The Canadian Federation of Students: What is to be done?

cfs logo

There are steps in the fallen snow somewhere in Gatineau, Quebec. Student politicians traveled from across the country to protest other student politicians who came to meet from across the country on a frigid Saturday in late November.

The Canadian Federation of Students, the CFS, a national student advocacy and service provider meets among the huddled bureaucratic buildings in a capital region Best Western for an Annual General Meeting. The future looks as stark as the day’s grey sky. Battling protesting heretics who want to see it dismantled and destroyed and a political landscape where its desperate voice resonates only so far into obscurity, CFS delegates must see the season’s first snow as poetic. It is going to be a long winter.

The cracks came years ago. In the 90s, sparse universities and colleges marked their detestation with referendums to disaffiliate. The CFS resorted to lawfare. The strategy must have seemed straight forward. Admit no loss; the façade must not be fractured. Local student politicians lead their flocks against what they conceived as an evil corrupt empire.

Whether the incompetence or carelessness, of staffers or the ploys of right wing insurgents, the CFS has become embroiled in trouble. Referendum after referendum, the CFS became smaller and smaller. Now it fights with all its legal and organizational capacity to hold onto to its last provincial forts on an increasingly hostile frontier. In 2009, 13 campuses wanted to leave. In 2013, it is at least 15. The CFS is cornered.

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(image studentunion.ca)

There are only two options. It can continue to defend its lingering and lost legitimacy or rise and reinvent itself.

The CFS needs immediate innovation. The status quo simply can no longer do; most students either perceive it with anger or apathy. If the CFS choses to rise, it can do a couple things. Unifor, Canada’s largest industrial union, has the promising potential to change the Canadian landscape. They are looking to branch out. CFS could join them, save tens of thousands by combining administrative infrastructure, streamline services and give itself a new mandate when dealing with its members. Unifor could champion free education and the CFS could appeal to its working students, unionize their work places and create stronger lines of solidarity across society.

If that isn’t appealing, the CFS could rethink how it operates. This could be done with three Ls: Localize, Limit and Link-up. Create local legitimacy with binding general assemblies, limit the power of staffers and build institutional links with grassroots organizations and PIRGs.

Some thinking, a little elbow grease, and a lot of inspiration can make the great services the CFS provides greater. Instead of its flurry of press releases going straight into the trash cans of journalists and its organizing efforts bringing fewer and fewer people with every gathering, it can reorganize and galvanize.

The pessimism must be refused and rebuked. Those on the left should make no alliances with the conservatives who would like nothing more than to see every progressive institution, or institution capable of being progressive, destroyed. The CFS’ leadership should take note and act quickly.

It is bleak. Their belligerence and negligence must be ended soon, either by their own desire for positive, progressive change or the slow and painful result of their own stagnancy, stupidity and hard-headedness, the inevitable destruction and complete irrelevance of the CFS.

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