax in order to produce the means to generate sustainable and progressive social change. The ability to levy user-fees (like tuition fees), or to create agencies of quality assessment, as well as to create conditional flows of finance, has been fundamental to the evolution of neoliberalism. They will likewise be key to rescuing us from its grips.

It is also interesting to consider the tactics employed by students in Québec in 2005 who organized and won back $103 million in government cuts to the post-secondary sector. Their campaign operated on the basis of a lot of centralized organizing. Their victory required more than a network of autonomous student activist organizations. At the same time, day-to-day organizing was done in a highly decentralized manner: local action committees, through which students organized particular and original strategies were heavily coordinated by central organizations, thus enabling students to rapidly borrow tactical ideas and exchange information. Based on the success in Québec and on the success of previous CFS-led campaigns, the 2007 Day of Action was organized through similar types of committees. The logistical and material support that the CFS did provide was done so at the behest of local committees, not the other way around. Meetings were widely publicized and sometimes were well attended.

But politics in English Canada is different from politics in Québec, as is the history of student activism. I suspect that the relative penetration of neoliberal ideals into the ambient culture, and the governmental structures of each province, had much to do with the success of the 2005 campaign in Québec and what happened (or did not happen) in English Canada in 2007. This becomes even clearer when we look at relative levels of government support for social services in and outside of Québec, and the degree to which historically strong social forces have opposed neoliberalism. We should also remember that it is useless to generalize the particular; we construct straw men when we argue that the success of mobilizations in Québec were due to decentred and “creative” forms of direct action that are readily generalizable. Oppositional tactics in other provinces will need to be both tailor-made and informed by what worked in places like Québec.

The rightward drift of Canadian politics and the structural transformations of the Canadian political economy have been key considerations for CFS strategizing and campaign design. The contemporary neoliberal university offers less room to explore radical ideas, less patience for honest inquiry, less opposition to commodification, and less awareness of the degree to which the university has become – as Neil Smith put it – a “sausage factory.”7 It is perhaps an understandable miscalculation that, in a climate where the once-taboo topic of privatizing health care has entered the mainstream, the CFS has decided to try to mobilize by obtaining some measure of popular appeal. Instead of mobilizing on the demand that tuition fees be eliminated (something that most students currently think is impossible), the CFS has called for a tuition fee freeze. Although it is a political strategy that is open to debate, such a debate is hampered by right-wing student journalists and bloggers who, with few exceptions, reflect the tendencies evident in the mainstream media: they seek only to sensationalize and make stories understandable in terms that have been given new meaning by neoliberal popular culture. Here I am thinking of terms like “accountability” and “transparency,” which have come to mean something more akin to fiscal tightness and market efficiency than anything else.

What is to be done?

I believe the CFS was wise to moderate its messaging around tuition fees, particularly given the radical positions it has maintained on issues like the commercialization of university space and research. Like liberalism more generally, neoliberalism permits people a terrific degree of ideological flexibility. Students can simultaneously believe that the elimination of tuition fees is impossible and that opposition to things like commercialization is immensely important. By moderating its primary message, the CFS has opened the door to a more radical program. It has enabled the development of a more coherent and comprehensive radical critique. As students work together to oppose commercialization, they invariably come to see a more radical line as both practical and practicable. Moderation on one front holds the promise of radicalizing the movement on all fronts. Granted, popular dialogue has not, in recent history, shifted left. If anything, it has shifted further right. Neoliberalism’s rhetorical tactics have evolved to the point where even cutbacks and fiscal discipline are seen as progressive social change. Where then, has the movement gone wrong?

The answer has everything to do with Frampton’s analysis. The CFS has had to face-off against a right-wing opposition funded and supported by various provincial governments, while at the same time dealing with politically paralyzing (if baseless) criticism from the left. The CFS has been, on the one hand, too radical, and on the other hand, too moderate. Worse still, it has been accused of being profit minded, highly centralized, and potentially even racist.8 No wonder, then, that the organization spends resources fending off attacks – resources that could otherwise be devoted to moving the dialogue forward. That said, the CFS could try harder to win over its left critics. I believe the CFS stands as the student movement’s best and most progressive chance. It has a highly developed and democratic organizational structure that privileges local autonomy and coordinated oppositional activities. The CFS also has the ability to leverage socially-informed services that increase name recognition and visibility. Its government relations program is solid and responsive. That said, the CFS, and the movement in general, would do well to prioritize research that can inform campaign strategy. The CFS also needs to revisit its relationships with key coalition partners and to extend its activities beyond the higher-education sector.

On the commercialization front, opposition has solidified into a familiar refrain: commercialization must be opposed because it threatens basic research, because it actually slows the pace of innovation, because it tragically skews public investment by deploying it for private gain, because it encourages research misconduct, because it leads invariably to the exploitation of graduate students who often work as research assistants, because it fundamentally commodifies knowledge and the popular and critical potential of the university. These arguments are generally evidenced either by reference to scandals – Nancy Olivieri, David Healey, and Christopher Radziminski, the student whose whistleblowing the CFS championed – or by reference to developments in the US, which have tended to be better documented and studied. While there has been some recent movement on these issues, the CFS needs to develop a better-documented and evidenced campaign. Simply put, the CFS needs to hire experts who can critique the neoliberal line, who can navigate access-to-information protocols and legislation, and who can help member locals of the CFS investigate and oppose the commercial activities of university administrations and governments.

The CFS also needs to articulate its opposition to things like commercialization in a way that fosters critical discussion. Too often, words like “capitalism” and “accumulation” are avoided for fear of sounding too radical. But we badly need campaigns that openly criticize capitalist logic as it leverages the university. We stand to win when we force the opposition to label us either as “radicals” or “leftists” in their effort to suppress substantive debate or to use our terminology to defend the program of capitalist accumulation and the inequities it inevitably generates.

There is also room for the CFS to expand its political and ideological reach outside the higher-education sector. For instance, the CFS missed a golden opportunity to critique neoliberalism when Buzz Hargrove committed the Canadian Auto Workers to a deal with Magna that promises to undermine workers’ living standards and rights. The CFS needs to foment more than just a student movement, it needs to support working-class movements everywhere. It cannot do this without placing more emphasis on building partnerships with auto workers who oppose the Magna deal, without working more closely with the CUPE and organizations like the Ontario and British Columbia Health Networks to oppose the privatization of Medicare. If a moderated message on tuition fees gives the CFS more popular appeal, then it should use that appeal for the purposes of building a movement that extends beyond higher education.

Although it is organizationally available to be used as a catalyst for radical politics, the CFS has not yet fulfilled its potential in part because the politics of student unions across Canada, which have moved increasingly to the centre, and in part because the left has been more willing to attack the CFS than to either support it or use it as a means to press forward a radical agenda. Simply put, solidarity has been sorely lacking and unthinkingly undermined by the very forces that should be most concerned to preserve it. The CFS, as a coalition of grassroots movements, provides an intensely democratic forum for students to debate politics, policies, and strategy. It is therefore vital that the left use the CFS; right-leaning elements will, at some point, need to be pressed left, and if our arguments are convincing – and they are – then there is more to be gained by organizing forcefully within the CFS than by isolating and fragmenting its various parts.

More than this, if the CFS is torn apart, there is good reason to expect – given the persistent involvement of university administrations, governments, and political parties in the students’ movement – that the remaining vacuum will be filled by something regressive rather than by something radical. It will take time and energy and resources to rebuild an organization with the capacity that the CFS already has. And since that capacity is vital to fighting back against the well-funded, well-organized, and increasingly ubiquitous neoliberal threat, there is no time to waste re-building that which already exists. We will not up any anti by being, even temporarily, anti-CFS.


1 Caelie Frampton, “Strength in Numbers? Why Radical Students Need a New Organizing Model,” Upping the Anti, 5, November 2007, 102.

2 For example, in the higher education sector, analysts working within an institutionalist frame have described Ontario’s university system as “clientele pluralist.” The term is used to describe the degree to which governmental policy, with respect to universities, has allegedly been driven by the universities themselves. With few researchers on hand, the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities has, claims Elka Geskin-Walsh, been forced to rely heavily on the universities for policy advice and direction. So it is that the institutional make-up of the sector leads to specific outcomes (i.e. there is a description of relative institutional capacities, not simple assertions. See Elka Geskin-Walsh, Policy Change and Higher Education Quality Assurance: The Role for Policy Networks, Globalization and Internationalization in Germany, Ontario, and the U.K., Phd Thesis, McMaster University, 2007.

3 The minutes of the meetings of the National Graduate Caucus are available for review at the offices of member locals of the CFS. Particular attention should be paid to the minutes from the last two “stand-alone” meetings of the NGC, held in February of 2007, and March of 2006.

4 Tories Plot to Infiltrate Student Government, The Gazette, Friday March 15, 2002, Volume 95, Issue 86.

5 Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith, Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power, Doubleday, 1996.

6 Strangely, Frampton celebrates the emergence of right-wing student groups as evidence of left-wing success. We should rather measure our success based on our success in terms of how we improve the material conditions of students and workers in Canada and around the world, not on the vociferous response the ruling class mounts to crush our efforts.

7 Neil Smith, “Afterword: Who Rules This Sausage Factory?” Antipode, Volume 32, Issue 3, July 2000, 330-339.

8 Accusations that the CFS is racist are specious at best. The CFS offers affirmative action subsidies to promote diverse representation and participation at its meetings. Time for constituency groups to discuss and debate key issues are also provided at meetings, as are opportunities for such groups to bring issues forward for debate and discussion to the larger organization. As well, there are dedicated seats on the National Executive of the CFS for students of colour, women students, and Aboriginal students. The CFS has done extensive work on and shown tremendous solidarity with queer, Aboriginal, and women’s issues and groups. More than this, the CFS ran a ground-breaking campaign against Islamophobia, which culminated in a five-month long task force on the needs of Muslim students.