Thousands of students have been demonstrating against tuition fees across Canada. They are being mobilized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) under the banner of the “Fight the Fees” campaign. For many students, this could not have come at a better time.
Despite living in a country as rich as Canada, the situation for youth has grown dire. As noted by the CFS, average tuition fees in Canada have increased by more than 137 per cent over the past 25 years. In a province like Ontario, tuition fees are nearly triple what they were just 20 years ago. Public funding, which once helped to soften the blow of high tuition, is being clawed back with each passing year. 20 years ago it accounted for 77 per cent of university and college operating funds. Today it accounts for less than 49 per cent.
The increase in student debt has been no less forgiving. The average student in Canada now graduates with $28,000 of education-related debt, according to the CFS. The Canada Student Loan program is owed a total of $19 billion, with that figure increasing by nearly $1 million a day.
The situation is just as gloomy outside of school. Youth unemployment is hovering above 13 per cent in Canada, which is almost double the national average. However, this figure also overlooks the quality of jobs on offer. It is no secret that the bulk of jobs “recovered” since the 2008-9 collapse were either part-time or low pay. Things taken for granted in an earlier period, from employment insurance to pensions, are being stripped away and gutted at an incalculable rate. When asked about the precarious nature of work, Canada’s Finance Minister could only suggest that people get used to it “because it’s going to happen.” Even the Liberal Party’s most talented spin doctors can’t hide the fact that things are bleak.
For these reasons Fightback welcomes the November 2nd Day of Action, which has drawn attention to the impact of high tuition costs on students across Canada. However, this should only be taken as the first step in a protracted and increasingly militant process of mobilization. As of now, student union leaders have not made clear where they plan to take the movement beyond November 2nd. We consider this a mistake. A single demonstration can serve as a launch pad for a broader struggle, but to suggest that a demonstration in and of itself can force significant concessions would be a dramatic overestimation of our forces. Nothing worth winning ever comes that easy.
How do we fight?
Fortunately, the Quebec students have already done us the favour of providing a way forward. In 2012, they introduced Canadian students to the tried and tested method of the student strike. The Quebec students showed they could achieve more with a single strike than years of lobbying and petitioning combined. This put to rest once and for all the mistaken belief that moderation would lead to victory, and proved in practice that weakness only invites aggression. In fact, it was militancy that was required to force the government’s retreat in Quebec. No matter how politely we ask, there is no other option but militancy to wrest concessions from government’s hell bent on austerity. The deeper the economic crisis becomes, the truer that statement is.
With this in mind, we believe November 2nd should serve as the debut of an ongoing national campaign, which would culminate in a nationwide student strike for free education. The experience of Quebec proves that this is not only possible, but necessary. To those who say that we are “not ready” for a student strike, we reply by saying that you can never be ready for something if you don’t prepare for it. To those who say that preparation would “take too long,” we reply by saying that waiting for the government to concede would take even longer. In our view, every day spent making excuses is a day lost preparing for a strike.