Two sides of Canada’s student voices

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By Allan Woods and Tim Cook

OTTAWA—Inside Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in the lobby of Joe Clark’s office, Sean Fraser and Mark Sollis anxiously sit on the edge of a white couch waiting for the leader of the federal Conservative party to arrive for a meeting.

Dressed in suits and ties, Fraser and Sollis could be businessmen or fellow Conservative MPs, but three details make them stand out: one is the earrings Sollis is spotting, another is the tanline from Fraser’s designer sunglasses with the orange lenses.

But the most telling detail is the little white pin in the lapels of their jackets identifying them as members of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations which represents about 340,000 students at 22 colleges and universities across the county. They will leave a box of the same pins behind as a token gift.

A television on the cherry oak bookcase is tuned to CPAC—the Canadian Public Affairs Channel—but Fraser, the student president of Mount Royal College in Alberta, and Sollis, the v.p. External affairs, are too preoccupied thinking about their meeting with Joe Clark.

Former prime minister Clark—or Mr. Clark as they call him—is only one of about 50 MPs the CASA delegates are meeting with this week.

He’s about 15 minutes late, but they’re patient. Fraser, a political science student, only managed to set up the meeting this morning.

When the man they’ve been waiting for finally walks through the door wearing a long black trench coat and a Tory blue V-neck sweater, they can hardly conceal their schoolboy grins.

Inside, the Tory leader sinks into a white sofa chair and crosses his legs, revealing a pair of ankle-length cowboy boots—a subtle link to his Alberta roots and his western constituents.

The discussion moves from Alberta to Clark’s recent victory in the federal election to the health care system, before Sollis—a journalism student at Mount Royal—hits Clark with what they’ve really come to talk about.

“The Alberta government has just passed a law allowing Devry to grant degrees in the province and we’re worried about private education,” he says.

It’s a concern student leaders across the country share, along with tuition deregulation, student loan repayment and accessibility. But while some groups get their message across with placards, publicity stunts, sit-ins and protests, CASA and its member schools choose to approach leaders with wine and cheese, meetings and policy platforms.

Canadian student politics developed out of this divide and both sides have their critics, but they can’t agree on the best way to get things done.
The five schools who founded CASA had previously been member schools of the Canadian Federation of Students. They yanked their support in 1995 when they decided they’d had enough of the protests and stunts.
“People wanted a different way of lobbying,” CASA’s a national director, Mark Kissel, says of the split. “We use the ‘meet and greet’ instead of the way of the sign.’”

He says CFS’ focus is broader than CASA’s, often branching out into such issues as homelessness, globalization and sweatshops.

“One of our founding principles is that we focus exclusively on postsecondary education,” explains Graham Serift, v.p. External affairs at the University of British Columbia, while schmoozing with thirsty MPs at a CASA-hosted wine and cheese inside Parliament last week. “We’re not a mobilization. We’re a lobby group.”
That the two groups-both claiming to be Canada’s student voice-don’t exactly get along is no great secret.

But the head offices of both CASA and the Canadian Federation of Students are located in neighbouring buildings on Metcalfe Street-ironically enough-a mere five-minute walk from Parliament Hill.

CFS’ nerve centre consists of about a dozen offices, a boardroom and a kitchenette on the fifth floor of a modest office building.

Between these walls, the CFS puts the act in activism.

This is the place where the federation plans its attacks. This is where they worked on Access 2000—a national day of a student protest last year—and where they planned a court challenge of bankruptcy laws that prevent students from declaring bankruptcy for seven years after they graduate.

In the hallway of the cluttered office, a fax machine spits out pages of petitions signed by students from schools across the country, supporting CFS’ various issues.

In a dark corner of the base camp, Joey Hansen, CFS’ national treasurer, and Joel Duff, chair of the national graduate student council and CFS-Ontario’s chairperson-elect, lounge on a couch that’s covered by a green throw. They appear relaxed—Duff has one foot on the coffee table in front of him—while at the same time on edge. They’re ready to defend CFS with their glossy idealism and cookie-cutter bravado.

“We’re on the radar screen as the national voice for students,” Duff says with his arms raised and his fingers locked behind his head. “The government comes to us, the media comes to us. We are the voice for students.”

And he’s right, at least in terms of numbers. CFS is the largest student group in the country, with more than 400,000 members at 60 colleges and universities across the country. RyeSAC is a member of the federation and $11.70 from every Ryerson student’s tuition pays for that membership.

Their mandate is simple—“education should be a right.” And that’s the message they try to convey to Canadian lawmakers.

Duff says their approach revolves around numbers—mobilizing students and creating change through public support. “Strength in numbers has long been a motto of the federation,” Duff says. “We are all united by each other’s struggles.”

While they say protesting is only a small part of what the CFS does, it is one of the more visible tactics. And some—especially the members of the CASA—say the way the CFS goes about conveying their message crosses the line between making a point and acting irrational. The petition—signing, placard-waving and sit-ins-protesting-goes too far, critics say.

“Governments don’t listen to people just because you have a good argument,” Hansen says. “It’s a fine line to walk. Some may consider our actions radical but the general public doesn’t. Our agenda is supported by the public.”
And they say Fraser, Sollis and the other CASA representatives are only pushing their own public agendas and establishing inside contacts that will help them down the road.

Fraser and many of his colleagues don’t hide their political ambition, and Fraser says his method—meeting with as many people as possible and telling them about CASA’s platform—works. “If you talk to enough people, your platform will be on file when they start discussing education and sooner or later someone will mention your idea,” he says. “It’s all about planting the seed.”

But Fraser thinks both groups are necessary.

People say Fraser’s a natural-born-lobbyist—he landed the meeting with Clark, set up another with Stephan Dion, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and landed two passes to Question Period from Finance Minister Paul Martin’s office—but Fraser says CASA suffers because it doesn’t get the media attention CFS gets with it demonstrations and protests.

The divide is not likely to be bridged any time soon and the fight may even get dirty as CASA’s membership grows. Just this year, it has gained five new schools including two in Ontario, a traditional CFS stronghold. While both groups say they hold no grudge toward the other, the animosity between them will probably grow.
NDP leader Alexa McDonough told CASA members at a meeting last Thursday that this divide could eventually hurt both causes. “One of the things the government takes advantage of is that there are competing student organizations and that there is disunity,” she said.

When McDonough and about 18 other NDP MPs met with student leaders from both CASA and CFS in Nova Scotia last year, she said they were impressed the leaders could come together to present a single student voice. “I think it works to present a united front.”

And while the others sit in the conference room of their ritzy hotel on Friday listening to this and so many other messages, Fraser is working the phones, trying to plant as many sees as he can before the MPs travel back to their ridings for the weekend.
He’s trying for Stockwell Day, the leader of the official opposition, and he’ll probably get him. There’s no reason in his mind why he can’t.

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