Don’t like your activist student union? Then withdraw.

Overhaul of student gov’t gains support in Quebec


Protest photo by shahk on Flickr

A group made up of mostly third-year law students from the University of Sherbrooke is fed up with what they say are divisive, unfair and illegal student strikes happening across Quebec.

The group, called the Students’ Coalition for Free Association, is encouraging students to drop their student unions instead of cutting class.

They’re also calling on Quebec’s government to create two tiers of student unions: one with a mandate to provide services like health, dental and academic help—and another for activists.

Within just a few days of posting their proposal online, the SCFA’s ideas have received support in high places. Danielle St-Amand, Liberal member for Trois-Rivières, posted the group’s petition on the National Assembly’s website on Tuesday.

The petition received more than 300 signatures, literally overnight.

Philippe-Olivier Daniel, president of the SCFA and a third-year Sherbrooke law student, says he and his friends started the group after researching the legality of the “strike votes” that 70 or so student associations have held in the province. The law students are convinced that the associations have overstepped their legal mandates by ordering all students to skip class. Labour unions, can, in fact, legally enforce strikes. Associations can’t, they say.

That’s an opinion shared by university officials, like at Concordia, where classes will continue.

Still, Quebec’s highly-politicized student unions tend to do what they like. In organizing the strike votes, they’ve promoted the idea that higher tuition is a human rights violation and that skipping class is an effective tool for overturning the law. Governments have caved in the past, they note.

The problem is that many students don’t support that agenda. Others simply want to go to class.

The SCFA is encouraging students to write to their associations and exercise their legal rights to withdraw. Daniel did so himself and was immediately removed his association’s Facebook group.

He warns students that exercising their rights to withdraw from activist organizations won’t entitle them to refunds of the hundreds of dollars they were forced to pay in fees. Worse, withdrawing may also prevent them from accessing important services, like dental and drug plans.

Highlighting that apparent absurdity is kind of the point. “If my insurance company told me I have to vote Republican in order to get my dental plan,” Daniel says, “I’d quickly switch companies.” Why should I need to be a member of political group to access my student health plan?, he asks.

The SCFA’s petition proposes that the government create General Student Assemblies that would have legal mandates to offer students services—but that would be required to be apolitical. Political groups would still exist—for those willing to voluntarily fund and join them. “There could be a free enterprise one, an environmental one, a separatist one,” Daniel suggests.

But best of all, at least according to him, “a tiny minority of activists could no longer leverage a passive majority to promote their own political interests.” And students could still access services.

Josh Dehaas is the editor of Maclean’s On Campus. Follow @JoshDehaas and @maconcampus.


Don’t like your activist student union? Then withdraw.

  1. Nice article!

    This is an awesome alternative. My student association was biased to begin with whereas it should have been neutral until the mass had voiced its will. I was so angry that I left it on February 2nd. Since then, I have received insults and attacks from all around me. And that is what other people interested in the idea are saying they are afraid of.

    This needs to stop. In a democracy, we want to be represented according to our values and interests. It is currently impossible because you are forced into that single association. That’s more akin to a dictatorship. In Quebec, we have 4 main political parties to choose from, 19 in France, which is even better. That means that you can be represented more in accordance with your beliefs. So having many student associations to choose from would be much more democratic.

    I hope that this grassroots movement gets popular and generates a lot of interest!


  2. The Québécois are not happy with the Harper governement. Following the article’s title, should they withdraw from Canada or vote to kick them out at the next general elections?

  3. Yes David, all Québécois are not happy with Harper. All 8 millions of them. I’m sure you know because you asked all of them.

    Do you have any other generalizations like this one that you wish to share with us? Something like “all Americans own a 3-speed lawnmower?” Maybe “all Vietnamese eat bananas at 7am on Sundays”? Or maybe “all bricklayers are females aged between 4 and 17”? …

    Why don’t you contribute positively to this debate instead of shouting such idiocies…

    • Contributing to the debate, yes that’s exactly what they should do by going to their student union assemblies. Not withdraw. If you are not happy with your student representatives and their actions, then kick them out, vote for someone else, be a candidate.

      And who is shouting here? You are the one who is insulting me!

      • So you missed the point. You should read the article again because you did not understand what it’s all about. Concentrate on the last two paragraphs.

    • David has a lot more evidence for his opinion (how Quebeckers park their votes with the most socialist parties rather than Harper’s conservatives)than Daniel has for his sneering objection to generalization.

  4. I am a master’s student in sociology at Concordia University. So glad to see that this article shows both sides of the story. Oh wait, it doesn’t. Equating membership in a student association with being forced to join the party of The Whites in America is nonsense. We live in Canada: if I want Health Canada to keep my food safe, I must live in Canada and pay GST, even if it means some of the wealth generated by my labour helps sustain a government that chooses prisons over improving quality of life as a way to stop crime. If I don’t like Stephen Harper, I march, petition, vote, write letters… What I don’t do is propose to form a million tiny countries in Canada on the basis of ideological affinity.

  5. Can’t have it both ways. You can’t allow people to have the benefits of solidarity, without the responsibilities of it.

    There are options: You can run a slate to oppose activist leaders on your student union, running on a platform of apoliticism(which, frankly, is anything but; its simply a mandate for the status quo, itself RIFE with political bias)if you win, you can resist calls for strikes, or even have your own protest events, like ones calling for higher tuition, more exclusionary education, and even ones calling for a less engaged democracy! Yeah!

    That would be your choice. Unions are a democratic force. I am not sure of student unions, but I am a labour union officer. Not only could I be voted out (either by member recall or at the elections) if people disagree with my job performance or political approach, the union itself could be dissolved by the members should they no longer desire it

    But, as you were saying, these students DON’T want a dissolution of the student union, they want a lack responsibility to it. They want the dental, the eyecare, the prescription coverage, all without having to defend larger concepts imperative to students and a democratic soceity

    • This is always the collectivists’ answer to everything, limit choices, coerce everyone into your group think. Commandeer desirable goods like dental insurance and then make them contingent on supporting your leftist agenda. Collectivists treat free choice like Krypton because they know not enough people would freely choose them and their policies that fail uniformly around the world. Collectivists are afraid of standing on their own two feet so they draft others to shore themselves up. Solidarity by manipulation or coercion is most unappetizing as the Soviet Union and China would have proven to all but the most boneheaded or history illiterate.

    • I’m afraid I disagree. The purpose of a union is to do what is expressed as the will of the clear majority of its membership, not to provide budding egomaniacs with an opportunity to get their fifteen minutes of fame.

      To be fair, my personal experience with unions was not positive. When solicited to join one, I asked how joining would be of benefit to me. I expected to hear a list of benefits, e.g. improvements in my working conditions that the union would bargain for, bursaries and scholarships for members’ children, assistance with continuing education for members, that sort of thing. I was told that if I repeated that question in public, I’d be charged with ‘union breaking’. Then I was told I could only opt out if I paid the amount I’d have paid in union dues to a charity every month, and since it was going to cost me money one way or the other, I might as well join the union. No, I’m not joking. I wish I were. The men of my father’s union would have been astonished and furious — the union president first and most.
      Long story short, I don’t take kindly to being bullied, so I voted against it.

      FTR: the union didn’t get a majority vote, so they decided to declare people in my position management. Even eliminating us, they still didn’t have a clear majority, so they went with the ‘we do have 51 percent’. (That meant one person more than half.) The next payday a part-timer came in to ask why she hadn’t gotten her raise. When I asked what raise — since she wasn’t due for one for six months — she said “The one the union guy told me I was going to get. he said that if we joined the union, we’d be making the same wages as the guys at the main plant.” A counter clerk making the same wages as a certified electrician? She might have been young and unfamiliar enough with qualifications and wages to believe it, but no one will ever convince me the union organizer who told her that was.

      Jip, the two employees who’d originally wanted the union handed the organizer a list of all our home phone numbers and addresses, which he used, apparently with his superior’s blessing. (More than a few of us came home to find the organizer waiting on our doorstep. I’ve always wanted to know what other private information the union asked for and what was done with it.) When I asked who’d given him my private information, he told me he’d tell me if I signed a union card. I brought that up at the meeting we had about it — at which the people who’d supposedly wanted a union didn’t say word one in support of it. Nothing about how it could improve working conditions, what benefits there’d be to us, nada. Me, I said what I had to say where everybody could hear it. Them? Not a word. Afterward, one of them told me in confidence that she was one of the two and the union rep had told them to keep their mouths shut.

      As for work after the union, the first notable change was that incompetent employees could no longer be fired. No matter how lousy a job someone did, if they were a union member, good luck with getting rid of them or even getting better performance out of them. One was fired — and the Labour Board made the company take him back because he belonged to the union, despite the list of failures in performance and complaints about his behavior by customers and fellow employees alike. And getting coverage for employees who were sick or had emergencies went from simple to nearly impossible, because we had to phone the most senior part-timer first, regardless of the fact that she had made it clear that she didn’t want to work any more hours. She told the union rep point blank to have people call the next person on the list because she didn’t want to work any more hours and he replied that that was irrelevant: union rules required the most senior part-timer to be called first. So she went on getting calls about hours we all knew she didn’t want, people who could have used more hours didn’t get them because we couldn’t call them, and more than one person ended up working a twelve hour shift because the most senior part-timer hadn’t gotten back to them and you couldn’t call the next person on the list unless she’d personally refused the extra hours. Common sense abounding, it was not. By the end of a year, the two who’d landed us all in the soup had quit because they were fed up with coping with the results of their adventure in unionizing, and not one thing had changed for the part-timers except that they were now paying five hours’ wages to the union — and as they only got 30 hours a month, that’s 15% of their pay for nothing at all.
      So afaic the people who just want to go to class and get their education should be left alone to do that, and the people who want to get into political issues should have a segment of the association they can join that focuses on those, for membership in which they pay a fee distinct from that charged for membership in the ordinary association. I suspect when membership in the ‘political’ segment of the association is limited to people who want to join it, the ‘activists’ who now present themselves as speaking for all Quebec students will have considerably less money to finance their publicity stunts and far lower numbers to quote.
      It would be honest. It would be a common sense approach. Which is why I suspect we’ll never see it happen. People hooked on getting media notice because they can say (however erroneously) that they speak for all Quebec students are never going to risk the loss of the limelight by giving the members of their supposed following a free choice. It’s too bad, really: people genuinely committed to a course who run their options past their common sense are far more likely to take public opinion with them than people about whom other students complain of being harassed if they don’t toe the party line.
      TA, JMATO

  6. It is not practical to simply vote activists out. The vast majority of students do not vote some are put off because of the activism and many simply do not care. This laves a void for activist to rule. Maybe it is a warning for our Canadian democracy. The student union system at my school and others was so broken you cannot work in the system to fix it not realistic with volunteers, and a constant turning over student population.

    A few years ago the student union chained themselves to trees to protest the 8 or so that were to be chopped down to build a new bus loop which was needed after the school signed onto the u pass system which gave a massively discounted bus passes but paid mandatory out of tuition. Logical? no. Something that would get any normal Canadian to fight against let alone a student? no just avoid that.

    • Simple, chop the students down with the trees.

Sign in to comment.