An era ends at the RSU as progressive Unite slate is defeated
This year I got the pleasure of getting to write a couple of articles based on my experience at the Ryerson Student Union’s Freeze the Fees tent city. While it’s great for a journalist to find stories, I was far more inspired by this protests in my capacity as a UTSU official and student activist. Ontario student activists often find themselves asking why we can’t have a movement here as a strong as the one in Québec, despite the fact that our fees are higher. While the RSU’s campaign had limited success, due at least in part to the season, it must be said that the RSU made a serious attempt to fill the empty void of the Ontario student movement. In setting up a tent city they channeled the spirit of the occupy movement, and in symbolically freezing for frozen fees they added performative spirit to their protest.
Despite this, the RSU slate associated with the freeze the fees movement, Unite Ryerson, suffered an overwhelming defeat in the last RSU election. The opposition slate, Transform RU, was emphatically bland, making vague promises about more student engagement and opposing Unite’s call for free education. Transform’s VP-Education-elect Cormac McGee did call for a “sustainable tuition fee” solution, a line that he has taken dating at least back to when he cited it in support of the Rise for Ryerson movement (a conservative reaction to the Freeze the Fees protests) back in November.
Pro-Canadian Federation of Students slates such as Unite have not faced opposition at Ryerson since 2011. Their sudden defeat therefore may not in fact mark a drastic shift in Ryersonian attitudes, but rather the visibilization of an already existing demographic. Unlike UofT’s conservatives, who have recently remained subtle within broader college and Engineering associated-opposition groups, Ryerson’s conservatives wear their ideologies on their sleeves. The RSU AGM recently passed a motion to support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The response from Ryerson’s Zionists has involved accusing BDS of being anti-semitic at the RSU election debate, and inviting Sun News (may it rest in pieces) firebrand Ezra Levant, aka Canada’s Glenn Beck, to campus to make the same argument.
Ryerson’s right also fervently expressed itself through the aforementioned Rise for Ryerson movement. The group sprung up almost overnight with t-shirts and a 90s-style-techno campaign video, and made the argument that freezing tuition fees would hamper Ryerson’s reputation. They labelled the spirited protest as an embarrassment, and even went so far as to write Ryerson President Sheldon Levy a thank you card for inspiring them in their education.
Leading up to the election it was easy to think that this coalition of anti-activists, tuition-fee-increase-supporters, and conservative Zionists were a loud minority. Unfortunately, even with a massive voter turnout increase in this election (up 75% from a year ago), under 12% of the electorate voted, meaning that the results represented the will of the most passionate students and not necessarily the “average students.” From what I saw at the debates, it seemed that students at the Ted Rogers School of Management were quite involved in RSU politics, so it is no surprise that the electoral results did favor the more left-leaning slate.
There are no doubt advantages to progressive groups holding the reigns of student unions. While there will always be demographics that oppose them, progressive student union executives can at very least set the parameters in which debates over student politics take place. For example, when the 2013-14 UTSU board of directors supported an idea to introduce a board structure based around the representation of marginalized groups rather than colleges and faculties, the idea was met with instant scorn. The idea was dismissed as radical nonsense and, in some cases, as reverse discrimination. While the proposal remained controversial until its defeat at the 2014 AGM, the largely progressive UTSU executive did manage to shift the debate around it so that most mainstream opponents of the proposal came to accept (at least publicly) that board representation for marginalized groups is not the delusional-leftist idea that The National Post’s Robyn Urback initially made it out to be, and accusations about reverse discrimination were quickly relegated to the fringe of the debate.
Therefore, on a certain level, the defeat of Unite Ryerson is a setback for progressives. While none of the executive candidates for Transform showed any particularly conservative tendencies, at very least it seems unlikely they will continue the work the outgoing RSU executive has done to bring campaigns like the Freeze the Fees and BDS into the student political mainstream.
On the other hand, the idealists of Unite Ryerson can never truly be defeated so long as they maintain the leftist belief that real democracy does not primarily occur at the ballot box but in the streets. Regardless of who the RSU’s President is, tuition fee-and-other-protests can continue on Ryerson’s campus. If anything, the former Unite candidates may fare better running movements as “average” students, rather than as student leaders who can be denounced by their enemies as “CFS elites.” The defeated candidates can further be said to benefit from not having to devote time to the more apolitical (ie service-providing) commitments of student union executives. Finally, for the first time in a while, the RSU’s progressives will be able to contrast the performance of their leaders with union executives from another ideological camp, and thus hopefully be able to expose the importance of having progressive student unions.
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The RSU elections disrupted the student political order at Ryerson, and attracted broader attentions as well, as seen when the twitter hashtag “RSU elections” briefly trended across Canada. It is therefore important that the lessons of this election not be forgotten. It is essential that the left-right split student politics, that was made so lucid in this campaign via the Rise for Ryerson-Freeze the Fees dispute, not be obscured by the CFS’s subtler, more liberal critics. It is also important that the student political left learns not to count on electoral victories, but instead on running regular campaigns that can be sustained with or without the support of student union executives. The RSU committed to something powerful this winter, and so long as Ontario students continue to struggle to pay for school, the fight for frozen fees can and must continue.