Has the Maple Spring returned?

April 2, 2015

Ashley Smith explains the background to today's return of student strikes in Quebec.

MORE THAN 100,000 Quebec students are expected to join a strike on Thursday, April 2, shutting down universities and post-secondary colleges called CEGEPs throughout the Canadian province. Organizers of the student union Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) have also called for a mass demonstration in Montreal to protest the Quebec government's austerity budget.

The day of demonstrations will pit a re-emerging student movement against a Liberal Party government that provoked the mass Maple Spring uprising of 2012 that paralyzed the campuses and caused a political crisis that eventually defeated the Liberals. Now, weeks of protests and spreading street clashes leading up to April 2 are raising the stakes in a struggle against austerity that inspired people around the world.

Back in 2012, ASSÉ initiated the Coalition large de l'ASSÉ (CLASSE), a broad coalition of student unions that went on an unlimited strike, paralyzing Quebec's entire higher education system. At one point, over 200,000 students out of a total of 400,000 had stopped attending classes. The strike aimed to stop Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his Parti Liberal du Québec (Liberal Party) from ramming through their plans for increasing tuition. Instead, they demanded free public education.

Quebec students return to the streets in mass protests
Quebec students return to the streets in mass protests

Charest condemned the students for being selfish and pushed through the draconian Bill 78, restricting student protests on campus and banning unpermitted marches. He deployed cops to enforce his edicts in the hopes of crushing the movement. His repression backfired, spurring the movement to new heights.

CLASSE organized several unpermitted demonstrations in Montreal in response. In one, over 300,000 marched in what organizers called the largest civil disobedience in Quebec history. On top of that, working class communities throughout the city staged unpermitted, nightly demonstrations, called casseroles.

Charest triggered what organizers called, in an explicit reference to the Arab revolutions of the year before, Printemps Érable, or the Maple Spring. All of Quebec seemed to join the rebellion. Nearly everyone donned a felt red square, which symbolized how tuition increases would trap students in debt.

Hoping to broaden struggle beyond students, CLASSE called for a social strike against the government. But the unions, which represent 40 percent of the province's workers, balked. Nevertheless, the student revolt threw the Liberal government into crisis. Charest called off the Spring 2012 semester to undercut the strike and announced a snap election as a referendum on the student revolt.

He hoped a "silent majority" would return the Liberals to government with a mandate to crush CLASSE. Instead, voters kicked out the Liberals, handing them one of their worst defeats in their history. Charest himself lost re-election. The Parti Québécois (PQ), which postured as an ally of the movement, won the election, established a minority government and put a stop to Charest's tuition increases.

THE NEW government led by Premier Pauline Marois, however, betrayed popular expectations. She continued the neoliberal policies of the Liberal Party, including its Plan Nord's plunder of natural resources in Quebec's north. Faced with slipping approval ratings, Marois turned to the right and pushed the Islamophobic Quebec Charter of Values, which would have prevented public employees from wearing religious symbols--in particular, Muslim veils, but also Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes.

Marois' right turn backfired. She was forced to call an election in spring 2014, which the PQ lost, likewise in one of its worst defeats ever. While a new left-wing party, Québec Solidaire, increased its vote, the Liberals capitalized on the PQ's disastrous policies, returning to power just 18 months after it was chased from office.

The new Premier Philipe Couillard had campaigned against Marois' independence rhetoric, bigotry and fiscal mismanagement, which he argued weakened Quebec's businesses. Once in power, Couillard escalated neoliberal austerity.

"Quebec's approach austerity is currently the third-most severe in the world, ahead of all European nations," reports Rabble.ca's David Gray-Donald. "It will affect Quebec's strong public programs related to education, health care, environmental protection, welfare, day care and culture, to name a few."

The Liberals have yet again provoked students into action. ASSÉ initiated an anti-austerity campaign in the fall of 2014 and helped organize a student strike of some 80,000 last Halloween, accompanied by a mass march in Montreal under the name "L'austerité est une histoire d'horreur" (Austerity: a horror story).

A network of activists formed Printemps 2015 to agitate among student unions for them to strike, this time not only against tuition increases, but also against the Liberal Party's austerity and environmentally destructive development policies. They called for a "Popular Protest Against Austerity and the Petro Economy" in Montreal on March 21. Some 10,000 people turned out and marched without a permit.

On the Monday two days later, 60,000 of ASSÉ's membership went on strike. But this spring's student strikes aren't unlimited. Instead, ASSÉ's general assemblies have voted to go out for one day or a week. As in 2012, activists have also begun organizing unpermitted night marches in Montreal and elsewhere to draw wider layers of society into the struggle.

ASSÉ produced a blistering critique of Couillard's budget, titled "Who Benefits from Austerity?" The Red Hand Coalition, which unites over 80 community organizations, has produced an alternative budget, called "$10 Billion of Solutions." Their proposal overcomes the province's deficit by taxing the rich and putting workers, students and the environment before profit.

FEARING A new Maple Spring, Couillard has responded with police repression even worse than in 2012. The cops, despite being faced with their own budget cuts, have followed orders, surrounding and kettling protesters even before they march, unleashing police attack dogs for the first time and beating the demonstrators mercilessly.

One of CLASSE's spokespeople from the 2012 strike, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, condemned Quebec's rulers and media for egging on the cops, writing:

The airwaves of the capital region carry the message that it is imperative that "the Quebec government request the enforcement of the War Measures Act and that the army take over Quebec." On the same station a few days prior, it was declared that "the government should pass an anticipatory special law. To warn people that if there are troublemakers, we'll get them right away. We'll shoot if necessary."

University administrators have followed the example of the government. For example, Université du Quebéc a Montréal (UQAM), despite its supposed budgetary crisis, has hired a new police firm to spy on student activists, at a cost of $500,000 a year. It has also expelled nine student activists.

The student movement meanwhile aims to flex its muscle. Activists have again called for a social strike on May 1, hoping to draw in unions, shut down the province and reverse the government's austerity policies. The April 2 march will test the capacity of the movement to detonate struggle on the scale of 2012.

"April 2 will be a huge day," ASSÉ spokesperson Camille Godbout said. "After April 2, many general assemblies will happen and from there students will decide whether we'll have another action plan." ASSÉ will be holding a special congress this weekend to assess the movement and decide whether to agitate for an indefinite strike.

Amid this new wave of student struggle, Quebec's climate activists have called the Act on Climate March in Quebec City on April 11 to protest Canada's provincial premiers, who will be gathering at yet another do-nothing climate summit.

All of this agitation shows that the dynamic of struggle triggered by 2012's Maple Spring is not over. Whether it will reach the heights of three years ago and bring down the government remains to be seen. Regardless, Quebec's new generation of radicals is setting an example for the rest of North America for how to stand up and fight austerity.

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