The contentious Quebecois: province-wide student strike enters fourth month Favorite 


May 4 2012



In arguably the most radical political climate north of the Rio
Grande, a strike by university students in Quebec has led to the biggest
upsurge in civil resistance Canada has seen in decades. There’s energy
and uncertainty in the streets of Montreal, the province’s largest city.
The symbol of the movement: the little red felt square (“squarely in
the red,” as in, broke), is ubiquitous, pinned on the jackets and
backpacks of students and supporters. Protest banners hang from
university buildings and posters plaster signposts. Students are
everywhere, as are the police, who dart around the city in vans,
frequently deploying in full riot gear.
The Quebec government of Premier Jean
Charest has proposed a 30 percent increase in tuition fees, or $1,625,
over five years. The measure would raise the cost of tuition in Quebec
from its current rate of $2,168 to $3,793 by the 2016–17 school year. In
response, approximately 170,000 students, nearly half of those enrolled
in Quebec’s post secondary institutions, with the number swelling to as
many as 300,000 on key days of protest, have refused to attend classes
since early February. Instead they have taken to the streets, holding
daily general assemblies at campuses to determine strategy, and are
engaged in a diverse range of actions — from mass marches to blockades
of bridges and the Montreal Stock Exchange. On April 24, students at
three Montreal-area high schools voted to begin a three-day strike of
their own, in solidarity with their older peers.
The police have become increasingly prevalent. While they have
intervened less in the largest marches — an April 22 demonstration on
Earth Day drew 250,000 participants — sit-ins, other forms of civil
disobedience and smaller actions have drawn a more aggressive response.
For example, a peaceful march on April 18 of a few hundred students in
Gatineau near Ottawa was surrounded by police, and 160 were arrested.
Conservative media have emphasized
the vandalism committed by small groups of students at the provincial
minister of education’s constituency office and a convention center
where Charest was speaking on April 20, to argue for a heavier police
response. In fact, mass arrests and police deployment of tear gas and
pepper spray have become routine, particularly on the campuses in
Montreal. For their part, the student assemblies pledged on April 22 to
oppose “physical violence against individuals,” while affirming their
continued use of civil disobedience strategies, including building
occupations and road blockades.
Student representatives elected by the CLASSE (Association for
Solidarity Among Student Unions) and two smaller student federations
have negotiated with the province. The government’s latest offer to
spread the tuition increase over seven years instead of five was roundly
rejected Sunday morning by general assemblies of CLASSE as
insufficient. Participating students voted to continue the boycott of
classes. The government walked away from further negotiations.
Quebec’s Radical Tradition
The student strike grips the mass media in Quebec and has evoked
substantial public sympathy. However to the extent that it is covered in
the English-language media, awareness and support of the student’s
demands in the rest of Canada remain low. Commentators frequently point
out that even with a $1,625 increase, Quebec fees are still far below
average undergraduate tuition rates in the rest of Canada, which range
from $5,000 to $6,000.
Quebec students answer that their relatively affordable system exists
thanks to a decades-long history of strong student mobilization. The
concept of a student strike — effectively shutting down university
campuses for weeks — would be extraordinary in the rest of Canada or the
United States, where far worse austerity measures have been enacted.
Student unions in Ontario are known for administering their members’
health plans and organizing regular beer keggers — both laudable
activities — but political organizing is largely limited to a ritualized
demonstration every February at the provincial legislature. Not so in
Quebec. Province-wide student strikes in 1986, 1996 and 2005 have
previously frozen tuition for several years at a time.
It helps that, since the “Quiet Revolution
of the late sixties, the province has been generally the most
progressive in Canada, with the most comprehensive public programs,
lowest rate of inequality and the highest level of unionization. Now,
Quebec’s student strikers are attempting to go on the offensive. They
refuse to accept that cuts in government funding for education are
unavoidable. They reject the neoliberal premise of inevitable austerity,
pointing out that the Canadian government is preparing to purchase 65
F-35 stealth fighters for a total cost of $25–29 billion. CLASSE argues
the price of one plane — at $482 million — would more than cover
increases in revenue gained by raising university tuition, and could in
fact finance lowering fees. The association holds free tuition, as it
currently exists in Scandinavia, France and Mexico, among other
countries, as its ultimate goal.
Broadening the Movement
While the movement is confined to Quebec, supporters in Toronto have
held rallies and occupied government offices in solidarity. Secondary
school teachers in Ontario engaged in difficult contract negotiations
with their own provincial government, Air Canada workers prevented from
striking legally by the federal government and numerous university
students across Canada have pinned on the red squares in solidarity.
Within Quebec, the student strikers made common cause with 780 locked
out workers of the Rio Tinto Aluminum smelter, joining their picket
lines in Alma and marching together in Montreal.
Reaching the end of the school year with no deal in sight, some
students are calling on Quebec unions to make good on their pledges of
support, with calls for a one-day, province-wide general strike. While
joining rallies and providing financial resources, the labor movement
has so far been reluctant to take this step, though it would
substantially increase the degree of pressure on the provincial
government. Activists in several unions are circulating petitions in support of a one-day “social strike.”
Meanwhile, the government appears bolstered in its determination to
avoid appearing conciliatory in the run-up to the 2013 provincial
election, which Charest’s Liberal Party is currently projected to lose.
With high political stakes in the coming summer months, the Quebec
student movement — despite its proud tradition of resistance and its
impressive ability to sustain its mobilization — will face significant
challenges in successfully turning back this latest example of
neoliberal austerity.

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