On Feb. 1, the Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O) is calling for another “Student Day of Action” for stronger public services and fairness for students. Rallies have been planned at a handful of campuses, including Carlton, York University, and Guelph. This is a very limited mobilization. Socialist Fightback Students (SFS) will be mobilizing all of our supporters to participate in these rallies.

SFS is raising the demand for the abolition of tuition fees. At the moment, only the local student union at York University, the York Federation of Students (YFS), has raised the call for free tuition. This is a step backwards from the 2016 Day of Action organized by the CFS, where free education was the main demand of the country-wide mobilization that led to large demonstrations.

Students should use the opportunity presented by the Feb. 1 rallies to voice their discontent, and push for a more general series of mobilizations leading up to a mass student strike movement against the rising cost of education and for free education.

Why we fight

After more than 25 years of cuts to social spending, average tuition fees have increased more than 137 per cent. In Ontario, tuition fees are more than triple what they were 20 years ago. This is a major barrier for working class youth trying to access education. It leaves far too many students drowning in debt and dramatically worsens their living conditions.

The Toronto Star reported that rising tuition is a key reason why nearly 40 per cent of Canadian students have trouble getting enough nutritious food to eat, while about half “reported that they had to sacrifice buying healthy food to pay for expenses such as rent, tuition and textbooks.” For Black and Indigenous students, the rate of food insecurity is, predictably, far higher. This has driven the number of campus “hunger relief” programs in Canada to more than double from 51 to 104.

This situation is all the more deplorable when we realize that there is ample wealth in our society to provide all students with free education, living grants and housing. The evisceration of support structures for Canadian students was a deliberate move to lower the tax “burden” for the wealthy. It was a move to make the rich richer by making middle and working class students poorer.

Students are increasingly and justifiably furious that they have had to endure such an enormous reduction in their living standards just to further enrich a tiny elite. This anger can and must be directed. The February demonstration should be the first of many in an escalating movement to shake the provincial and federal governments to win free post-secondary education and real education reform for students.

Lobbying is a dead end

Over the past few decades, when faced with increasing tuition, the main student leaders in English Canada have repeatedly tried to lobby the government to get them to stop. For example, after the last Day of Action in November 2016, the spokesperson for the CFS-Ontario Rajean Hoilett told The Eyeopener that “the next step is directing the discourse to individual members of provincial parliament.”

In Spring 2017, CFS issued a press release with the title “Students Take Call for Free Post-Secondary Education to Parliament Hill.” The release explained that the student union leaders lobbied 150 MPs and senators for its “National Lobby Week.” During this time, the release reads, politicians lobbied “were presented with students’ vision for post-secondary education, which included a plan to meaningfully reinvest in post-secondary education by eliminating tuition fees for all students.”

Since then the CFS-Ontario has explained that “The Federation has become a strong presence on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park, meeting regularly with federal Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament, other government officials, civil servants and representatives from all political parties at the federal and provincial levels,” as it offers “practical and reasonable solutions.”

But what has the result of these “practical and reasonable” suggestions been? According to the CFS’ recent press release titled “Back to School = More Tuition Fee Increases”, the situation has only deteriorated for students.

Students cannot lobby for an end to cuts to education and rising tuition fees. No politician from either of the two ruling class parties has an interest or intention of making the wealthy part with their money to address the crisis of underfunding and access to post-secondary education.

Quebec students show the way forward

We don’t need to look too far for an inspiring student movement that has repeatedly stopped tuition increases. In Quebec, the traditions of mass student strikes and rank-and-file student democracy have managed to keep tuition fees among some of the lowest in the country. Successive strikes, shutting down universities and colleges, have time and time again forced the government to retreat.

The biggest of such movements was in 2012. This showed the amazing potential of mass province-wide mobilization organized by the student unions. It directed the simmering rage felt by so many students to the streets, and eventually led to the downfall of the provincial Liberals who were hellbent on increasing tuition by $1,625.

In response to this attack, the student federation ASSE, began to mobilize students in an escalating movement. The more active unions led from the front, inspiring the others, drawing the traditionally more passive schools into the strike movement. This movement culminated in an indefinite student strike, combined with mass demonstrations. At its height, more than 300,000 students were on strike, and the monthly mass demonstrations brought 200,000-400,000 students from colleges and universities alike out into the streets.

Despite significant efforts on the part of the government and the mass media to demonize and use police repression to defeat the movement, it nonetheless pushed forward. In the face of so much anger, bravery and widespread mobilization, the forces of order and reaction had to retreat. The Liberal government was brought down and the tuition increase was canceled by the next government. Most importantly, the 2012 student strike remains an emblematic point of reference in the struggle against capitalist austerity. Through the mass struggle, Quebec youth—and the broader working class— learned some valuable lessons about their potential strength.

It is essential for student activists across the country to learn the lessons from this struggle. These ideas and methods of mass struggle must be brought into the student unions across Canada.

How to fight and win?

The present day of action will provide an opportunity for new students to enter the struggle and get a sense of our collective strength. But what methods are needed to win the struggle?

Unfortunately, CFS leaders have so far only called for localized demonstrations on a campus-by-campus-basis. Furthermore, there has so far been no proposed plan of action following the Feb. 1 demonstration. A one-day demonstration at a handful of campuses is not enough to win this fight. Provincial and federal governments will not be intimidated by such a limited mobilization. A one-day demonstration limited to a few campuses is only a symbolic show of force. On its own it will not change anything fundamental.

Therefore, the next step must be to push for a nationwide mobilization and a plan of escalating protests and other actions. There is an enormous anger amongst Canadian students, desperately looking for an outlet. Student union leadership must take advantage of that anger and use the momentum from the February demonstration to organize a national campaign with follow-up actions.

What does this mean concretely? Students who come out on Feb. 1 need to be organized in order to bring more students out for the next actions. Mobilization committees should be struck on every campus so rank-and-file students can be involved in organizing. In this manner, a growing number of students will be enlisted to organizing this escalating student movement.

The history of the student movement in Canada proves that small isolated pressure tactics will not work to stop tuition increases. This campaign of escalating student mobilization must have a clear goal: mass strikes to shut down university and college campuses across the country. This means winning over thousands of students. It means providing students who are angry with the ideas and means to take matters into their own hands.

Many students feel powerless and therefore seem passive because they cannot see how they can change things. These students are inspired by youth struggles they see in other countries or even in Quebec; however, they do not see any outlet to express their desire for social change.

That outlet can be provided by the movement for free education. Socialist Fightback Students are mobilizing to build this movement. This means working to build strong, democratic and militant students unions guided by socialist ideas. We need your help to advance this struggle.

If we are serious about winning free education, we are going to have to fight for it. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Quebec student movement, it is that we need to organize a mass, countrywide student strike to openly challenge the agenda of the capitalist elites.

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