Student strikes in Quebec

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Since mid February the students of Quebec have been fighting against increased tuition fees, but for about three of these months there was a more or less unanimous press blackout outside the country. The 82% increase came on top of previous rises, and, faced with the repressive and provocative attitude of the Charest government, the students have shown that they are not willing to accept such measures passively. Their rallying cry has been “demonstrations every day until we win!”. Most of the media from the start focused on the highly ideological issue of the ‘popularity or unpopularity’ of the movement; but the movement itself has shown a tendency to generalise and go beyond the education sector.

In order to have a better understanding of the context in which this movement is taking place, let’s look at some of the similar measures taken by the government in the last few years, and at the conditions the students are facing[1].

An austerity that didn’t begin yesterday...

The austerity we are seeing all over the world today is the result of the historic crisis of capitalism. So the rise in tuition fees, like all the other measures aimed at reducing the deficit, are not at all new or specific to Quebec. During Robert Bourassa’s second term as Premier in 1990 the government broke the ceiling on tuition costs, which since 1968 had been fixed at C$540 Canadian dollars a year. They were now increased threefold to C$1668 a year. Then in 2007 it was the centre right government of Jean Charest who carried on in the same vein with an increase of C$500 over five years, mounting up to C$2168 for the year 2011-12. With fees like that (even though still only half what they are in the USA) a large number of students can no longer afford to go on to university. In Canada, 80% of students work while in full time study, but even then half of them live on C$12,200 a year (the poverty line for a single person was C$16,320 in 2010).

...but is now becoming unbearable

In the Quebec budget announced on 18 March 2011, the Charest government confirmed its intention to increase tuition fees by C$1,625 over 5 years, taking them up to nearly C$4,500 by 2016 if you add the extra costs that can be demanded by the universities. Following this announcement, the reaction was not long in coming. On 31 March 2011, several thousand students demonstrated in Montreal, and on the initiative of the FEUQ student union a camp was set up every weekend outside the offices of the education minister.

Was this a method of struggle which would allow the movement to extend by looking for solidarity?

That’s by no means certain. In any case, for the next year there were no major developments. It wasn’t until 22 March 2012 that there was a student demonstration which was surprisingly big. Between 200,000 and 300,000 took part, bringing together both students and workers in the centre of Montreal. The demands put forward were part of a wider historic movement. Some people talked about the ‘Printemps érable’ (i.e., Maple Spring) in reference to the revolts in the Arab countries. The underlying anger being expressed was much wider than the question of tuition fees alone, and there was a clear affirmation of solidarity with the Occupy movement. This movement showed that the increasing difficulties of daily living are pushing a growing part of the population to react.

On 7 April, at a cycle of conferences in Montreal, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for the ‘Coalition Large de l’Association pour la Solidarité Syndicale Etudiante’ (CLASSE) had to recognise the breadth of the movement: “our strike is not the affair of a generation, it’s not the affair of a single spring, it’s the affair of a people, it’s the affair of a world. Our strike is not an isolated event, our strike is just a bridge, it’s just a step along a much longer road”. For the Charest government, it’s clear that the students cannot be allowed to occupy the streets, because of the risk that they could win the solidarity of other sectors and spread the movement more widely. The government therefore passed the so-called ‘Law 78’ on 18 May, making any unannounced demonstration illegal. These are the broad lines of this ‘special’ law[2]:

it removes the right to demonstrate without prior agreement with the police: eight hours in advance, the time, duration, route and means of transport have to be given to the police (this restriction applies to any gathering of more than 50 people. It can impose very heavy fines on organisers of strike pickets: from 1,000 to 5,000 dollars for a single individual and from 25,000 to 125,000 dollars for an association of students – double on the second conviction”.

For the present government, the idea is to strike hard in order to break the mobilisation and remind demonstrators of who makes the laws. These repressive methods bring to mind the violence used against the Spanish or Greek demonstrators in the past year. In France, it is rather similar to the violence used to intimidate the students and school pupils demonstrating in Lyon in 2010, where the police kettled them for hours in Bellecourt Square before finally releasing them one by one after demanding to see their IDs[3]. That looked like an experiment in how to intimidate, to frighten demonstrators, and break their militancy. This also seems to be the aim of the Charest government with Law 78. But events haven’t quite turned out as the Quebec ruling class planned. Far from breaking the movement and bringing the students to heel, this ‘special measure’ was seen as a provocation by the demonstrators and it had the effect of radicalising and spreading the movement. In contrast to most previous student movements in Quebec, students at the major English language universities, McGill and Concordia, have also been on strike.

Police attempts at intimidation were followed by even bigger protests and regular ‘casserolades.’ These are nightly demonstrations, held since 21 May, where workers, unemployed, students and pensioners bang pots and pans, in defiance of the government ban. And the state has responded: “more than 700 people were arrested on the night of Wednesday/Thursday in Montreal and Quebec City on charges of holding demonstrations judged illegal by the police force. Among the 518 arrests carried out after the thirtieth consecutive night of demonstrations in the city, 506 were arrested as a group and 12 as isolated individuals; 14 of them on the basis of the Criminal Code and one on the basis of a municipal rule proscribing the wearing of a mask ‘without reasonable motive’” (le Devoir 25 May 2012)

What is the perspective for the movement?

It’s clear that the strength of this movement is the combative and determined attitude of the younger generation. We can only support this, along with the attempts at extension and the presence of workers from other sectors within it. In one sense, the lack of subtlety and the brutality of the Charest team could serve to generalise the movement. However, the movement does contain a lot of weaknesses and there are many traps that need to be avoided if it is to avoid getting bogged down behind sterile demands.

First there is the idea that that Quebec is different from the rest of North America and can somehow have a more socially responsible ‘non-anglo’ government. Student debt is a central issue, familiar to students across the world, but there is an illusion that Quebec can somehow escape the general tendency. The movement has not really extended beyond Quebec, even though there have been student demonstrations in Ottawa and Toronto. Expressions of solidarity from students in British Columbia can be put alongside demonstrations held in Paris, Cannes, New York, London and Chile. Solidarity from afar, but the struggle has not spread.

Perhaps the most important illusion is that it is possible to live in a better world inside capitalism; the illusion that this system of exploitation can be changed through reforms and through ‘democratic’ channels[4]. This illusion is being peddled by the unions, and particularly by CLASSE with its talk about ‘civil disobedience’. Law 78 also foresees a suspension of courses until August in establishments which are on strike, without the cancellation of the term, and this means that it is difficult to say how the movement is going to continue. What can be said however is that all the workers’ movements throughout the history of capitalism prove that the only way to offer a real perspective is to seek the widest possible solidarity and extension. Toward the end of June demonstrations were still taking place, although not involving the same numbers as at the peak of the movement when 170,000 students were on strike. Meanwhile student unions are engaged in legal battles over Law 78.

Canada is not a backwater in the class struggles. In the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was a significant episode in the working class’s attack on capitalist social order[5]. In the international wave of struggles that emerged at the end of the 1960s, 300,000 workers were involved in the Quebec general strike of 1972, during which factories and radio stations were occupied, and towns taken over. In the current struggles the lessons for Quebec students are the same as elsewhere with the need to escape the control of the unions and hold general assemblies, open to all, where political questions are debated openly, without handing them over to ‘specialists in the struggle’. These are vital steps towards any struggle becoming effective, along with the concern to spread the struggle to other sectors.  

Enkidu/Car 29/6/12

[2] According to

[3] See this eyewitness account of the events in Lyon

[4] This is what some of the Spanish indignados were criticising when they raised slogans like ‘They call it democracy and it isn’t!’ ‘It’s a dictatorship but you can’t see it!’