Forty-four years ago students in Quebec went on strike for the first
time. Inspired by events in Paris that same year, the students demanded
student assistance reform, democratic reform of the cégeps giving more
control to students, and the establishment of a second French-language
university in Montreal.
In 2012, students are in the streets for the ninth time. About 170,000 students remain on strike in Quebec, and some have
rejoined the strike, having previously returned to classes, in reaction
to the government’s increasingly dismissive and disgusting attempts to
divide Quebec society on the issue of tuition fees.
But this strike, now well into its third month with no end in sight,
was never just about tuition fees. From the beginning, La CLASSE, a
temporary coalition initiated by ASSÉ representing about half of those
on strike, has consistently made their struggle about the very future of
This point was made abundantly clear on April 22 when Earth Day
organizers saw more than 300,000 people gather in downtown Montreal—the
largest demonstration in Canadian history.
The numbers were swelled by
the ranks of student strikers and their supporters, as well as
workers—including 100 locked out workers from Alma (six hours drive from
Montreal), who three weeks prior had their own global day of action
that striking students and workers across Quebec, Canada and the world
The sea of humanity in the Place des arts was sprinkled with red
square badges—the symbol of the strike. The size of the crowd
outstripped the 200,000-strong demonstration the strikers organized
exactly one month earlier, while at the same time hundreds protested
Charest in Gatineau.
Quebeckers have had it with Charest—on education, jobs, natural resources, and the environment.
Just as they were in 1968, the students have been influenced by
global events including the Arab spring of 2011, the worldwide “Occupy”
movement, and student uprisings everywhere from Colombia to the UK.
From the start, they have been met with the brutality of state
repression in the form of police riots, tear gas, batons, and mass
arrests. They have been militant and consistent. And they have been
non-violent, until recently when some have begun to fight back against
A wave of injunctions requested either by local administrators or by
anti-strike students—scabs—following a call by the Minister to reopen
institutions and give classes by all means necessary, has led to police
occupations of several campuses.
Students have fought back and won against several of these injunctions, both in the courts and through mobilization.
In one high-profile example, students, professors and supporters at
Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) successfully occupied the
university, shutting it down; and then successfully disrupted classes
again on a second day.
Both events were entirely non-violent, but
resulted in mass arrests—161 the first day, and a further 150 the
second. The movement succeeded in shutting down the campus for the
remainder of that week.
On April 23 professors went before a judge to
ask for the injunction to be lifted, since police presence on the campus
has threatened their health and safety. Some professors were assaulted
or arrested while inside the university.
Of course, the most effective responses to the repression have been
the insistent demonstrations—over 160 in Montreal alone since
mid-February—and the huge turnouts on March 22 and April 22.
In the last strike that took place in 2005, the main student unions,
the Féderation étudiante universitaire du Québec (FÉUQ) and the
Féderation étudiante collegiale du Québec (FÉCQ), negotiated with the
government without the third organization—the most militant and the one
that started that strike—Association pour une solidarité syndicale
étudiante (ASSÉ)—at the table.
They won a great victory, but the cost
was high: it took six years to rebuild the movement and a willingness to
strike once again to win back what has been lost in the years since,
including a $500 tuition increase since 2007.
In recent days, the government has attempted to bring about a repeat
of the events of 2005 by inviting FÉUQ and FÉCQ to the table without
CLASSE. Government officials blame this on the failure of CLASSE to
denounce violence. But to their credit, FÉUQ and FÉCQ have refused to
meet without CLASSE also in attendance.
On Earth Day, CLASSE met and debated for hours on end about the
tactical situation. In a brilliant move, they called the government’s
bluff by issuing a statement clearly against violence against people,
and against vandalism aimed at workers.
The statement also called state violence
and intimidation unacceptable, and said that civil disobedience is
entirely legitimate. Informed readers will
understand the nuances---the state will---and everyone else will say, yes,
that is reasonable, because it is.
It remains unclear if the government will now agree to meet with all
three student associations. Even if they do, the student groups will
insist on debating tuition fees, which Charest has stated is off the
Also, in an unprecedented gesture of unity, FEUQ stated they were
going to include delegates from CLASSE on their own delegation if the
Minister persisted in excluding them.
Through this whole mobilization, Québec solidaire has been supporting
the movement in several ways, including the distribution of 30,000
copies of a special newspaper, contingents at several demonstrations and
statements by Amir Khadir and Françoise David supporting student
demands and arguing that even free education would be an achievable
This has not gone unnoticed and could bring a whole new generation
of activists into the party.
The union movement has also been active in supporting the students,
with the cégep and university unions taking the lead for obvious
reasons, but also with statements by leaders and a physical presence at
some demos. The student strike is helping radicalize workers, and May
Day will likely be the largest in years.
Charest seems determined to end this strike without making any
significant concessions by denying the students their right to organize
and take collective action. His condescending jokes at the Plan Nord
summit on April 20th were a clear indication of his will to not only
ignore the movement but to provoke it deliberately.
This approach is only fueling anger and could lead to further
confrontations on the campuses and in the streets. An escalation of
repression is precisely what caused the transformation of a student
mobilization into a national workers strike in the case of France in
1968. This is what the Quebec spring could potentially look like.
But the success of this movement may depend on broader support for
the students by workers and unions. It remains to be seen if that
support will be forthcoming. Meanwhile a more immediate concern is
whether Charest will call an election, trying to capitalize on the
polarization he has purposefully sewn among Quebec voters. If he does,
he may be in for a rude awakening. (X)
Jessica Squires is a Gatineau activist with Québec solidaire and Socialisme Internationale.