The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) turns 20 early next year (January or June, depending on what you take as a founding date). But since the real founding events actually happened the previous November, I thought it would be worth offering some thoughts on it now.
Until the early 1990s, there had never been more than one national student association. There was a National Federation of Canadian University Students dating from the 30s; this eventually became the Canadian Union of Students, which eventually collapsed in a paroxysm of anarcho-syndicalism in 1969. It was briefly revived in the 1970s as the National Union of Students, and then again in 1981 as the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS); until the early 1990s, this was the unquestioned “natural” state of affairs.
CFS in the early 1990s was a nightmare of factionalism, but the policy towards non-members was still at least somewhat ecumenical. The very biggest schools – Toronto, UBC, McGill, Alberta – stayed out because CFS’ one-school, one-vote policy was a turn off. But they would still go to CFS meetings every year because that’s just what one did – it was the place all student leaders went to meet. Despite any internal strife, it would all remain pretty good fun unless one side won. In 1994, one side did. The left faction, led by Guy Caron (now an NDP MP) and Brad Lavigne (an NDP strategist I profiled back here) took control, and proceeded to purge the opposition. That led a number of the more moderate schools to start a series of escape referenda to start planning a new organization.
As it happened, a new organization was already being formed. The 1993 election was the first to be fought after the internet became widespread, and a group led by (amongst others) now-Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, co-ordinated their own moderately-effective “vote Education” campaign. This led to continued contacts and – eventually – a determination to create a new organization.
And so, by late 1994, there were three groups of non-CFS student unions circling each other – the ones (mainly from the Maritimes) who were leaving CFS who knew what kind of organization they didn’t want, the ones from Ontario who had just set up the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in opposition to CFS-Ontario, and wanted an exact copy in Ottawa, and the ones who had never been in a national student organization (Alberta, Calgary, UBC, McGill), and who were just pleased to be doing something new. Suffice to say, there was a fair bit of mutual suspicion, and they didn’t all get on. Indeed, in the fall of ’94 – 20 years this month, in fact – there was a moment where it all could have fallen apart when some of the western schools tried to disinvite the on-their-way-out-of-CFS schools from a major preparatory meeting in Edmonton.
Cooler heads prevailed and eventually CASA came to be in early 1995 (though it’s notable that some of the political fault-lines of the mid-90s still exist – culture matters, even in student unions). And though it’s changed considerably since its inception – it’s significantly more centralized and bureaucratized than anyone thought possible or necessary in the mid-1990s – it has played a significant role in Ottawa over the years, not least by serving as a constant reminder to MPs that CFS’ nonsensically specious policies and methods don’t command unanimous support among Canadian students.
So, L’chaiyim, CASA. Here’s to 20 more.