Canadian socialist David Camfield on the victorious student movement in Quebec
Quebec has been shaken by the most important social movement in the Canadian state since the 1970s. What began as a strike by students in Quebec’s universities and Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEPs, which most young people attend after high school) against a major increase in university tuition fees become a broader popular movement against the government of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), headed by Jean Charest, and against neoliberalism.
To understand this movement, we need to look at the place of universities in Quebec society. The Canadian constitution makes education a responsibility of provincial governments. Before the 1960s, only a tiny percentage of the French-speaking majority in the province of Quebec attended university; university education was more common for members of the English-speaking minority, whose universities were better-funded. At the time, the capitalist class in Quebec was largely English-speaking – one feature of the national oppression of Quebec within the Canadian state.
In the 1960s, a section of the French-speaking middle class launched an effort to modernize Quebec society that became known as the “Quiet Revolution.” One of its key features was the creation of a secular education system including new francophone universities that charged low tuition fees. This reform was linked with popular aspirations for national self-determination in an era that also saw a high level of working-class struggle. Accessible university education continues to be widely seen in Quebec as a valuable distinguishing feature of the Quebec nation.
A vibrant student movement emerged in the 1960s. Thanks to student activism, including strikes, tuition fees were frozen from 1968 to 1990. An attempt to raise fees in 1996 was beaten back by a resurgent student movement (though tuition for international students and other fees were increased). In 2005 an attempt to convert over $100 million of student grants into loans was met with a partially-successful student strike.
The Right Attacks
In March 2011, the centre-right and federalist Quebec Liberal (PLQ) government announced a fee increase of 75% over five years, beginning in 2012. The move was part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing or increasing user fees for public services. In the words of its finance minister, the Charest government sought to carry out a “cultural revolution” in Quebec, where neoliberal ideology is not accepted as “common sense” – especially in the working class — to the same extent that it is in the rest of the Canadian state. The announcement spurred the student movement into action.
Quebec university and CEGEP students are organized into associations. Traditions and structures of democratic self-organization, such as general assemblies, are much stronger than they are in student unions outside Quebec. Local associations often affiliate to a Quebec-wide federation. One of these, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE), promotes militant and democratic left-wing student unionism.
In December 2011, ASSE formed a coalition, CLASSE, which student associations not affiliated to ASSE could join if they accepted its platform and highly democratic way of functioning. CLASSE was intentionally designed to coordinate a student strike and proved a tremendous success.
The strike began on February 13 and spread quickly. The most common form of action was not attending classes and organizing picket lines to prevent people from entering buildings or classrooms. Students also carried out blockades of government offices, courthouses, banks, bridges and other targets. Students marched in support of locked-out smelter workers and joined with other groups protesting austerity measures. Art interventions and other cultural expressions of the movement gave the strike a growing public presence. The movement’s symbol, a red square, was soon being worn by tens of thousands of people and made visible in other ways on the streets and online.
On March 22, the number of strikers peaked, with around 300 000 of Quebec’s 400 000 university and CEGEP students on strike that day. That same day saw a demonstration of some 200 000 people in Montreal (to put this in perspective, Quebec’s population is about 8 million). This took the movement to a higher level, with more students voting to take ongoing strike action.
Broadening the Movement
The government tried to demobilize the movement by depicting students as spoiled brats and offering insubstantial concessions. This failed. The PLQ then turned to repression and hastily passed an anti-strike “special law.” This was a turning point. Instead of putting down the movement, the draconian law triggered its mutation. What had been a student movement supported by a significant minority of the population became a broad social movement against the unpopular PLQ government.
On May 22, the 100th day of the strike, demonstrations took place across Quebec. Some 250 000 people marched in Montreal. This was followed by night-time pot-banging “casserole” protests in many big-city neighbourhoods and towns. Union activists began to discuss solidarity action.
Although the movement slowed in the summer, demonstrations on June 22 and July 22 were still very large. Activists went on tour across Quebec to discuss the struggle and CLASSE’s radical manifesto.
Unable to quell the movement and fearful of what an inquiry into corruption would reveal about PLQ fundraising when it resumed in the autumn, Charest called an election for September 4. His gamble failed: the Parti Quebecois (PQ, which has links to the SNP) narrowly succeeded in forming a minority government. But the election call did succeed in dispersing the mass movement. The anti-neoliberal and pro-independence Quebec Solidaire increased its share of the vote to 6% (less than expected) and gained a second seat in the legislature.
The new PQ government has repealed the fee increase and the “special law” – testimony to the power of the movement – but will seek to raise fees in a less dramatic way. The movement’s impact will be felt for years, for it has politicized Quebec society around the question of neoliberalism in a way that is unprecedented in the Canadian state. It has radicalized many people, especially youth, many of whom have gained valuable experience in mass mobilization and democratic self-organization. Activists formed in this movement will be critical for the future of the Left.
David Camfield is an editor of the Canadian publication New Socialist Webzine (newsocialist.org).