The Quebec struggle goes on

June 25, 2012

Ashley Smith reports from Montreal on the latest mass mobilization by students who have been on strike for months against the government's planned tuition hikes.

PROUD, ANGRY and determined, students poured into the streets in mass demonstrations in Quebec's two principal cities on June 22. Massive marches have taken place on the 22nd of each of the past four months--the day has become symbolic for "The Maple Spring" uprising against Quebec Premier Jean Charest's threat to raise tuition at the Canadian province's public universities by 75 percent.

In Montreal, the main student union organizing the strikes, CLASSE--which stands for Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity--mobilized 100,000 protesters to march through the city. While smaller than last month's action of 400,000, the numbers were surprisingly large for the summer, when classes are not in session, and many students cannot get time off from work for a weekday protest.

In Quebec City, the site of the other main demonstration, the provincial capital's newspaper Le Soleil reported that student mobilization was the largest since the struggle began. On top of these two mass actions, as many as 150 solidarity actions happened across Canada, the U.S. and the world, according to CLASSE co-spokesperson Camille Robert.

Tens of thousands of students took the streets of Montreal as the struggle entered a summer phase
Tens of thousands of students took the streets of Montreal as the struggle entered a summer phase (Ashley Smith | SW)

Protesters in Montreal braved scorching temperatures and assembled in the Place du Canada. After a festival-like rally that culminated with passionate speeches from student leaders and allies, they marched through city to stage another mass rally at Parc Jeanne-Mance next to McGill University.

Students made up the overwhelming majority of marchers. All wore what has become the hallmark of the movement: the carré rouge, a square made of red felt and attached to everything from shirts to backpacks with a safety pin. The idea for the red squares comes from the French phrase "carrément dans le rouge," which translates into English as squarely in the red--that is, students would be squarely in debt because of Charest's threatened tuition increase.

Students wore their red squares, marched behind a banner that declared "Education is a Right" and chanted "Nous ne réculeron" ("We shall not retreat") and "Ceci n'est que le début! Continuous le combat!" ("This is just the beginning! Continue the fight!")

THE MARCH was a slap in the face of Charest, the butt of countless chants at the demonstration.

The premier had hoped to break the surging momentum of the student strike through two acts. He signed Bill 78 into law to restrict the right to demonstrate and subject organization that violates it to heavy fines and even jail sentences. He also summarily terminated spring semester, postponing it to August. In doing so, he intended to demobilize the movement, dispersing students for the summer.

But Charest's plan has backfired. His Bill 78 actually spurred the movement to new heights. The enormous May 22 march of 400,000 violated Bill 78 when it took an unpermitted route. Plus, students and their supporters took to the streets every evening for a few weeks in nightly casseroles, where they banged pots and pans in defiance of the law. These actions have even spread to the rest of Canada.

Amid this fervor, CLASSE floated the idea of a "social strike" against not only the tuition hikes, but also Bill 78 and the entire neoliberal program of Charest's Liberal government.

But Charest has refused to concede an inch to the students. Instead, he has deployed police to harass students and threaten protest leaders and unions with hefty fines. The combination of repression, suspension of the semester and government intransigence has challenged the movement to retain its coherence.

The students' determination so far remains strong. One of CLASSE's leaders, Jéremie Bédard-Wien, said in an interview: "We have been on strike for over four months. The government has said that we would get tired, that we would eventually stop. But this demonstration proves very eloquently that this is not the case."

"People are still angry," he continued, "about the government's neoliberal program. People are still angry about Bill 78 restricting our right to demonstrate, restricting our democratic rights. We are ready for a long hot summer."

All the speakers at the rally reinforced that spirit of defiance and determination. CLASSE's Arnaud Thierry-Cloutier gave a fiery speech that sent the crowd into wild applause at every attack on Charest, corporate greed and neoliberalism.

In response to media denunciations of "student selfishness" and their narrow "corporatist interests," he declared, "The ones who always act in their self-interest are the big businesses. They are the biggest corporatists in Quebec. This is not a strike for students' interests. It is for the redistribution of wealth now and for revitalizing democracy."

Yvonne Saulnier from Profs Contre L'Hausse (Teachers Against the Fee Hikes) declared, "We refuse to accept that the business model is the only acceptable model for education and society. The university is not an enterprise, and the more we fight, the more we will stop it from becoming one."

While students and their organizations made up the bulk of the protesters, small contingents from unions, including the Confederation of National Trade Unions, were also represented. Over 100 professors from their union at Université du Québec à Montréal made up a lively contingent.

One of the leading teacher activists, Michéle Nevert said in an interview how inspired she was by the students' uprising. "This is a magnificent generation," she declared, "and it is demonstrating that Quebec is not asleep, or if it ever was, it is awake now."

Quebec's lone radical member of parliament, Amir Khadir from Québec Solidaire, warned the press not to misread the smaller turnout on the demonstration. "Anyone counting on the movement running out of steam is making a mistake," he declared. "Everyone taking a break today is doing it to bounce back stronger in August and September."

THE STUDENTS will nevertheless face several major challenges over the summer and into the fall.

The first is how to sustain the movement without classes in session. To address this, CLASSE and other organizations of activists plan to continue the marches on the 22nd of July and August. They will also be leafleting the numerous summer festivals in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec. These actions are intended to keep activism going among students and build popular support to renew the strike at the start of classes in August.

The second challenge is the struggle's relation to the electoral process. Charest's Liberal Party has done poorly in recent elections and may be forced to call a new one in September. That could tempt the smaller and more moderate student federations--FEUQ (Quebec University Students' Federation) and FECQ (Quebec College Students' Federation)--to mobilize support for the nationalist party, Parti Québecois (PQ).

The president of FEUQ, Martine Desjardins told reporters, "We will be going to door-to-door to meet with people, especially in ridings where the Liberals won by a slim majority, to explain to the record of the Liberals. We want to show people that they too will be asked to tighten their belts more, something the government doesn't tell them because they want to divide students from the rest of the taxpaying population. But we are all in the same boat, and during the next election, we will have to fight hard to get rid of the Liberals."

The problem with this strategy is that the last time the PQ was in power, it launched a wave of neoliberal attacks that its Liberal successor government has pushed even further.

In contrast, CLASSE maintains its independence from the political parties and refuses to participate in the electoral process. It has a different strategy of pushing for the continuation of the strike and trying to escalate it into a broader social strike that would include the province's labor movement.

So far, the unions have responded negatively to the call for a social strike. But CLASSE continues to push the call in a formation they are part of with unions called the Coalition Against Tarification and Privatization of the Public Services. They are also building popular assemblies of students and workers in the summer to mobilize the union rank and file to push their leadership for a social strike.

"We have to talk to the base of the unions," said CLASSE co-spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds in an interview, "because the leadership may not be for the social strike. We hope to find a lot of support among those workers. Our futures are the same."

"With tuition hikes, they are making university more expensive," she continued. "With fees and cuts, they are undermining the accessibility and quality of public services. We have to talk with the workers about this and build support for a broader strike against austerity."

The mass actions on June 22 gave a tremendous boost of confidence to CLASSE's leading activists, who were surprised by the big turnout. "Its clear," said Bédard-Wien, "that students, whether they are on campuses or not, are pissed off, and the general public is pissed off. In August, when classes begin again, I guarantee that the strike will start again also, and the picket lines will be as strong as ever. We will defeat the tuition hike."

The CLASSE activists see their struggle not just in isolation, but as part of the global movement. As Reynolds said:

We are part of a world resistance against the problem of economic crisis and austerity from Greece to Quebec. Many people from around the world have emailed us saying how excited they are by our movement in Quebec. Those gestures of solidarity are wonderful. But we hope students in the United States and elsewhere will be inspired to take action like we have. We students and workers are in a global struggle.

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