The Quebec strike was successful because of the democratic structure of student unions.
Another academic year, another crop of students facing another round of bank loans.
With Ontario university students owing an average $26,000 upon graduation ($13,000 for those attending colleges), the big question is whether last spring's student strike in Quebec will have any spillover effect on campus politics this fall.
While strikers in Montreal took to the streets again this week, last month as part of their Solidarity Tour they visited Toronto campuses to give tactics tutorials. At Ryerson's Student Centre, local activists eager for action here, given that tuition in Ontario is the highest in the land, wore their red squares and took in the advice.
The message was essentially twofold: the strike didn't come out of thin air, but was the result of two years of organizing; and Quebec's form of student government - designed around departments, across schools, and based on mass meetings - was key to the action's vast participation.
Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesperson for CLASSE, the largest of Quebec's student federations, explains in a recent interview that instead of a single-bodied student government overseeing a campus as a whole, power is spread among department associations, allowing for a closer relationship between elected reps and students.
"In Ontario, a small group of students decides for the majority. If you change this structure and make it more accessible so people can have their opinions heard, they will finally be able to come together." It's the only way a student body of 50,000 is going to find common ground.
"A lot of student unions are bureaucratic organizations," he says.
It's a concept campus leaders here are anxious to explore.
"They made it clear: there is no magic formula," says Melissa Palermo, education VP in Ryerson's student union. "What happened in Quebec wasn't overnight. We need to get the word out to student bodies, and we need to do so by uniting the different faculty and department unions. The commitment in Ontario is definitely here," she says.
Alastair Woods, VP of campaigns and advocacy in York's Federation of Students, draws similar conclusions. Speaking some time after the meeting, he says, "There needs to be more opportunity for students to connect. By giving more power to departments, we can hear the needs of students specifically. It's our role as elected officials to work as a centralized body while keeping channels of support and discussion with various departments open," he says.
The Ryerson meeting also saw a lot of discussion about the role of mass meetings, where whoever shows up affects the making of Quebec student association policy, and how different this is from the culture in Ontario.
But student reps are clear that the relative quiescence on Ontario campuses doesn't just reflect differing governance styles - it also has to do with the fact that students here face much more difficult economic circumstances and higher tuition than their Quebec soeurs and frères.
At the height of the Quebec uprising in May, Sandy Hudson, then chair of the Canadian Student Federation Ontario, explained that it isn't apathy but economic obstacles that keep students here from contemplating strike action.
"The reality is, when our tuition is this high, it's more of a risk to miss a shift at work. Students have to consider whether they can afford to take time from their jobs when they're paying thousands of dollars more for school," she says.
York's Woods, too, agrees, that Ontario students aren't disengaged; they're scared. "With tuition nearly three times that in Quebec, not many can a spend month away from the classroom," he says.
Students here "are victim to manufactured distractions." He's referring to the Ontario Liberals' 30 per cent tuition rebates, which the government says will benefit students from families with incomes under $160,000. Student leaders insist that only a fraction of students will qualify for them. Such tinkering, they suspect, is a part of a divide-and-conquer strategy and in the end a cover-up for chronic fee increases.
"We need to hold our leaders accountable," says Woods. "The grants and rebates disguise what is really happening. Tuition is continuously increasing, and the provincial government is unfairly punishing students for pursuing a higher education."