Cayley Sorochan reports on the student strikes in Quebec and discusses the lessons that can be taken from them
In February 2012 - after two years of protests, petitions, and occupations - students across Quebec voted to go on general unlimited strike. They are opposing the provincial Liberal government’s plan to increase tuition fees by 75% over five years. The hikes would result in a total increase of $1625 that would bring Quebec’s tuition to a similar level as that found in other Canadian provinces.
The months following the strike declaration have been the most politically intense time in Canada in recent memory, as the students’ demand for a moratorium on tuition fees has for many become merely representative of a broader struggle against neoliberal policies, the failed logic of austerity, and the weakening of democratic institutions. The strike has endured for 136 days - as of 27 June - making it the longest student strike in Quebec history.
The minimal demand of the striking students is a moratorium on the tuition increase, while the more radical demands involve a plan to move towards a tuition free system funded by a small tax on banks. The Parti Liberal du Québec (PLQ), led by premier Jean Charest, has responded to the student demands with a consistent refusal to negotiate on the issue of tuition. Charest has portrayed the students as either entitled brats or violent thugs and dismissed their concerns with contempt.
In mid-May the government effectively criminalized the strike by passing law 78, which places restrictions on public assemblies of over 50 people. It bans picketing or gathering within 50 metres of an educational institution.
Cities have also restricted the ability to protest, with Montreal passing a bylaw that bans the wearing of masks during demonstrations and Quebec City instituting an 11 o’clock curfew on any gatherings on public property. Since the strike began there have been over 2,500 arrests, a handful of serious injuries, and hundreds of minor injuries caused by chemical weapons, flash grenades and baton charges.
What has enabled the students to win increasing popular support for their movement, in spite of a hostile mainstream media, can be linked to the particular history and culture of Quebec. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s included a commitment to accessible French language higher education, the creation of a tuition-free system of preparatory colleges (CEGEPs), and a shared understanding of the important role of cultural and educational institutions for defending and preserving Quebec culture within a predominantly English speaking Canada.
There is also a long history of student strikes in Quebec that has laid the foundations for the current mobilization. While decades of struggle cannot be simply reproduced over night, there are a number of practical dimensions of the current strike that may contribute to strengthening resistance to neoliberalism in other contexts.
My own location within the strike is that of a PhD student at McGill, an English instruction university that is widely considered to be the most conservative of Montreal universities. The strike has nevertheless been present at McGill as the graduate student society, in an unprecedented example of solidarity with the more radical Francophone students, voted to join a three-day strike in late March. Individual departments and faculties also voted to join the strike at their own initiative.
My own department of Art History & Communication Studies is one of three departments at McGill that have been on strike since April. I have also been a regular participant in daily and nightly demonstrations. I would like to share a few lessons I’ve taken from my experience of the strike that I believe can translate into building stronger movements elsewhere.
Organization and democracy
For the duration of the most recent strike, the student association ASSÉ has formed a temporary coalition, La Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), which is considered the most radical of the student groups and represents half of the striking students.
What distinguishes CLASSE from its more moderate counterparts is its commitment to the principle of free post-secondary education, and its organizational structure, which is based on direct democratic decision making in weekly meetings rather than delegated executive powers. Rather than representatives, CLASSE has spokespeople who relay the decisions of its membership to the government and the public.
This direct democracy structure has resulted in a high level of political consciousness amongst its members who must debate the strategy and principles of the strike regularly and make important decisions. The stark contrast between the highly democratic structure of CLASSE and the government’s ultimatums during negotiations has reflected poorly on the government. The structure of CLASSE has encouraged a high degree of grassroots initiative on the part of its members, which has become an example for others.
For instance, at McGill, where no student association is a part of CLASSE, associations at the department and faculty levels organized their own strike votes rather than accept the limited engagement in the strike on the part of the university-wide student associations. The Art History & Communication Studies Graduate Student Association worked to formalize our decision-making procedures, which had previously been followed very loosely, so that the integrity of our decision to strike would be respected.
During the 2005 Quebec student strike the government negotiated with the more moderate student associations, FEUQ and FECQ, to the exclusion of ASSÉ. This resulted in the breaking of the strike and an only partial victory for students. In the present strike the student associations have displayed a strong sense of solidarity, with the representatives of FEUQ and FECQ refusing to meet with the government unless the spokespeople for CLASSE are included.
It is widely believed that the strike will ultimately succeed in terms of its concrete demands only if the unions mobilize their members to support the students and expand the struggle against neoliberal policies. Despite the CLASSE’s repeated calls for a social strike, this support has not materialized.
The mobilization that has occurred has been on the part of independent community groups and activists. When classes resume, there may be increasing pressure on unions associated with educational institutions in particular to show more than symbolic support for this struggle. Solidarity across unions is perhaps an old lesson, but the most difficult to put into practice.
Single days of action and large demonstrations do not suffice. While there have been massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of supporters over the past few months, as well as picket lines on campuses, one of the most effective tactics for broadening support has been the way that the students have occupied space.
Beginning in late April, students began gathering at the same park every night at 8:30 to march late into the night or until the police dispersed them. The consistency of these marches made the strike ever-present, highly visible, and manifested a commitment that could not but impress bystanders.
It also built up a culture of demonstrating in Montreal, a sense of collective ownership over city streets, and feelings of familiarity and solidarity amongst the marchers. The nightly marches have succeeded in occupying space, without the need to spend energy and resources maintaining a 24hr camp like that of the Occupy movements.
Diffuse Mode of Address
The nightly marches have also resulted in what I would call a diffuse mode of address. Typically, demonstrators orient their message/demands towards a particular physical and symbolic site of power - Charest's office, a G20 or World Bank meeting, etc. The conversation becomes one going on between the protesters and those in power.
This conversation is important and necessary, yet for most people who occupy neither the position of protester nor rich, powerful person, it becomes easily dismissed as a conflict that doesn't directly involve them. When the strikers began marching all over the city, suddenly the conversation shifted to one between the demonstrators and the people/city as a whole.
Everyone was forced to be part of this conversation as those who were out for a regular Friday night drink on St.Denis or Mont Royal became addressed by the marchers. Some chose to ignore it or yell back angrily, but most people chose to applaud it and through doing so became partner to the strikers in a way they otherwise would not have.
The strike was not something happening on television or downtown, it was happening right on your street in the Plateau, Mile End, Rosemont, Hochelaga, Outremont or Westmount. Without this direct interpellation of city residents, the casseroles demonstrations that spontaneously broke out in mid-May after the passing of law 78 would not have occurred.
Regardless of the final success or failure of the student demands, the printemps érable has strengthened and deepened direct democracy in student organizations, produced a heightened sense of solidarity, transformed city spaces, and mobilized broad sections of the community. It’s my own hope that the politicization resulting from these experiences will compel academic workers throughout our universities to organize themselves in support of their shared interests and in solidarity with the student struggle.
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