THE MOVEMENT GROWS: From a Student Strike to a Popular Struggle in Quebec

 Apr, 14 - 2014   Uncategorized


By Sam Bick and Rushdia Mehreen

First published in Our Times’ 2012 Summer Issue, Vol. 31 No.3.

Photo: R. Mehreen

After 120 days, the Quebec student strike that started in February is no longer focussed solely on accessible education. More than 150,000 students from over 60 associations from universities and CEGEPs (colleges) across Quebec remain on strike. But what began as an uprising of students, symbolized by the “carré rouge” or red square (referencing squarely in the red, for those crushed by debt), has grown into a popular movement, building solidarity against the austerity agenda.

Despite what Jean Charest’s Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) government contends, the tuition fee increase of 75 per cent (or $1,625 over five years) is not a “necessary measure,” but just one part of a strategy to undermine the possibility of supporting public services in Quebec. For instance, since taking power in 2003, the PLQ has imposed user fees on public services, phased out capital tax, and reduced tax rates. The tuition increase was part of a broader austerity budget announced by Finance Minister Raymond Bachand in the spring of 2011 that included a health tax (read: cuts to health care) and an increase in hydro-electricity billing rates.

Over the last four months, the government has refused to produce a single offer responding directly to students’ demands for a freeze on tuition fees, and has spent millions of dollars on police overtime in an attempt to quash what has become a popular resistance.

Quebec’s ninth student strike was initiated on February 13, 2012 by the members of the leading national association CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante – the Broad Coalition of Association for Solidarity among Student Unions). Approximately half of the associations on strike are members of this coalition. The other two major umbrella associations are FEUQ (the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec), and FECQ (the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec).

The tuition fee increase is
just one part of a broader
austerity agenda in Quebec

The government’s outright refusal to acknowledge or respond to the demands of striking students resulted in what was the largest demonstration in Canadian history on March 22, with more than 300,000 gathering in Montreal. Following this major action, students turned to economic disruption. This included targeted blockades of banks, bridges and the Port of Montreal, as well as a disruption in late April of Salon Plan Nord, a job fair for the government’s multi-billion-dollar plan to extract natural resources from northern Quebec and perpetuate the theft of indigenous land and resources.

Although the government invited student representatives for “negotiations” in late April, it has consistently refused to directly bargain on the issue of tuition fee hikes, leading to newer and different forms of protest. Since late April, “demonstrations every night, until victory” have been taking place, and, starting in mid-May, people have been organizing neighbourhood casserole marches as well as popular assemblies. The latest major demonstration on May 22 saw an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people turn out from all walks of life.

In mid-May, the Quebec government passed into law Bill 78, a series of laws that restricts free assembly, suspended the winter semester until mid-August, and levies fines (from $5,000 to $125,000) on individuals and organizations who picket, deter students from accessing a school, or assemble within 50 metres of a post-secondary institution. Municipal by-laws have accompanied Bill 78, making some actions associated with protest, such as wearing masks, illegal.

Millions of dollars have
been spent on police
overtime in an attempt to
quash the popular resistance

Popular resistance to the tuition hike and to Bill 78 has been met with intense repression and police violence, a reality that, as the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality (COPB) has pointed out, is not new to many communities, including people of colour, immigrants, sex workers, and homeless people. Since February, police have arrested more than 2,500 people, hundreds more have been pepper sprayed, tear-gassed, beaten, detained and released, and several have been left with irreparable bodily harm. Amnesty International issued a heavy condemnation of Bill 78, and of the conduct of Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) and Sûreté du Québec (the Quebec provincial police). Instead of isolating the student movement, this intense government repression has significantly expanded public support.

QUEBEC: A HISTORY OF RESISTANCE

Photo: R. Mehreen

The current social unrest in Quebec must be understood as the newest manifestation of more than four decades of popular struggle, in which there remains a strong memory of resistance in social movements, and entrenched social-democratic institutions. Since the Quiet Revolution in the late 1960s, this popular resistance has often been visible in the student movements, as access to higher education in French has been crucial in the social struggle against economic inequality inextricably linked to language. Montreal independent journalist Stefan Christoff refers to this process as “a collective social challenge to traditional class dynamics in Quebec society that, for generations, saw a Québecois majority living in relative social oppression.”

The current social unrest in
Quebec is but the newest
manifestation of more than
four decades of popular struggle

Quebec students have gone on strike eight times since 1968, a key reason why tuition fees remain relatively low. For instance, in 1969, following a series of protests, general social unrest, and demands for French-language post-secondary academic institutions, the Quebec government created the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). In the ‘70s, hundreds of thousands of students went on strike twice, winning increases in student loans and bursary programs. Most recently, in 2005, Quebec students struck for eight weeks in response to the government’s attempt to turn more than $103 million of scholarships into loans, and ultimately forced Charest to reverse his plans.

BROADENING THE STRUGGLE

Strong support for the student movement from civil society has helped lay the groundwork for a larger struggle for social change. For instance, the Coalition Opposé à la tarification et privatisation des services publics (the Coalition Opposed to User Fees and the Privatization of Public Services), which brings together more than 130 unions, non-profit organizations, student associations and other community groups, organized, among other actions, the blockade of the Montreal Stock Exchange on February 16, 2012. This action was one of the first major blockades of the year, and preceded the economic disruptions of April 2012.

Educators in Quebec have also embraced the student struggle, including the popular group “Prof contre la hausse” (Professors Against the Hike), which has been tremendously supportive of the student movement both inside the classrooms and on the streets. Quebec teacher unions, such as the FNEEQ and its parent union CSN (Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux, one of the largest union confederations in Quebec) have also stood in solidarity with the student movement, as have teacher unions in other parts of Canada. For instance, the University of Toronto Education Workers, CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) Local 3902, donated $20,000 to CLASSE, while CUPE Local 3906, representing almost 3,000 academic workers at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, donated $10,000. Solidarity statements from across Canada and beyond pour in every day.

The student movement has
created a space for solidarity
between students, workers
and the unemployed

Outside the confines of the traditional labour sector, the student movement has also created a space for solidarity between students, workers and the unemployed in their shared, but distinct, opposition to the austerity agenda. On April 25, for instance, students and workers – both employed and unemployed – protested outside the annual general meeting of ACE (Air Canada Enterprises), Aveos’ parent company, blocking a major downtown street during morning rush hour. The action, done in support of more than 1,800 Aveos workers laid off in Quebec in mid-March, included laid-off Aveos workers, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), members of several Air Canada unions, and activists from the Immigrant Workers Center (IWC). And it was organized within the context of the month-long series of economic disruptions organized by the student movement.

Photo: R. Mehreen

At the demonstration, Mostafa Henaway, director of the Immigrant Workers Centre and a member of the organizing coalition, explained the significance of building shared resistance to austerity: “Workers are taking the lead from what students are doing, and Jean Charest and all the fat cats, they know it. . . . The one thing they fear the most is what we are doing right now: that workers, students, unionized workers, and low-wage workers are all standing together.”

More recently, a group of unemployed and employed workers – unionized and non-unionized – and students organized a speak-out against the organizers and participants of the International Economic Forum of the Americas, held in Montreal June 11-14.

As the student movement expands, creative actions are emerging across the city. In early June, the migrant justice coalition Status 4 All held a “Status for all Casseroles,” with the message: “We live here! We work here! We’re staying here! No borders, no nations, stop the deportations!” Using a practice that has come to symbolize the expansion of the student movement, the organizers highlighted the demands of racialized im/migrant communities in Montreal’s Villeray and Parc Extension neighbourhoods.

At a recent casserole action aimed at justice for placement agency workers, Noé Arteagas, a community organizer at the IWC, explained that the demands and scope of the movement have expanded, as has the population involved in these actions, “because of the efforts of community groups, and people who aren’t students that have dedicated themselves to the movement.”

We cannot talk about the last four months without mentioning the strong nationalist currents interconnected with the struggle, or the folks who want to use this broader popular struggle for electoral ends. It is equally dangerous to ignore the structural racism that is inherent in the student movement, and the lack of representation of people and communities of color in the struggle. In fact, some members from racialized and immigrant communities have expressed difficulty identifying with the student struggle because of how inaccessible education already is as a result of the intersecting oppressions and inequalities created by neoliberalism, colonialism, and imperialism. They have also stressed the fact that, without making broader systemic change (beyond a tuition freeze), post-secondary education will remain a white, middle-class dominated space. As a result of the efforts of collectives such as Students of Colour Montréal, some discussions about race and class are taking place. In fact, at a congress last month, CLASSE adopted an anti-racist and anti-colonial position.

FROM CASSEROLES TO POPULAR ASSEMBLIES

The newest development in Quebec’s social struggle comes as an extension of the neighborhood casseroles, which were a response to Bill 78. In June, popular assemblies were organized across Montreal, providing thousands of people with the opportunity to meet in parks across the city to discuss the situation, and clearly attempting to answer the question: What’s next?

Beyond focussing solely on accessible education, these neighborhood assemblies are underpinned by notions of self-determination and self-organization, and participants are taking on broader social, political and economic questions. These assemblies are attempting to address local issues in a more involved, decentralized and horizontal manner, and often outside the realm of the traditional political system.

On May 1st and 15th, calls for a Grève sociale (general strike) by independent groups of students and community workers laid the foundation for a future general strike. The public service employees local of CSN voted unanimously to go on “social strike” on May 22 in response to Bill 78. Throughout the summer months, various unions and other organizations are undertaking a process of reflection on the current movement, with the aim of calling a one- to three-day general strike this fall.

Since the student strike began in February, the demands have shifted from focussing solely on accessible education to a broader social struggle. The movement in Quebec has inspired people in the rest of Canada to take action, organizing casserole protests in which they show solidarity with students in Quebec, but also denouncing the austerity plans of their own provincial governments, as well as the federal government’s Bill-38, with its racist laws on immigration, devolution of public services and workers’ rights, and its drastic weakening of environmental protections.
The popular slogan “student strike, social struggle” is being heard more and more.

 

Sam Bick is a student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), active in the student movement, and a community organizer at the Immigrant Workers Center.

Rushdia Mehreen is a student at Concordia University, a member of Social Struggles Committee of CLASSE, and active in student movement. They would like to thank Claire Hurtig, a Montreal high school teacher, for her feedback on their article.

For news on the student strike, visit the sites Rouge Squad (www.rougesquad.org), Translating the Printemps Erable (www.quebecprotest.com), the Montreal Media Coop (www.montreal.mediacoop.ca), and watch Concordia University Television (www.cutv.montreal.ca) for live streaming coverage.

The CLASSE legal committee is fighting hundreds and hundreds of criminal cases, tickets, and other infractions resulting from police repression with extremely limited resources. Any donations will be appreciated by them, and can be sent directly to the order of “Fonds de défense légale 2012,” to the address: Att.: F. Dupuis-Déri, Dépt. Science politique, UQAM, Case postale 8888, Succursale Centre-Ville, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3C 3P8). Donations can also be made online (www.fondslegal2012.org). Solidarity notes and enquiries can be emailed to luttessociales@asse-solidarite.qc.ca.

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