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By James Kleinfeld
The streets of Quebec have been echoing with the sounds of the student uprising that has swept over this province in the last eight months. Sparked off by the provincial government’s move to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent, over 300,000 students went on strike in the longest and largest popular movement in Canadian history. Armed with squares of red felt clinging to their collars, students underwent months of nightly demonstrations, daily direct actions and monthly general strikes, morphing into a ‘social strike’ encompassing a significant cross-section of Quebecois society, and finally succeeding in toppling the government and reversing the tuition hike. Its greatest legacy, however, was in infusing a generation of young women and men with the spirit of democratic discourse, politicising not only the entire student body but also civil society at large.
“It started off in February as a small strike of radical student bodies. We stopped going to school, started having regular protests in the afternoons. From the outset nobody expected the proportions the strike would take…”
Jonathan Bertucchi, student at the Université de Montréal (UdeM), fondly recalls the events of the past year.
“The epiphany came on 22 March. At that point there were about 120,000 students on strike, but when 300,000 people came onto the streets of Montreal, with thousands more throughout the province, there was a huge take-up of the strike, with over three quarters of the Quebecois student population participating in the ‘Unlimited Strike’.”
The General Assemblies (AGs or Assemblées Générales) became the hub of student democracy and opinions gradually matured to unheard-of levels of politicisation. The vast majority of the protestors were first timers. Many students had never been involved in politics, had never even considered the idea of expressing themselves. They began to stand up and make themselves heard. Not only were these opinions well-informed and eloquently argued, but they were permeated with a high degree of solidarity for the student body.
Student associations such as CLASSE (Broad Coalition of Associations for Solidarity amongst Student Unions) adhere to a highly decentralised structure, allowing for free and open debate to flourish at the bottom whilst being accurately represented at the top by the spokesperson of the executive body.
I spoke with the spokesperson for CLASSE, Jérémie Bédard-Wien.
“The advantage of the student unions in Québec is that they are the main body through which political opinion is channelled on campus. Politics on campus is not organised around political parties; not even through affinity groups with single-issue campaigns. These just don’t exist. All of these positions are expressed in the AGs for the consideration of the entire student body.
“I think we can combine democracy and structures. We have perfected this model of direct democracy in ways that allow students holding a variety of different persuasions to be able to express themselves democratically whilst maintaining radical aims.”
I asked Jonathan about this process.
“From the beginning of the strike, the whole careerist elite of our student institutions were kicked out, and we began to release political statements.
“We had to ask ourselves: ‘How do we want to be as a political institution? What are our demands?’
“Before the strike, we spent our time at the AGs deciding what the theme for the end-of-year ball would be, what our alcohol budget would be spent on. But during the strike, we would discuss the most important issues facing the student body for hours at a time.”
Jérémie noted how the AGs helped to engage the broader student body.
“The Left in other countries have kept to themselves, not attempted much dialogue outside of themselves. This kind of politics will never be able to spark a mass movement. That may be a harsh assessment, but you need to create the conditions for these affinity groups to make sense. The strike legitimised the existence of these groups, who were able to conduct direct action backed up by a broad popular movement.”
The strike nevertheless had its moments of violence. On the 20th April, encounters broke out between police and students protesting against the Plan Nord, the controversial proposal to exploit natural resources in the North of the province. For the duration of the strike, over 3,000 people were arrested, with many still languishing in prison. This radicalised the strike and brought it out onto the streets.
“No longer were the students content with pacifism; the idea became to obstruct economic activity in the city. They went to block the ports, they caused traffic jams. These were radical actions in order to disturb the workings of the economy. If they were always going to talk about the economy, then we would speak their language.”
« Manif chaque soir, jusqu’à la victoire »
« Demonstrate day and night, our victory is in sight »
A month later, with the adoption of Law 78, tens of thousands of people began to take part in nightly demonstrations, playing cat and mouse with the police, weaving through the streets of Montreal, banging their pots and pans along the way. The controversial law sought to impose strict penalties on citizens demonstrating without notifying the police in advance. Fiercely proud of their society’s values, the Québécois people were outraged at the government’s attempts to undermine their legitimate right to assemble and protest.
“When the law passed, we started noticing many protestors who were not students.”, said Université de Québec à Montréal (UQàM) student Jeanne Dupuits. “We weren’t just demonstrating for what we believed in, we were demonstrating for our basic democratic rights. Everyone walking past you on the street was wearing the red square.”
The red square became the ubiquitous symbol of the student movement. You can find them everywhere in the province.
“Never had I thought this square of felt could become something that unifies people. You feel that you’re part of the movement when you see others wearing it, you feel an instant affinity with them.”
The red square is much greater than the issue of tuition fees. It represents an informed and engaged populace, freedom of speech and direct democracy – and these issues, and thus the red square itself, transcend the ebbs and flows of electoral politics.
The student strike captured the imagination of the wider population, and transformed into the social strike…
According to many commentators, Canada-wide support for the militant determination of the Québec students was undermined by the province’s relatively low tuition fees. With an increase from $2168 to $3793 (£1370 to £2400) over the course of five years, the higher fees would have brought the province in line with Canadian standards.
For the Québec students themselves, however, this struggle represented much more…
“It is not just about money: it is ideology, pure and simple. Even if they asked for a raise of ten dollars, we would still have been 300,000 on the streets.” Gabriel Tremblay, student at UQàM, tells me as he tries to suppress his passion.
“We are fighting for a just and equal society, for which we have fought so hard throughout our history.”
The rage is palpable. For many in the province, the struggle against the raise in tuition goes hand in hand with their national identity. Jérémie also identifies the common struggles across borders:
“We have already identified the problem: the corporatisation of education. The UK is clearly ten years ahead of Quebec in terms of this model being imposed, which is a frightening thought…
“All the support from around the world gave us so much confidence. Striking can feel so lonely: when the government doesn’t want to talk to you, when the police is so aggressive, when the university administration were giving us shit, and the national media were not even reporting on us! This shows that students all over the world care about us and that our message strikes a chord with them.”
The grève générale illimitée (unlimited general strike) thus became the rêve général illimité (unlimited general dream).
“We are making kids around the world dream: we bring them hope, showing them that this is possible.”
For the students of UdeM, however, the return to school was not as joyful as expected. With several faculties deciding to continue the strike, the administration called in the police in order to enforce the return to classes. Not only was this seen as an affront to the sanctity of these institutions, but also an attack on the legitimacy of student democracy.
“Do democratic rights exist for students?”, exclaimed Jonathan. “Is democracy something to care about? We have learnt that democratic rights are only relevant when exercised. We enforced the strikes so that nobody would doubt the credibility of the students’ movements.”
After eight months of strike, provincial elections succeeded in ousting the Liberal government of Jean Charest and putting a freeze on tuition fees: however the future remains uncertain.
Former spokesperson for CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, sees this as the first step towards a radical political shake-up in Quebec. Thanks to these ‘no-good students’, the public discourse of hockey, the weather and reality TV has been replaced with the real issues on peoples’ minds.
“The greatest legacy of the strike can be found on our campuses, in our work-places, in our cities and villages, where people are coming together to do something which they will never be able to stop doing: talking.”