The summer phase in Quebec

June 11, 2012

With summer approaching, Quebec students are being confronted by strategic questions--importantly, what comes next in the struggle, explains Richard Fidler.

DESPITE MASSIVE mobilizations throughout Quebec in opposition to Bill 78 and the government of Quebec Premier Jean Charest, the student struggle is once again at an impasse.

At the end of May, the government terminated the latest round of negotiations with four college and university student associations without offering any concessions on the students' key demands: for repeal of the tuition fee increases and repeal of its "bludgeon law" aimed at smashing student unionism in the province.

The student negotiators had bent over backwards to find some acceptable compromise. They agreed not to discuss Bill 78 pending an agreement on fees. They put aside the proposal of the CLASSE (Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity), the most militant student group, that a tax on banks be substituted for the fee increase, proposing instead that the funds in question be found through increasing the existing education savings program. All to no avail.

Students across Québec took part in a March 22 day of action that united strikers around the province
Students across Québec took part in a March 22 day of action that united strikers around the province (Tina Mailhot-Roberge)

Meanwhile, mounting public opposition to Bill 78 brought new forces into the struggle. On May 22, hundreds of thousands marched once more in the streets of Montréal and other cities in support of the students and against the law. The nightly demonstrations, which began in late April when the government ended its initial bargaining session with the students, continued.

And for the first time, they began to draw in masses of non-student participants, attracting entire families who spontaneously descended into neighborhood streets, banging pots and pans (casseroles) in angry yet exuberant displays of opposition to the Liberal government.

Pierre Beaudet has provided a vivid description of one such demonstration in his neighborhood: "Samedi soir sur la rue Fleury" (in French). In a few areas, the casseroles participants have initiated attempts to create more permanent structures. Here (in French) is an interesting account of one such effort.

Fearing to use the full panoply of measures under the bludgeon Bill 78 against these massive and diverse demonstrations, the cops have resorted to selective repression. They declare the demonstrations illegal under the law, but often "tolerate" them. In some instances, however, they have arbitrarily engaged in mass arrests, even in the absence of any violence by the demonstrators.

Those arrested are mostly charged under traffic control laws, which bring heavy fines. So far, however, no charges have been laid under Bill 78. The total of those arrested since the student strike began in mid-February is now somewhere close to 3,000.

On the night of June 5, police in Quebec City "kettled" one such demonstration after declaring it illegal, arrested and handcuffed more than 60 persons, including Amir Khadir, the Québec solidaire member of the National Assembly, and charged them under the highway traffic code with obstructing the streets.

In a news conference the next day, Khadir strongly defended peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience against Bill 78. "When a law is immoral, when a law is unjust, there is a law of conscience that must be obeyed," he said. It was his responsibility to "accompany my people" in such actions, Khadir said, citing Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as his "models."

THE STUDENT associations have reacted in differing ways to the deadlock with the government.

The Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) and Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), which represent a minority of the students who struck the campuses, as well as the non-striking Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TCEQ), appear to have limited their action against Bill 78 to court challenges, although such proceedings may not reach a final conclusion before the law expires in June 2013.

CLASSE, at its annual congress early this month, adopted a three-part action plan for the coming period: 1) sponsor mass national demonstrations on June 22 and July 22; 2) participate in an action on July 13 organized by a broad coalition against user fees and privatization of public services; and 3) prepare a broad mobilization this fall, including a discussion of the perspectives for a "social strike" at the end of the summer vacation period. Together with the other student associations, CLASSE members will also leaflet various entertainment events during the summer to help educate the public on the issues in their struggle.

A legal defense fund, with a bilingual website, has also been organized to raise money for the defense of those arrested in the student demonstrations in recent months. And the CLASSE has mounted a campaign, also with a bilingual website, to raise funds to help it continue the struggle in the coming months.

The summer will be a difficult period for the movement, confronted by the government's hardline resistance, continuing repression and threats, the legislated closure of the campuses at least until mid-August, and the need for many students to find summer help finance their tuition fees.

But a new challenge to the students and their supporters is posed in a strategic debate now developing in nationalist and progressive circles. Essentially, it involves a clash between those who want to put the student struggle on ice in order to build an electoral coalition behind the Parti québécois (PQ)--and the militants who argue that the future of the movement lies primarily in the development of mass action in the extra-parliamentary arena. In recent days, this debate has gone public, with opposing polemics in the radical and mass media.

AN INITIAL round was fired in the daily Le Devoir on June 5 in an op-ed piece by Pierre Curzi, a dissident péquiste who (together with a few other MNAs) left the PQ parliamentary caucus last year to sit as an independent, primarily in protest against PQ leader Pauline Marois' reluctance to steer the party toward a new referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

Curzi's "call to the nation," as he titled it, lamented the PQ's loss of support to both its right and its left, and the growing development of a "left-right axis" in Quebec politics. The rightists, now assembled in the Coalition avenir Québec, are objectively allied with the federalist Liberals (the PLQ) on the national question. On the left is the pro-independence Québec solidaire (QS), which is now registering between 6 and 10 percentage points in opinion polls.

This, in Curzi's view, was a major problem: "With the first-past-the-post ballot, in one round, the rise in popularity of QS works directly to the advantage of the PLQ" as QS appropriates a section of the pro-sovereignty vote traditionally hegemonized by the PQ.

Curzi failed to mention that the undemocratic underrepresentation of both PQ and QS votes in legislative seats was largely the fault of the PQ, which in its 18 years in government never implemented its promise to institute some form of proportional representation.

A related problem, said Curzi, is the mounting rate of abstention in the electorate, which works to the disadvantage of the PQ as the Liberals have a faithful electorate in the Anglophone and ethnic populations that guarantees them about 40 seats in the 125-seat legislature. (Here, too, Curzi failed to note the possible connection between the growing class divide and the rise in abstention in elections, where the alternatives to the neoliberal consensus of the major parties have been weak or non-existent.)

The solution, he argued, lies in the formation of a common front of the PQ, QS and a small pro-sovereignty party, Option nationale, headed by former PQ dissident Jean-Martin Aussant. This front would organize primaries in each electoral district to choose the common candidate with the best chance of election. Curzi admitted that in most cases the péquiste would be chosen.

But he was willing to contemplate a few exceptions for leaders of the other parties and perhaps independents like himself. Above all, however, QS President Françoise David, who is running in the Gouin electoral district against a sitting PQ member, would have to desist, although possibly she might manage to be chosen in another district.

The program of this supposed coalition? Obviously there could be no demand opposed by the PQ, the dominant component of the alliance. So Curzi thought that on the subject at the heart of the current political crisis it would be sufficient to oppose "the drastic increase in student fees." After all, the PQ does not support even the students' minimum demand for a freeze on fees, still less free tuition, and proposes only a brief moratorium on the increase followed later by indexation of fees.

CURZI'S PROPOSAL--which was flatly rejected the next day by PQ leader Marois--was supplemented by an opinion piece published in the online edition of Le Devoir, also on June 5, under the bylines of Marc Laviolette and Pierre Dubuc, leaders of SPQ Libre, a small caucus of left supporters of the PQ. They pointed to growing speculation that Charest might call a snap election in the midst of the current social crisis, counting on the support of a majority of voters hostile or indifferent to the students' demands, to re-elect his government.

The SPQ Libre authors then pointed to what they consider the major problem: the deepening social mobilization by the students and their supporters: "We have all seen the immense banners in the demonstrations calling for a 'social strike.' But at this point, this would be a tremendous error. It would simply facilitate the re-election of the Liberal party." Charest will win on the theme that voters have to choose between "the street and the government."

They pointed to some historical precedents. Charles de Gaulle had been re-elected in the wake of the May 1968 revolt in France. (In fact, he resigned a few months later when defeated in his referendum on reform of institutions.) Similarly, after the 1968-69 student strike, Liberal leader Robert Bourassa had been elected in 1970 to restore order, and re-elected in 1973 "after the October [1970] crisis" (they might have added, after the 1972 labor upsurge and radicalization). Clearly, they implied, these social mobilizations do more harm than good when it comes to an electoral strategy for winning office.

"The struggle is political and will be played out in the electoral arena," argued Laviolette and Dubuc. "So we must avoid letting the student conflict obscure the record of the Charest government. We must build a broad coalition around the Parti québécois on the theme: 'Charest divides, the PQ unites!'"

To this effect, the unions in particular should mobilize their members to get out the vote for the PQ. And Québec solidaire should reach an agreement with the PQ under which QS would campaign for the PQ in districts identified as "winnable" by the latter.

Furthermore, this "electoral coalition" should be expanded to include not only Option nationale, but all the student, environmental, popular and other organizations that oppose the policies of the Charest government. And their leaders should be invited to run for the PQ. As for Québec solidaire, a newly elected PQ government might offer a cabinet seat to QS leaders "Amir Khadir and/or Françoise David, if they managed to get elected of course."

It must be said that on their face some of these proposals are laughably impractical. As Le Devoir political columnist Michel David cynically commented, "it is totally unrealistic to think of a 'coalition government' that would include representatives of QS...With Amir Khadir in her cabinet, Pauline Marois would go crazy within two days."

Indeed, the PQ cannot possibly unite the opposition to the Liberal government. However, it is undeniable that the prospect of Charest's re-election has panicked many nationalists and social-liberal progressives, prompting the more pessimistic like the SPQ Libre leaders into contemplating possible electoralist alternatives. And some members of Québec solidaire--how many cannot be ascertained at this point--may be susceptible to the idea of some sort of electoral alliance with the PQ, notwithstanding Marois's current opposition.

These pressures on QS are destined to mount exponentially in the coming months. Although the party members have rejected analogous proposals in the past, most notably at its April 2011 convention, the polarization in Quebec politics produced by the students' magnificent strike movement has created new challenges on the electoral front as well.

THESE DEVELOPING debates are the subject of several articles in the current issue of the online journal Presse-toi à gauche, which is editorially sympathetic to Québec solidaire. In a notable contribution, entitled (free translation) "The challenges of Bill 78: The resistance must continue!," Benoit Renaud, a former national secretary of QS, addresses the strategic dilemmas facing the student movement and directly confronts the issue of their impact on electoral politics.

Bill 78, he writes, "is an unprecedented attack on the student movement and a completely arbitrary and unjustified assault on the democratic rights of the population as a whole." It "challenges the democratic forces in Quebec society to unite to resist the law itself but also to reflect collectively on how to reverse the offensive. Otherwise, this setback, which is ostensibly temporary, could prepare the ground for some future attacks and defeats from which it will be increasingly difficult to recover."

The daily demonstrations and the casseroles movement have confirmed the existence of significant opposition to the special law and, to a lesser extent, popular support for the students, Renaud notes. But this is far from universal. The focus must remain on the need to build mass support in defense of the students and their demands, he argues. The stakes are huge:

It will be very hard for the student associations to defy such legislation. The sanctions against the organizations and their leaders are very harsh. The loss of one session's dues per day of strike--or even an attempted strike--could handicap the most militant student associations in Quebec for many years. Legal challenges of the law and the various penalties it entails could seriously undermine the ability of the organizations to mobilize students against future attacks.

The FEUQ and the FECQ seem to have already abandoned the idea of defying the law in order to concentrate on the legal challenge. But the CLASSE's declared intention remains to be spelled out and demonstrated in practice. What local associations will be prepared to take such risks starting in August, in a strike movement that is probably confined to a small minority? Should a new threshold level of participation be determined for this phase of the mobilization? If some associations decide to move ahead in testing the law, will the rest of the student movement and its allies be prepared to share the costs and support this vanguard?

If the largest student mobilization in the history of Quebec were to end in the legal denial of the right to strike and the demolition of the most militant organizations, as well as the maintenance of the tuition fee increase, there could be a major demoralization leading to passivity for the majority and ultra-radicalism for a small and increasingly criminalized minority. The movement could take a decade to recover.

In other words, we must develop a strategy to win on the basic question of the tuition fees, the only true test of the relationship of forces and the best way in which to preserve the student movement's capacity for action. To do this, we must strengthen solidarity, protect the student organizations and their leaderships, expand the mobilization and support over the issue of the fees, and ultimately win the debate over the best means of making education accessible to all.

Although this is the first time a sweeping emergency law has been aimed at the student movement, Renaud notes, "the labor movement has a long experience in this regard," especially in the public sector. "In addition to the Labor Code and the Essential Services Act, both of which already severely limit its exercise, the government arsenal includes special laws--adopted or threatened--to deny, for all intents and purposes, the right to strike for the public sector as a whole." More recently, the Tory government in Ottawa has used its parliamentary majority to break strikes by workers at Canada Post, Air Canada and Canadian Pacific.

With few exceptions, the unions have failed to mount successful struggles in their defense, relying largely on court challenges, says Renaud. A different approach is needed:

Bill 78 demonstrates to us the need to retake the initiative and defend--by methods going beyond the strict limits of legality, if necessary--our fundamental collective rights, including the right to strike. The Charest government, through its actions, is attempting to take us back to the 1950s in terms of social rights. Isn't it time to go back to the methods of struggle of the 1950s and to draw our inspiration from the determination of a Madeleine Parent or a Michel Chartrand?

In 1972 FTQ president Louis Laberge characterized the special law against the [public sector] Common Front as fascist and urged his members to defy it. The jailing of Laberge, Charbonneau and Pépin [the latter two leaders of the CEQ and CSN centrals] provoked a wave of "illegal" strikes in the private sector. It is this--a widening of the struggle rather than its narrowing--that constitutes the only valid response to abuse of power. That was what enabled the union movement to make some gains that year and in the following two rounds of bargaining. The 1972 special law had been broken by the general strike in May.

Renaud then turns to more contemporary examples:

Calls for a political general strike or "social strike" began to be heard in the first months of the Charest regime, in response to a series of anti-union laws adopted at the end of 2003. Resolutions along these lines were adopted by many organizations, but they did not lead to concrete operations of organization and preparation. This idea has come up again in the student conflict.

A social strike is an action often used in Europe to challenge austerity measures. The development of a concrete action plan for holding such a strike, aimed at repeal of Bill 78, would be a needed complement to the legal challenges and a means of re-establishing the relationship of forces in favor of the student movement and, by extension, all of the social movements.

There is also talk in some circles of the idea of an Estates General of the social movements. Indeed, the employers' attacks are aimed not only at unionists and college and university students. It is the 99 percent of the population who do not benefit from the system who are targeted, especially by the social and environmental policies.

The need for unity of the movements in the face of governments in Quebec City and Ottawa determined to undermine our social gains and make us pay for the costs of the economic crisis certainly warrants working together and with a new range of methods, including the social strike, irrespective of who wins the next elections. Hence we must continue to demonstrate throughout the summer.

If the purpose of Bill 78 was to restore the social peace that is so dear to business people, mayors and the premier, the lack of social peace will demonstrate the failure of the law and end up undermining the credibility of the government. Who knows, they might even find the road to genuine negotiation.

RENAUD THEN turns to the appeals for a common electoral front of the left and social movements with the PQ. He acknowledges the dilemma we face in today's conditions, given the profoundly undemocratic electoral system and the absence of a "credible governmental alternative or an effective option for defeating" the Liberals or CAQ in many districts. But is the election of a PQ government our only recourse, he asks:

[T]there is a huge problem with this approach. The bosses' offensive, of which Bill 78 is the most egregious and brutal expression up to now, was begun by the Parti québécois at the time when Marois began her political career as Minister of Poverty. PQ governments adopted especially vicious bludgeon laws against the teachers in 1982 and the nurses in 1999.

Not surprisingly, the PQ's attitude in the student conflict has also been full of ambiguities. Ms. Marois came out against the increase...for the time being, calling for yet another forum to discuss the funding of the universities, and then for indexing fees to inflation. She declared her opposition to the use of injunctions...while calling on the students to abide by them scrupulously. And now her party promises to repeal Bill 78...but asks that we obey it without exception in the meantime.

A more comprehensive critical review of the PQ record both in and out of office is offered in an accompanying article by Bernard Rioux in PTàG answering the arguments of the SPQ Libre leaders. "Between 1994 and 2003," the PQ's last term in office, "this social liberal party now in opposition adopted and implemented neoliberal policies." A PQ government would "be follow the same paths as the Liberal government that preceded it..." The principal danger today, he argues, "is the weakening of the autonomy of the social movements in relation to a party that defends the interests of the ruling oligarchy, not the majority."

Benoit Renaud notes the futility of a strategy based on support of the PQ:

The social movements cannot rely on an ally with such a troubled history and such an obvious propensity to try to sit on the fence. The fact is that the construction of a left alternative rooted in the social struggles is an unavoidable task in any strategy aimed at rolling back the offensive and putting such notions as social justice, the fight against poverty, environmental protection, equal rights, feminism, etc. back on the agenda.

As to "strategic voting," even its supporters must concede that "in most ridings [a Canadian term for "electoral districts"] the question of incidental support to the PQ to avoid a PLQ or CAQ victory will not even be posed.

Many ridings are strongholds of one party or another. There will be several battles between the PLQ and the CAQ. Several ridings are now winnable for Québec solidaire. There will be some cases where strategic voting may be an issue. But even in these situations a fair section of the electorate will prefer to abstain if there is no credible progressive alternative to voting PQ.

Renaud concludes on a modestly optimistic note:

[I]n the next National Assembly a respectable contingent of QS members could make a big difference, irrespective of the distribution of the other seats. The experience over three and a half years with a single QS member should suffice to show that. And if the PQ forms the next government, it will be necessary to continue to mobilize against policies in substantial continuity with those of the previous regime, even if the style, the pace and the discourse may change. In this context, each vote obtained by Québec solidaire in the election will be a further political signal that the resistance will be there.

Clearly, an important debate that is only beginning.

First published at The Bullet.

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