The lesson of our movement: neoliberalism is not invincible
Although largely shunned by the European media, the student strike movement in Québec was one of the most remarkable campaigns of mobilisation we have seen in the West during 2012, with campuses shut down for months on end. In this analysis, Nancy Turgeon, a participant in the struggle, reflects upon the causes, lessons and the future.
On 4th June, the front page of the widely-read Canadian conservative journal Macleans started a countrywide controversy: ‘Québec’s new ruling class. How a group of entitled students went at war and shut down the province. For 325$’. Had we really won? Was it really just for a 325$ tuition fees increase? How could a mere student struggle over tuition fees have become a wide assault against neoliberalism?
Québec’s student strike started in January, reaching at its peek 75% of college and universities students, and gave way to relentless protests during the half-year it lasted. But today, in the aftermath of the election, Montréal looks strangely quiet. The party who stood against the power of the street is now relegated to the opposition (Québec’s representation system being roughly the same as England’s). Students are back in school. But, surely this is not the end of the struggle against neoliberalism?
The political background of this social crisis, and what made it possible in the first place, need to be explained. In North America, Québec could be considered a ‘socialist’ heaven. However, during the last nine years of the Liberals reign led by Jean Charest, a self-proclaimed ‘cultural revolution’ was established, going well beyond the austerity consensus. A new philosophy now governs the relationship of citizens towards the state: specifically, the welfare state has been dismantled, making citizens pay on an individual level for services provided by the state. Such neoliberal policies range from a new tax on health services to the increase of fees for education, from state-sponsored kindergardens to universities. While the list is long, and the left wing tradition here is real, the government plainly still underestimated the social discontent these policies would produce.
The student strike provided an opportunity for this social discontent to manifest itself. On its own, the student movement was already a major force due to its massive capacity for mobilization. In Québec, student representation is systematic but decentralized and has historically won a status close to that of unions – a situation that differs significantly from the UK. Yet, in 2008, students lost an important battle after launching a strike comparable to this year’s. And in 2005, they had to settle for making the same Liberal government back up on its proposition to transform scholarships into loans. In other words, the structural organization of the movement is not a strong enough factor to explain the success of the most recent social struggle.
However, what did prove more successful this time round was the widening of the mobilization to workers, unions, community groups, feminist organizations, etc., as testified by the pots and pans banging, the financing of the student strike by worker’s unions, and of course the massive attendance to regular protests scheduled on the 22nd of each month.
From the start, the CLASSE, an alliance of the most radical student unions around the student federation ASSÉ, made it clear that the struggle was not only (or even mainly) about preserving ‘privileges’ for students. No one can say now that the student movement is a ‘new social movement’ disconnected from material reality: this movement is firmly embedded in the social struggle against the widening of the capitalist encroachment on social life. For the first time, it seemed that the traditional issue of Québec independence was not overshadowing the left/right debate.
All seemed in place to finally impede the progress of neoliberalism in Québec. Indeed, none of the usual government’s strategies to destabilize social movements worked during the struggle: neither the strategy of ‘divide and conquer’, neither the use of legal and police repression, neither the ‘lock-out’ imposed by the government (the shut down of schools on strike, postponing the academic term to August). Student federations remained united and the emergency law attacking the right to protest simply widened popular support for the movement. However, the emergency law did reach its goal by impeding the autonomy of the student associations. Thankfully, the constitutional legitimacy of the emergency law has been contested from its inception, and even by Québec’s Human Rights Commission.
In August, Prime Minister Jean Charest resorted to the last strategy available to control the social turmoil: he called for elections. Charest let the student movement unfold in the hope that the CLASSE would repel the population and more centrist student federations (as was the case in 2005). This strategy failed, showing the magnitude of the social discontent.
As was clearly demonstrated, the CLASSE is not afraid to state and act upon its commitments to anti-capitalism, radical feminism and acceptance of violence if not directed against individuals. At the same time, it kept its position and legitimacy at the bargaining table and in front of the general public.
However, regardless of this front, Charest eventually reached his goals in consolidating his electoral basis. He asked the population to choose between ‘stability’ and ‘referendum and the street’. Charest lost his bet. The alternative ‘natural governing party’, the Parti Québécois (PQ) is now at the head of the government. The referendum and the street? No, the PQ agenda and what we have now is way beyond this.
Since its foundation in 1976 in the hope of achieving the national independence of Québec, the PQ has been perceived as a social-democratic party. Its support of unions and social movements has been, from the start, at best sporadic. From the late 80s onward, its leadership was as economically right-wing as the Liberal Party, though this was not expressed in their speeches. It is to the PQ that we owe the first austerity measures in 1995. Its trajectory is similar to that of the Labour Party in England, with the more singular addition of its nationalism, something that would be difficult to find in Europe in an overtly leftish party.
During the strike, this party openly supported the student cause; well, at least part of it. Traditionally, the two centrist student federations are tied to this Party (to illustrate this, the leader of one of these student federations stepped into the electoral game as a candidate for the PQ). The PQ asked for a ‘truce’ during the campaign, and got this proposal accepted by these student federations. In exchange, the PQ backed up the centrist student federations’ request of abolishing the tuition hike without giving a thought to the increasingly spreading demand of the CLASSE for free education.
One party did back the CLASSE‘s demand for free education: Québec solidaire (QS). QS is a fusion of many parties and groups, from communities’ and women’s groups to former left-wing official parties including the Communist party and the sovereigntist Union des Forces Progressistes. QS presents itself as a ‘party of the ballot box and of the street’ and until now has lived up to these standards (as an example, the co-leader Amir Khadir got arrested in a student protest).
Founded in 2006, it came as a surprise to many that a party so openly feminist, ecologist, ‘altermondialist’ (antiglobalisation), and left-wing could manage to get as far despite the ‘single plurality’ voting system imported from England. Indeed, their second MP even got elected after the latest campaign. But the people supporting the students nevertheless mostly voted for the PQ, so as to prevent the Liberals winning another election.
So, what is next?
First of all, it must be noted that the PQ is at the head of a minority government, that is, it does not have the majority of districts. In effect, we could go back into an election as soon as the other two parties, who have the balance of power, refuse to back up the PQ government. This situation is new for Québec; moreover, we are slowly beginning to accept that bipartism might not be the only option. The third party benefiting from this (Coalition Avenir Québec) is however as neoliberal as the two main ones, if not more so.
Fortunately, the PQ does not need the support of these parties to abrogate the emergency law. However, it might need their support to abolish the tuition hike. The PQ promise on education during the electoral campaign was to transform the tuition fees increase into indexation and to hold a summit about education. For Quebecese student activists, this literally is a joke: the current PQ leader, Pauline Marois, already held such a summit in 1996, when back then she stood as the Minister for Education. The results of the summit were disastrous. It took no account of student propositions and it attempted to increase tuition fees.
In other words, nothing is yet settled. And this is most likely for the worse rather than for the best, especially if the street does not return to fight. We must be aware though that winning popular support will not be as easy against a PQ government, given its social-democratic aura. Already, the two main student federations have said that they had achieved their goal through the election of the PQ.
However, on a more positive note, the ASSÉ gained significant membership during the student conflict, with student unions previously affiliated to the other two centrist federations switching their allegiance. Moreover, even the centrist federations radicalized their own bases during the strike, leading us to expect strong opposition during the summit on education.
Nevertheless, contrarily to all expectations generated by our Maple spring, the electoral campaign that followed slipped back into old habits. Returning to the issues of corruption and Québec’s independence, and relegating education and social welfare to their usual place, has served to appease social discontent. Still, this situation can only be momentary.
Looking towards the future, only unity in opposing neoliberalism at all levels of society and a refusal to accept PQ’s waving of the identity flag can ensure the Maple spring’s enduring legacy.
* The author would like to thank Maïa Pal for her comments and editing.
 This qualification also applies within Canada, as public services such as education are prerogatives of the provinces and not of the federal government.
 It has to be noted that in Québec, it is the prerogative of the governing party to choose the date of the election. Charest was afraid of something else besides the student movement: the Charbonneau commission, whose mandate was to investigate the corruption in the construction sector and whose results will be communicated in October. Only relentless pressure from the Parliament and the street forced Charest to create this commission, and no one thinks that both traditional parties would step out of it without major stains.
 For example, during the latest electoral campaign, the PQ leader proposed to restrict Quebeceese citizenship to people with an ‘acceptable’ mastering of French, and to ban the Anglophones, autochtones and Allophones who couldn’t prove their language skills from being candidates in elections, and even from financing political parties (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/quebecvotes2012/story/2012/08/21/parti-quebecois-non-french-speakers.html). This revives the eternal linguistic divide in Québec, where xenophobia against non-francophones is a recurrent problem.