What’s Different About Ontario? Thinking About Specificity in Student Organizing

Sep 15, 2012

What’s Different About Ontario? Thinking About Specificity in Student Organizing

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Last Friday, the Toronto Star published a piece by columnist Carol Goar that combined useful (if depressing) information about postsecondary education in Ontario and important questions about "the quiet death of society's commitment to ensure that each generation does better than the last," with some quite pessimistic observations about the state of the student movement in Ontario.

Goar writes of Ontario's students, for instance,

They know they’re paying more and getting less. They know society benefits as much they do from their education. They just don’t see any realistic hope of bucking the political/public consensus. And unlike their Quebec counterparts, they aren’t prepared to stage mass protests, cancel classes and clash with police.

While there is some value in this observation, its presentation as observation makes it harder to see that it also contains a hefty dose of presumption. It's worth separating the two, I think. I would guess, based on what she says and what I know about how journalistic knowledge production generally works, that she's probably basing her remarks purely on what has happened on the streets in the last eight months. So, yes, there have been hundreds of thousands of students and allies in the streets of Quebec cities this year with nothing on anything approaching the same scale in Ontario. This is without a doubt an important indicator about significant differences between the two provinces, and any thinking about education-focused struggle has to deal with whatever these differences are and whatever they might mean.

In contrast with Goar's article, though, I think it is important not to jump too hastily to conclusions about the nature of those differences. In particular, I think the basis that she assumes to explain this difference smacks of a particular logical fallacy that often crops up, even on the left, when looking at past instances of significant struggle: Things that have happened often get treated as if they had to happen, and things that haven't happened (yet) often get treated as if they can't. A given movement wins the right kinds of victories and makes the right kind of impact, and the hard work and difficult choices of the ordinary people who made it happen get erased and replaced in most accounts with a seemingly agentless and inevitable sweep of history (perhaps with some great charismatic leader for human interest). While another movement doesn't quite manage to influence events in a lasting way, or it does so in ways that are harder to see or less likely to be remembered, and it is treated when it is remembered at all as Quixotic, something silly to have tried, something that could never have been, a failure, just a footnote. (And, of course, there are many movements which do win and which are forgotten completely, but the erasure of huge aspects of struggle from how we learn history is a story for another day.) It can be hard to avoid that kind of thinking, but working against it is important because in refusing to appreciate how contingent choices and actions by the people who constituted movements in the past actually mattered to the outcomes of their struggles, we make it harder to appreciate how our own choices and actions matter.

So the fact that nothing on that scale has happened in Ontario so far this year is hardly an indication of essential and unalterable dominance for the kind of quiet resignation that Goar sees among Ontario students. This year's uprising in Quebec was not spontaneous, but rather was the product of years of hard work. And there are signs of students in Ontario engaging in exactly the kinds of hard work that produced it. There was a significant training camp in Toronto this summer bringing lessons from Quebec to Ontario students activists. I wrote a journalistic piece just last week that reported on nascent organizing happening in Sudbury, and you can be sure that if it is happening here then similar things are happening in lots of other Ontario cities as well -- in fact, I've seen fragmentary evidence over social media of exactly that.

Where all of that will go is still very unclear, of course. It may not produce results that become visible to those who are at the pinnacles of the dominant media, who will then be able to ignore whatever has been accomplished and smugly claim that their predictions of student quiescence in Ontario have been confirmed. Or the organizing may go quite a different way, and pundits will declare themselves shocked, as so many do any time that organizing they could learn about if they wanted to but have studiously ignored results in some outcome they can ignore no longer. The point is, taking existing presence in the streets as your only indicator of what is possible or even what is likely is not sound reasoning, and the equation of "Quebec = something" and "Ontario = nothing" is false. Columnists for major mainstream dailies largely ignored what was happening in Quebec when the organizing was at this stage, too.

However, there is another side to thinking about the specificities of the student movements in Ontario and Quebec. I have a feeling that it would be all too easy, particularly for student activists in Ontario who are sinking blood, sweat, and tears into creating something here, to respond to reasoning like Goar's -- which I'm sure they hear from some of their peers as well -- with a far too simplistic "They did it there, we can do it here!" Of course on a certain level that sentence is entirely valid. However, if taken up without enough reflection it can lead to a stance that denies any relevance at all to the differences between the two provinces and the two movements -- or that claims to acknowledge their respective specificities without much actual analysis of what that has to mean in practice. Assuming it can't happen here because it hasn't yet happened here is a mistake; basing actions on the assumption that it can happen here the same as it happened there is also a risky thing to do.

The fact is, things are different in Ontario. And I don't feel like I have a very grounded sense of what those differences are. Even the best English-language media reports about the struggle in Quebec -- which is all I have to go on, not having been there -- do not convey an adequate sense of the mechanics and feel of the organizing to develop a really good sense of how it all went. And even though I I spent the past year doing a one-year degree as an Ontario postsecondary student, I don't necessarily feel that I have a good handle on the range of moods and mobilizing capacities on (and within) different Ontario campuses. That said, there is no denying that conditions for student organizing in the two provinces are very different, with a much more recent and vibrant history of successful militancy by Quebec students, a fairly continuous tradition of assembly-style organizing stretching back to the late 1930s in Quebec in comparison to much more stifling and bureaucratic and ritualized forms of organizing in Ontario since at least the '70s, and the cultural resources of the Quiet Revolution that the former can draw on. Those things matter.

What exactly that means in practice, however, I have no idea. That is a matter for investigation and experimentation by those who are working to grow the movement. I'm just saying we all need to be clear that it isn't necessarily going to unfold like it did in Quebec -- in fact, it probably won't. And that's okay. Feeling like failures if students haven't shut down Toronto by January is probably not very productive, and we should work against ways of thinking and talking about things that might lead to such unnuanced, all-or-nothing thinking. The vision of province-wide fundamental changes to education and beyond is important, but such things don't happen easily or overnight, and winnable intermediate goals that reflect our capacities, our opportunities, and the barriers we face in any given moment are crucially important too. Building new networks and new ways of doing things that will persist to fight another day are important as well.

Happily, my understanding of the assembly model is that, at its best, it is well suited to accommodating exactly these kinds of concerns -- to being responsive to what's actually happening to people locally, to having lots of conversations, to building new networks, to encouraging tactical innovation and creativity to reflect local circumstances.

So I think there is great potential in students in Ontario learning from what has been going on in Quebec and taking up new approaches to student struggle that involve that combination of grounding in local realities, commitment to a kind of expansiveness of vision and openness of process, and a recognition of the need to get beyond the purely rituatlized forms of protest that have been the staple of much street-focused student organizing in English Canada. Even if initial victories around things like tuition are more limited than students might like, I think it is exciting and encouraging if the strongest features of this approach begin to take root in the organizing practices and political sensibilities of a new layer of politicized students in Ontario -- that will not only be good for the student movement, but I think good for the other movements and communities in struggle as well. I just hope that the many conversations that are part of the organizing include not only what we can learn from Quebec but also, right from the beginning, attention to what might be specific about Ontario, what Ontario students might want to do differently.

In the meantime, I suspect there will be more than a few student activists across the province whose reaction to Goar's article will be much like the activist whose social media posting brought it to my attention.

Her response?

"Sounds like a dare to me..."

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog. He has written two books as part of a larger project examining Canadian history through the stories of activists, one focused on gender and sexuality struggles and the other on resisting the state.]