CFS’ message unheeded in Ontario

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By Hamida Ghafour

Reporters rush to the main doors of the CIBC headquarters at King and Bay Streets.  About 85 student protesters, who have been staging an all-night sit-in in the bank against corporatization of universities and rising tuition fees, have decided to end their 20-hour protest.  Tired and hungry, the students, linked arm-in-arm are led out by Toronto police chief Davdi Boothby.  As they exit the doors, some students run toward the street, raising their arms in victory in the mid-morning light.

“Education is a right.  We will not give up the fight,” students cheer.

Reporters’ microphones capture every word, preparing to broadcast the latest student protest update.

The sit-in followed a Day of Action rally organized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) last January.  Storming the CIBC wasn’t on the agenda, but the sit-in garnered the CFS a lot of wanted media attention and public support.

However, the main goal of the rally – achieving a rollback in tuition fees – was not realized.  Last spring, universities across Ontario, including Ryerson, decided to increase tuition, placing the province behind only Nova Scotia as the expensive place to get an undergraduate degree in the country.  According to Statistics Canada, Ontario university tuition fees have gone up 71 per cent in the past five years and 150 per cent in the past decades.

Because of the steady rise, the CFS – Canada’s largest student lobby group, with an annual budget of $2 million paid through levies from 400,000 student members in 60 universities and colleges – has come under scrutiny from other student groups for not understanding how to channel change effectively.

And after the organization was able to lobby the provincial National Democratic Party government in British Columbia to freeze tuition fees for the past three years, the CFS is coming under intense pressure to achieve the same thing here – and fast.

But Joel Harden, 26, chair of the CFS-Ontario, says it’s hard to bring change to Ontario because of the provincial Progressive Conservative government.

“People are feeling a little beleaguered.  Students are stressed.  We’ve never been up against something this – the Harris government.”

Harden and other organizers were busy last week preparing for the CFS’ student week of action – a nation-wide student protest of tuition hikes which began Tuesday and ends with a rally on Saturday to shut down the provincial Progressive Conservative convention in Ottawa.  The week’s events are an expansion of last January’s Day of Action rally.  On Friday, the CFS-Ontario plan to unite protesters from Toronto-area universities and colleges at Front and Bay Streets, two blocks south of where the sit—in at the CIBC headquarters took place.

Despite failing to lobby the province and Ontario universities to roll back or freeze tuition, the CFS-Ontario remains adamant its philosophy and style is the best approach.

Harden believes last January’s sit-in can be called a success for one simple reason – the media coverage it generated.  “We didn’t get the immediate demands that we needed, but what we got is a massive amount of public reaction to student debt,” he says.

Among the CFS’ demands for this week’s Student Week of Action is a call for the provincial and federal governments to immediately freeze national tuition fees and to restore post-secondary funding back to 1993 levels.

“If those demands aren’t met … we will pull out all our members and we’ll encourage everyone to walk out of class,” says Harden, insisting that rallies are the best way for students to be heard.

Critics of the organization say changing government policy cannot be achieved through rallies and media attention.  Hoops Harrison, national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), a cross-Canada lobby group representing 275,000 students from 17 student associations, says the CFS has not been successful in Ontario because it doesn’t have access to the real players at the provincial and federal levels.

He believes the organization’s grassroots-style student rallies alienate the lobby group from the government it is trying to address.

“It’s like going to your professor with a grade.  You don’t sit outside his office and protest saying  ‘My professor is being unfair,’ you go in and say, ‘This is why I should get a better grade or this is the problem I have,’” he says.

Harrison says the CFS should lobby more subtly and forget about student protests because he thinks they don’t work.

Andrew Boggs, executive director of the Ontario University Students Association (OUSA), an organization formed in 1991 by student governments unhappy with CFS-Ontario’s executive structure, agrees with Harrison’s sentiment about CFS’s lobbying techniques.

Boggs says the reason why the CFS hasn’t been able to bring about significant change in Ontario is because they are too aggressive.

“It’s definitely hurting the [CFS] in getting into the corridors of power.  I know that people won’t meet with them because of how they are perceived,” he says.

But David Scott, a spokesman with the Council of Ontario Universities, which represents and lobbies for university presidents and chancellors, says the CFS knows how to get its message across.  He says the two organizations meet regularly to discuss the restructuring of education in Canada.

“They’re certainly well-known and make their presence felt.”

National CFS chair Elizabeth Carlyle, 24, believes the CFS has always been and will remain at the forefront of student issues.  She says the CFS recognizes it hasn’t made many inroads in Ontario, but insists change is coming.

“Certainly students are among the most impatient of groups, which is good in a lot of ways, but with a government like [Mike] Harris, you have to commit to long term coalition … people like Mike Harris don’t change their mind overnight,” Carlyle says.

Harden agrees with Carlyle wholeheartedly.  He says the biggest problem with the current Ontario PC government is that they won’t listen to the lobby group.

And while the Bob Rae-led NDP government before Harris hiked tuition 40 per cent over its term, Harden says Rae’s government was willing to listen to its concerns.

“We had some influence because their [NDP] doors were open.  But I still think their policies were less than stellar,” Harden says.

But provincial Education Minister Dave Johnson says the lines of communication between the government and the CFS are always open.

“I have had various meeting with post-secondary groups including CFS,” Johnson says.  “We may have different opinions on some things, but that’s like with everything.”

Johnson also believes the government shouldn’t be the only target of the lobby group.  He says if the CFS is upset with tuition hikes, it should take up the issue with Ontario universities.

But targeting universities isn’t the way the CFS in British Columbia brought about change, says B.C. CFS spokesperson Michael Gardiner.

The B.C. division orchestrated a massive campaign in 1993 to freeze tuition.  The group took a campus tour of all of its 16-member universities and colleges and presented a report to the province on students’ concerns.  It also held huge student demonstrations to sway public opinion to its side – successfully.

Gardiner says the CFS was lucky it was dealing with an NDP government that made education a priority.

“Basically what we were able to do was meet with the provincial government and, in part, worked with the premier to convince them not only was it the right thing to do, but there was significant political value,” says Gardiner.

And getting a big campaign together to sway public opinion on the side of students is exactly what Harden wants to accomplish this year.

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