Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Brief Introduction to the Canadian Union of Students

by Doug Nesbitt
This is based on the article "Students Attacking Students Redux" published in The Leveller, December 2009. It is written for a Carleton University audience.

“If I were the student press or a candidate in the upcoming council elections, I wouldn’t tolerate the neanderthal priorities of the average student council.”
Doug Ward, president of the Canadian Union of Students, January 1967.

It is understandable why images of long-haired students burning draft cards and marching in the streets dominate the popular imagination of the 1960s. Yet, the legacy of the 1960s student revolt is more readily felt in the in the prosaic concerns of everyday student politics. While episodes of student radicalism have been brief and sporadic since 1968, there remains the unending battle over the ethical soul of the student and their councils.

Prior to the 1960s, university students were almost all from the wealthier classes, and saw themselves themselves as apprentices to the professions or the intelligentsia. Canada’s university was a decidedly elite institution: as late as 1955, there were only 73,000 students. However, by 1970 enrollment had swelled to 309,000. The needs of the new economy – new technologies and expanding bureaucracies - transformed the university into what some student dissidents termed the “knowledge factory.” This transformation put enormous strains on the financial, physical and human infrastructure of the university system, leading many students to raise troubling new questions about the structure and social purpose of the university.

These criticisms became the content of a broader philosophy – “student syndicalism” – which redefined the role of the student in society. First developed by France’s national student union and codified in its 1947 Charte de Grenoble, “student syndicalism” emerged from the French youth born in the cauldron of a Communist-led anti-Nazi resistance. Students were integral members of society, “young intellectual workers” not merely capable of, but in fact carrying the responsibility for participating in and leading social change.

Transmitted through student exchanges in France, student syndicalism was adopted and adapted by Quebec’s student councils through the 1950s. They tried in vain to win Canada’s national student union, the National Federation of Canadian University Students, away from its focus on organizing debate tournaments and staid academic lectures. English Canadian students were resistant, ultimately leading to the exodus of Quebec’s students from NFCUS in 1964 – but not before NFCUS changed its name to the Canadian Union of Students (CUS) in a failed gesture of accommodation.

Shortly after this split, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement erupted, heralding the stormy birth of the 1960s student movement. Thousands of students, from socialists to Goldwater Republicans, united against the administration’s banning of political tabling by students on campus. Months later, in the spring of 1965, a civil rights protester was shot by police at a march in Selma, Alabama. Thousands of Canadian students signed petitions supporting the Civil Rights Movement, carried out sit-ins at the US consulates in Toronto and Montreal, and rallied at the US embassy in Ottawa. A few days later, at the behest of the little-known Student for a Democratic Society, 25,000 people gathered in Washington, DC in opposition to the Vietnam War, providing a public birth for the anti-war movement that escalated to dizzying heights within the next five years.

In Canada, student councils elected in the spring of 1965 were enthused and energized with the new intoxicating spirit of righteous rebellion. They flooded in to the 1965 CUS congress, adopting the syndicalist Declaration of the Canadian Student, passing unprecedented resolutions calling for the gradual elimination of tuition fees, the democratization of university governance, and ambitiously proposing to send a student on a fact-finding mission to North and South Vietnam (finances prevented its implementation).

CUS also published a groundbreaking survey exposing how the wealthier classes were grossly over-represented in the student body. Coincidentally, it appeared as students devoured the newly-published Vertical Mosaic, the classic text on the Canadian class structure written by Carleton professor John Porter. The cold, hard facts laid out by the survey directly informed the successful 1966 CUS Congress resolution in favour of the immediate abolition of tuition fees.

Over two years, CUS had gone from rejecting the syndicalism of Quebec’s students to creating its own syndicalist manifesto; from drafting federal policy briefs to encouraging campaigns for tuition fee reductions, student representation on university boards and senates, and lower book prices.

The transition was not without a backlash. The University of Alberta 1966-67 student council began making allegations about a lack of internal democracy within CUS. The council president, Branny Schepanovich, and vice-president, Marilyn Pilkington, added that the Vietnam educational program, which distributed a wide variety of reading material to student councils, was beyond the union’s mandate. Pilkington also claimed that the material about Vietnam, South Africa and other political affairs was “beyond the comprehension of students.” Days after denouncing CUS as Communist-controlled at the 1966 CUS Congress, Schepanovich and Pilkington unilaterally withdrew their council from CUS without a democratic referendum by the student membership. Richard Price, Schepanovich’s predecessor at the University of Alberta, commented on the lack of democracy in the withdrawal: “Ironically, this is what they accused CUS of.”

With funding from Alberta’s right-wing Social Credit government, Schepanovich and Pilkington went on to form the anti-CUS Alberta Assembly of Students. (Lost in the recent hue and cry over Canadian Federation of Students referendums, the University of Alberta’s student leaders followed Schepanovich’s footsteps in mid-2008, affiliating some 30,000 students to the conservative Canadian Alliance of Student Associations with no referendum process. CFS requires referendums for both affiliation and disaffiliation)

By 1968, the Canadian Union of Students had moved ever more leftward while representing 40 student councils, or 150,000 of the 245,000 university students outside Quebec. However, the wild events of 1968 got the best of the leftist CUS leaders. In February, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam shocked Western society and led to President Johnson’s refusal to seek renomination by late March. Days later after Johnson's announcement, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a sanitation workers' strike. His death sparked riots in over a hundred American cities, with inner cities burning and National Guard troops called in to occupy them. Days after the assassination, Columbia University was occupied by hundreds of students to stop the administration from annexing a nearby public park in Harlem. In May, escalating student protests in France sparked a ten million-strong general strike, very nearly toppling De Gaulle’s autocratic government. In August, Czechoslovakia’s experiment of “socialism with a human face” was crushed by Soviet tanks. In late August, the night before the opening session of the 1968 congress, CUS delegates from across the country gathered around a TV set watching live footage of Chicago’s police mercilessly beating both protesters and delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

The following day, a majority of delegates voted to support the Vietnamese struggle against the Americans, advocate for women’s liberation, and oppose the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But this radical moment did not last. Most delegations returned home either opposed to the union’s left-wing lurch, or facing an onslaught from their anti-CUS opposition on campus. The mainstream media fuelled the backlash. The Toronto Star quoted the new CUS president declaring that if peaceful student protests were repressed, campus buildings would burn. The CUS president, Peter Warrian, denied the statement. But the cat was out of the bag.

After the congress, Carleton’s new student council president, Jerry Lampert, “suddenly” discovered that he opposed “student unionism.” As he set in motion a referendum on CUS membership for November, it was revealed that he was an active member of the ruling Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Then it was uncovered that Lampert’s sidekick, council vice-president George Hunter, was in correspondence with Marilyn Pilkington about the formation of a new, anti-CUS student organization. When CUS president Peter Warrian visited Carleton for a referendum debate, Lampert was a no-show. Warrian commented on the crisis within CUS:

“I’m on the political left. If the political left lost at a CUS congress as far as the policy resolutions, I wouldn’t try to bust up the union. The right-wing just lost for the first time in about 37 years and they’re trying to bust up the union.”

The broader societal backlash against the political instability of 1968 was the active background to the wave of membership withdrawals which had crippled CUS by early of 1969. Despite securing a decade-long tuition fee freeze in Ontario, providing hundreds of pages of valuable research and analysis on student and university conditions and policy, and spearheading widely successful efforts in securing student representation on university boards and senates, CUS was forced to close up shop in October 1969 due to an insufficient dues base.

The Lamperts and Pilkingtons of the late 1960s never constructed their alternative to CUS, but since then, the inheritors of their politics have successfully split the Canadian Federation of Students. CFS was formed in 1981 and in 1995 it organized a series of protests and even a one-day student strike against the Chretien-Martin budget overseeing the deepest social program cuts in Canadian history. A number of student councils, controlled by mainly Liberal Party-affiliated students, withdrew from CFS – sometimes without referendums – to establish the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, a body which has consistently pursued a program devoid of any serious drive for social change, even going as far as endorsing disastrous education “reforms” like income-contingent loan schemes which would lead to massive tuition fee increases. Income-contingent loans were one of the main grievances that led CFS to organize the one-day student strike in January 1995.

The political ambiguity of the term “reform” is perhaps best summed up by Lampert’s legacy at Carleton. Rather than pushing for the direct election of student delegates to the senate as had been achieved by student union activism at other campuses, Lampert collaborated with Carleton's president A. Davidson Dunton to form the New University Government (NUG) – a parallel student senate with no formal decision-making powers like the real senate. Before Carleton's student council even saw the final NUG proposal drafted by the administration, President Dunton called a press conference to announce NUG’s formation. The student council was only allowed 15 minutes to read the proposal before the ratification vote was held. Not only was the wider student body excluded from seeing the proposal prior to ratification, but Lampert and the student council voted against ratification being put to a student-wide referendum. As one of Lampert’s opponents on council put it: a “plan for student participation in university government has been foisted upon us without any student participation... “Sell-out” appropriately defines the main contours of this plan. NUG is no foot in the door for student participation. It is a foot in the screen door. The door is still locked; and admittance is by invitation only.”

A few years ago, the NUG was renamed the Carleton Student Government after a student group of apprenticing right-wing ideologues took it over through dubious electoral methods. The CSG’s key personnel have been involved in a series of efforts at undermining the main student union, CUSA, through setting up Conservative Party front groups (see The Leveller exposé from April 2009), interfering in the efforts of campus labour unions to inform their members on collective bargaining issues, and, most recently, trying to convince Carleton’s students that they’re better off without a national student union like CFS.

The student syndicalist claim that the student is something more than raw material for the knowledge factory, and that the student council/union/government can be more than a glorified barbecue committee, remain under siege by right-wing ideologues. Whether 1968 or today, this is the heart of the matter when it comes to Carleton's student union.

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