Fighting for Education à la Québécoise
In the last two weeks, the Anglophone world has woken up to the social struggle in Québec. Articles are flooding the net, and demonstrations of support are occurring in Paris, London and New York. After more than 3 months of student strike, which at its high point was voted in by 75% of students, this is the biggest social struggle this province of 8 million people has ever known. It is also fair to say it is the most dynamic and wide-ranging of the many student movements in the Northern hemisphere of the last few years.
Some time last year, I was invited to participate in two conferences organised by students and professors of l’UQÀM (l’Université du Québec à Montréal), one of the universities at the heart of the movement. As the winter unfolded, Québec’s Premier Jean Charest proposed radical changes to the university tuition fee system, sparking what is now referred to as a ‘Printemps Erable’ (the Maple Spring, as a pun on the ‘Printemps Arabe’).
Unexpectedly, my three-week visit this May came to coincide with the most intense period of the struggle to this date. As the papers of our workshops revolved around the themes of historical sociology and social movements, the irony was not lost on us. If their content and the will to conference were naturally overshadowed, students and academics also found it difficult to theoretically make sense of the ongoing events. This silence will undoubtedly not last. For now, merely witnessing the events in Montréal had a profound impact on my vision of the direly needed fight for education.
Crucially, this impact must be situated in the aftermath of the student movement in the UK, fuelled by a 300% tuition fee hike. Although generating support from a very wide section of the student population and staff in education across the country, and marked by historic days of action in the capital and other major cities, the movement nevertheless failed. UK and EU students in most UK universities will be paying up to £9000 a year starting this autumn. Access to higher education has been narrowed, applications have already started to fall, universities and departments are closing or merging, and measures to privatise what little is left of public services in education are constantly being implemented at the micro and macro-level.
In contrast, the proposed changes that ignited the student body of Québec were mainly an 80% increase in tuition fees over the next 7 years, the current annual rate being of 2168 $CAN (£1360) (see government document on plans for increase). This rate, alongside other conditions that some like to call ‘privileges’ to demean the legitimacy of democratically acquired rights, are specific to Québec. Canada’s other provinces have higher rates (though still lower than those found in the USA), which explain their lack of support for the movement. A common rant can be found in the North American liberal and conservative press: how dare these students complain and make such a nuisance? Did no one tell them we are all in this crisis together, and must all suffer its consequences?
Apparently not, thankfully. And if they did, some also told them another story. One in which a generation is already damaged by unemployment, debt, rising prices and anxiety over a bleak, unequally shared and dying planet. When this generation is told it has to choose between increasing its debts or waving goodbye to its chances to higher education, another story teaches that this choice is neither rational nor free. Instead, this ‘choice’ serves to ideologically close the door to other avenues of social organisation and thought. The alternative story heard in Québec, coupled to often nationalist histories of oppression and resentment towards the Canadian government, underlies the surge in contestation that is now going beyond the issue of university tuition fees.
This contestation often felt like a full-blown social conflict. During most evenings in Montréal, in May 2012, fires were burning, helicopters hovering, and various sirens rushing. I might officially have been a foreigner (and a tricky French-British colonial one too), but I certainly was no foreign to the cause. The fight for education and social justice, against state repression and neoliberal policies, has crossed many boundaries. From Athens to Chicago, and from Chile to Québec, the same austerity and military policing fuels young and less young people’s courage to take over the streets.
The 22d of May marked the 100th day of striking: 250,000 people marched through Montréal, a most probable figure in between the 80,000 and 500,000 announced respectively by the police and internet hype. If the third of its kind since the beginning of the strike, it was also the biggest demonstration in the history of Québec. Moreover, Montréal has now been the theatre of many demonstrations, and in the last 10 days, actions have spread not only to the rest of the province, but also outside such as in Toronto.
An emergency law, passed through the Parliament of Québec on May 18th, boosted the increase in the numbers and forms of participation. ‘Loi 78’ or ‘Loi Spéciale’ (a term usually followed by the slogan ‘On s’en calisse !’ or ‘Who gives a shit?’) drastically curtails people’s right to assemble, demonstrate, strike, and crucially, to autonomously organise into student associations. It forbids any gathering of more than 50 people or in a distance of 50 metres from any secondary educational establishment, and criminalises the wearing of masks. Specifically, a precise itinerary should now be given to the police. If not followed, the police can declare the march illegal, arrest and heavily fine all participants.
In effect, this made the 250,000 people march slightly over the mark, and one could not help smiling at the sound of the corresponding slogan, ‘On est plus que 50 !’ (‘We’re more than 50!’). Moreover, it led to the Kafkaesque situation where if most associations organising the march had provided an itinerary, the march then split into three, leaving only one third ‘legal’. Therefore, a dilemma ensued as to whether the people who followed the ‘illegal’ other two thirds of the march did so consciously, and could therefore legitimately be arrested. The police were seen scratching their heads over this one, you can imagine.
These measures are, of course, defended by the government as necessary to the protection of the right to education. This defence even led them to publish a full-page advertisement style manifesto in the respected newspaper Le Devoir (19/20 May 2012), entitled ‘Au nom du respect des citoyens et de la démocratie’ (In the name of citizens’ rights to democracy). You know power is concerned for its survival when it starts using such sacred words. But this conflict has gone beyond the usual political or juridical rhetoric. People from all walks of society united in disobeying the law. The night after the law was passed, people walked ‘illegally’ in the streets, as the daily ‘evening march’ (‘Manif’ du soir’) went from a few hundred to 10,000 people. The Member of Parliament and leader of the left-wing party Québec Solidaires (QS), Amir Kadhir, spoke out for civil disobedience.
The opposition, left and right, Anglophone and nationalist, university professors, journalists and lawyers associations are denouncing and even protesting the government’s juridical use of force. This use led to mass arrests, from 80 to 300 people in some cases, requiring the troubling image of 17 buses for their transport. Some pin down the total of arrests since the beginning of the strike to a figure of ‘at least 2500’, a number still increasing exponentially: 427 people were arrested by ‘mass arrest’ just in the City of Québec during April and May, and there were 700 arrests in Montréal and the City of Québec last Wednesday, 30th May. Most of the conditions of these arrests are appalling, with no access to water or toilet facilities, and will remind UK protestors of recent similar situations with the British police.
The government has only one strategy, namely, the authority of the state to crush all dissent as infantile, bestial and categorically illegitimate. Charest’s loyal ministers and parliamentary majority silently follow, hushed by a thick veil of corruption and fear of upcoming elections. Somehow, in the midst of the general acceptance of a dire economic debt crisis, used to justify the need for tough management, the student movement has revived an alternative solution: social struggle.
But how did students turn a now sadly accepted predicament into a national crisis? The structure and means of this social struggle are crucial. First of all, students have been de facto recognised a right to strike since the 1960s. Although the government has been relentlessly trying to curtail this right, notably with the ‘Loi 78’, it has not yet succeeded. This right to strike is coordinated by a system of local and national student unions. In every university, each faculté (the equivalent of schools in UK universities) has an association in which students are members through the payment of yearly contributions. Similarly, if staff in university and colleges has its own unions, these maintain good relationships with the student associations. Crucially, these associations become affiliated to one of four national federations through a vote of their members.
These four large federations are the FEUQ (Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec), the FECQ (Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec), the TACEQ (Table de Concertation Étudiante du Québec), which mostly regroups students in the Anglophone universities, and the more radical CLASSE, the Coalition Large de l’ASSÉ (l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante). The ASSÉ, formed in 2001 after the failure of previous student movements and strikes, opened up to become the CLASSE in 2012. Lafrance and Sears show the importance of this move towards ‘democratic activist unionism’, and its influence on the other federations.
Hence, there is a strong locally implanted union infrastructure in each university and school, which democratically ties students and staff to politically set national policies and actions. This organisation, which some are trying to bring to other provinces of Canada, contrasts significantly with the British NUS (National Union of Students), with its very low participation rates in local elections, and overly centralised and bureaucratised governing elite. It is no big stretch of the mind to see how these differences can explain the successes of one movement, and the failure of the other.
However, why students in Québec have so well resisted (in the streets, in the press, at the negotiation table, every night, with kitchen utensils, animal mascots, dressed or naked, in 30 degrees Celsius heat or under torrential rain) remains to be answered. The ways in which these people are still ready to go fight for university education testifies to the desire for a strong public and unionised service, accessible to large sections of the population.
When one sees the extent of people’s determination, and the ability of the wider population with no direct or immediate interest in universities to defend and understand the student strike, one does wonder why there and not here. To the question of ‘how dare they?’ one answer has to be that they are aware of what is being lost and know it is worth defending. So on top of their many street tactics, their perseverance, their strong union and representative system, and their ability to mix the various lefts, what we need to learn from this struggle is that public and democratically run universities, strong in research and teaching, are still alive and kicking. They just need reproducing.
I would like to thank Nancy Turgeon for her very helpful comments on this article