The next steps in Quebec

Ashley Smith reports from Montreal on the latest mobilization by Quebec students--and where the struggle is headed with provincial elections about to take place.

Protesters join in a massive march in Montreal on August 22  (Ashley Smith | SW)Protesters join in a massive march in Montreal on August 22 (Ashley Smith | SW)

TENS OF thousands of students poured into Montreal's Place du Canada on August 22 to continue their struggle against the Quebec government's attempt to nearly double tuition at universities and colleges.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) have been trying for months to squelch the student strike that shut down Quebec's higher education system earlier this year. They passed repressive legislation, suspended the spring semester, shut down the campuses for the summer and called an election in the hopes of winning a democratic mandate for their attack.

But Quebec's students have not been deterred. The march on the 22nd was the sixth consecutive monthly mass mobilization. Everyone on the protests had the insignia of the movement, the "carré rouge"--small felt red squares--pinned to their shirts. It symbolizes how the tuition hike will trap students "squarely in the red"--that is, in debt.

Two groups cosponsored the march--the main student union Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity, known as CLASSE) and the Coalition Opposée à la Tarification et à la Privatisation des Services Publics (Coalition Against Tarification and Privatization of Public Services).

Despite the summertime slowdown, the students' spirit of resistance against Charest remains strong. March organizers refused to obey Charest's repressive Bill 78 (now Law 12) and submit their route to police--so the demonstration became a mass act of civil disobedience. At various points, activists climbed up lamp polls to tear down Charest's election posters to enormous cheers from the crowd.

Workers and union members joined the march in significant numbers--teachers, for example, marched behind two enormous banners. Unfortunately, Quebec's union centrals failed to organize any formal contingents because they will not march in an unpermitted demonstration. Nevertheless, Régine Laurent, president of Quebec's health care union spoke at the opening rally.

Organizers did not invite any political candidates to speak. But a scattering of signs for the traditional party favoring Quebec sovereignty, Parti Québecois (PQ), and a split from it, Option Nationale (ON), were visible. By contrast, the left-wing party Québec Solidaire had a spirited contingent of 200 activists.

Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media tried to belittle the demonstration. Radio-Canada hired a private firm to count the number of protesters. Absurdly, they claimed only 12,500 people attended.

By contrast, CLASSE announced that 100,000 attended--making it "perhaps the largest demonstration during an election in the history of Quebec," said representatives Jérémie Bédard-Wien. Another CLASSE spokesperson, Jeanne Reynolds, stated, "We wanted to put education, which has been ignored in the election, back into the discussion. We also wanted to prove that we are a powerful force, we have not gone away, and we are still prepared to fight for our demands no matter who wins the election."

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Roots of the Maple Spring

Charest's program of neoliberalism provoked the mass resistance that has rocked Quebec.

Since coming into office in 2003, he has cut social services, attacked public-sector workers and pushed various corporate development schemes. Some of these have provoked resistance, especially among students who organized a strike in 2005. But when he imposed the tuition hike from $2,168--the lowest in North America--to $3,793 by 2017, he crossed a line.

The most radical of the several student unions in the province, the Association por une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, spearheaded the resistance. It brought together the broader CLASSE coalition in December 2011 to initiate a student strike. CLASSE has grown to over 100,000 members in 65 different student associations and has provided pivotal leadership in the struggle. CLASSE was able to influence the more conservative student unions--Fédération Étudiante Collegial du Québec (FECQ) and Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ)--to join the strike at both CGEPs (the province's post-secondary colleges) and universities.

At the height of the strike, more than 300,000 students out of a total of 400,000 students in Quebec refused to attend class, effectively shutting down the entire system. Students picketed their schools, protested against PLQ meetings and staged militant direct action against various symbols of governmental and corporate power. Most dramatically, in a reference to the May 22nd Movement, which helped set off France's famous revolt in May 1968, they have staged mass demonstrations in Montreal on the 22nd of each month since March.

To contain this mass struggle, the National Assembly passed Law 12, which suspended the spring semester, criminalized pickets on campuses, required protesters to submit their march routes to police, and imposed fines on individuals and organizations which defied the law.

But instead of crushing the movement, Law 12 galvanized an even larger struggle. To protest the legislation, CLASSE organized an unpermitted march on May 22, attended by 300,000 people. CLASSE called the illegal march "the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history."

Students and workers, on their own initiative, then launched nightly marches of thousands called "casseroles," in which people demonstrated in the streets without permits, banging on pots and pans in defiance of Charest.

Police responded with heightening repression, attacking many of the smaller marches. Through the course of the struggle, they have arrested over 3,000 people, who now face both civil and criminal charges. The police have brutalized scores of students, sending some to the hospital.

The student movement has become a lightning rod for all the grievances against Charest and neoliberalism.

CLASSE has forged relationships across many different struggles, from the opposition to increased fees for health care, to solidarity with public-sector workers under attack, to resistance against Charest's Plan Nord, which would open Quebec's north to the mining and hydroelectric industry.

In an attempt to galvanize these forces, CLASSE issued a call for a social strike. Student leaders recognize that students alone could not defeat the government, but would need strike action by the working-class movement. The union leadership, however, has been unwilling to give the call a hearing, and the rank-and-file aren't prepared or organized enough to push for a strike from below.

With the suspension of the semester at the start of the summer, the movement faced the danger of fading away. In a sign of the toll it has taken on activists, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, CLASSE's charismatic spokesperson, resigned his formal position, though he remains an active militant in CLASSE.

To sustain the struggle through this slow period, CLASSE organized monthly demonstration on the 22nd, with tens of thousands turning out to each. It also issued a manifesto for free education and held assemblies in an attempt to reach out rank-and-file workers and community organization--to lay the foundations of solidarity to push for a larger social strike the in future.

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Quebec's Elections

In the hopes of capitalizing on the seeming ebb of the student struggles, Charest called an election for September 4 with the aim of reconsolidating his power.

Within the student movement, the election has exerted a pull to line up with the PQ as the only "realistic" hope to defeat Charest and his PLQ. While the PQ is a capitalist party that shares Charest's neoliberal program, it has a reputation from the 1970s of passing significant reforms to redress the oppression of the francophone population.

Initially, the PQ identified with the student struggle against the tuition hike for opportunistic reasons. They hoped to weaken Charest so that they could regain power. Their members wore the carré rouge. They voted against Bill 78. But once it became law, they told activists to obey it. And after the election was called, PQ leaders stopped wearing the carré rouge.

Nevertheless, the PQ still promises to cancel the tuition increase and repeal Law 12. But the party can't be trusted to do so. When it was in power from 1994 to 2003, it pioneered many of the neoliberal attacks on education, social services and public-sector workers being carried out today.

CLASSE activist Rushdia Mehreen recalled that PQ leader Pauline Marois "was the education minister back when the PQ government first proposed a hike in tuition in 1996...She also supported the Liberals' proposal to increase tuition in 2007. And even now, the PQ is proposing that tuition should be indexed with inflation, something we absolutely oppose."

The only left wing alternative in the election is the small but growing party Québec Solidaire (QS), which was founded in 2006 by socialists, radicals and community activists.

QS calls itself a party of the street as well as the ballot box. It demands independence based on advancing the needs of Quebec's workers and the oppressed. It supports cancelation of the tuition hike, repeal of Law 12 and free higher education--and it promises to pay for all this with increased taxes on the rich.

The election has absorbed the energy of whole sections of the movement. The two mainstream student unions, FECQ and FEUQ, are campaigning against the PLQ in the election, effectively backing the PQ. One student leader, Léo Bureau-Blouin, after his term expired as a leader of one CGEP, announced that he was running as a PQ candidate.

CLASSE has not taken a position on the election itself. Instead, it has advocated continued militancy in the streets. Nevertheless, many students in CLASSE's affiliates are actively involved in campaigning for either the PQ or the QS. And in many assemblies, students expressed a desire to postpone the strike until after the election.

But CLASSE is very aware that neither of likely victors in the election, the PQ or the PLQ, will address the student movement's demands. As CLASSE representative Bédard-Wien said, "They haven't supported us much during the strike, and we don't expect much from them at all--and that is why we argue for sustained mobilization."

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The Struggle Continues

With the start of the suspended semester in August, most student unions voted in their general assemblies to suspend the strike until after the election. As a result, only 35,000 students are currently on strike. At the same time, though, the assemblies also voted to strike and march on the 22nd of each month until the students' demands are met.

On the weekend after the August 22 demonstration, a CLASSE congress convened to assess the struggle and make plans for the aftermath of the election. As they met, the Montreal Gazette reported, "Pauline Marois's Parti Québecois is poised to form a minority government while the Charest Liberals are positioned to suffer their worst electoral defeat since 1867." Polls even suggest that Charest himself could lose his own race to stay in the provincial government.

At its congress, CLASSE voted to demand a meeting with the newly elected government to insist on the repeal of the tuition hike and Law 12, and it agreed to continue monthly marches with a mobilization on September 22. Upcoming congresses will refine the approach, depending on the outcome of the election.

The struggle is far from over. As CLASSE militant Guillaume Legault stated, "A lot people decided to go back to class because they think the election can solve the problem. I don't agree. If the Liberals win, we will have to gear up the struggle again. If the PQ wins, I don't believe that they will follow through on their promises. We will have to force them to do so. No party has ever delivered without mass protest."

CLASSE activists are confident that they can win and also spur a much larger social struggle to advance the interests of working people across Quebec. As Bédard-Wien declared:

We have to continue to build based on our militant approach, extending it from the student movement into the unions and into the community organizations. This is long-term work. We hope to build up momentum at the base of the unions to push for a more democratic and combative struggle against neoliberalism.