Students Connect Struggles for Greater Equailty in Canada with Struggles Around the World

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

  • Students listen to the Keynote speaker on Friday night, Clayton Thomas-Muller

    Students listen to the Keynote speaker on Friday night, Clayton Thomas-Muller

Written by Peter Miller

Students and workers are at an important time in history. The historical context has been a catalyst for movements around the world, from Occupy, to the Quebec Student strike, to protests against austerity measures in Europe. People are realizing that students and workers need to unite in order to change the system we are living in for a system that is a lot more equitable.

It is with this historical context in mind that students from across Ontario gathered on October 12 and 13 to discuss building movements at the Student Activist Assembly in Toronto. 11 students from the University of Guelph participated in the weekend of workshops and movement building.

On Friday, students and activists from across Ontario got to hear opening remarks from Sarah Jayne King, the chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario. Cat Criger, an aboriginal Elder, Traditional Teacher, and Mentor from the First Nations People opened the assembly by acknowledging that the land occupied by the University of Toronto is traditional land of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation. Antoni Shelton, the Director of Government Relations & Liaison to the President of the Ontario Federation of Labour spoke about the capitalist crisis we are in. He spoke of how governments are using the current economic crisis to push back against social services that have been hard fought by people all over the world. He emphasized that just over half a trillion dollars are being held by corporations in Canada in the banks, and Ontario has some of the lowest corporate taxes in North America. He told students at the assembly to build their movement against cuts to public services and for a different society.

Clayton Thomas-Muller was the Keynote Speaker for the Opening Remarks of the assembly. He is an activist for indigenous rights and environmental justice. He spoke to participants about his work helping build a movement against the tar sands, and also encouraged students to build their movements.

Students had the option to go to 31 different workshops over the weekend. Workshops focused on educating activists around issues or providing students with practical knowledge about movement building. Workshops included, The Economics of Free Education; Educate, Agitate, Organize; The Austerity Agenda: Government Risks, Public Loss; and Piece by Piece: Why Departmental Organizing Works. Other workshops focused on reproductive justice, environmental justice, the peace movement and many other topics.

At the economics of free education Alastair Woods discussed how governments around the world are trying to make the people believe that “the reality of the market makes eliminating tuition fees impossible.” The Ontario Government is trying to make students believe that rising tuition fees are not even a political choice, and that objective decisions are being made about economic policy. Woods was persuasive at showing activists that economic policy is actually a subjective decision and a political choice. He told students about how a progressive tax system could pay for free education in Ontario and the rest of Canada. He also provided activists with another model from Finland, where Post- Secondary Education is Free and private schools are outlawed.

The Educate, Agitate, Organize workshop taught activists a basic outline on how to organize campaigns. During a workshop about the Austerity Agenda, Graham Cox, a researcher for the Canadian Union of Public Employees taught students about how the privatization of the public sector has negatively affected Post-Secondary Education. Cox told students about recent reports from the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities that call for more online learning, and more education for job training for the market economy. He told students that with increased privatization in education, the principals of education change: Education becomes more about private gain instead of the betterment of society. Cox emphasized that students should begin to debate and organize around education being a public good.

And finally, Marianne Breton-Fontaine spoke to students about departmental organizing. She emphasized that a student union is only as good as its connection to the students it represents. When student unions push back against government policies, the potential for success is directly related to how well students can be mobilized for student interests that the union is fighting for.

The Activist Assembly ended with inspiring speeches from four student activists from around the world. The Keynote Speakers were Rodrigo Echecopar, the Vice President of the Catholic University of Chile Federation of students, Marianne Breton Fontaine, a former executive member of the students’ union at Cegep Du Vieux Montreal, Panagiotis Louvros, a student organizer from Greece, and Ana Garcia Rubio from the Federation of Students in Spain.

Breton-Fontaine spoke about the Quebec Student Movement that recently won a tuition fee freeze when facing an increase of 75%. There was great applause when she stated that Quebec students “got rid of Charest, and so now I call for all of you to get rid of Harper.” She spoke about repressive measures by the government that developed into the passing of law 78 last spring. The law made it illegal to demonstrate without notifying police 8 hours in advance and also made it illegal for students to form picket lines to enforce democratically voted on strikes. Therefore, soon the struggle for more accessible education also became a struggle for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. However, the push back from students and people of Quebec resulted in a victory, with bill 78 being struck down as well as the tuition fee freeze. Breton Fontaine told activists about the main slogan in Quebec during the strike: “Student Strike, people’s struggle.”

The rest of the student activists spoke about their work in the push back against the privatization of public services. Louvros, Echecopar, and Rubio all described neoliberal reforms that have been occurring in their countries, from the privatization of education that happened in Chile under the dictator Pinochet, to the recent roll back in public services and privatization occurring in Spain and Greece on the pretext of the economic crisis. Ana Garcia Rubio described a right wing government in Spain implementing a reduction in public healthcare by 22% along with reductions in funding for education. She described that students and workers are not responsible for the economic crisis, and should not pay for the crisis.

The speakers were inspiring for students in Ontario who realized the connections between their struggles and struggles around the world.

After the Assembly, the cannon.ca spoke with Sarah Jayne King, one of the main organizers of the event. She could tell that everyone at the event was inspired, and will be working to push back against austerity measures, while providing an alternative vision for fully public and free education.



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