Don't like your activist student union? Then withdraw. - Macleans.ca

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

Overhaul of student gov’t gains support in Quebec

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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.