by Marianne Breton Fontaine and Johan Boyden, based on a presentation given by Marianne, leader of the YCL in Quebec, to YCL student activists
After almost eighty days of protest, the Québec student strike is entering a record 11 weeks. After 250,000 students and their allies from community and labour groups flooded downtown Montreal with a river of people on March 22, another enormous demonstration was held on Earth Day, April 22.
Close to 300,000 people were in the street ‑ students, environmentalists, labour activists and others from diverse backgrounds. The rally, linked explicitly with the student struggle, showed the unprecedented mounting public anger against with the Charest Liberals and strong support for pro‑people and pro‑nature policies and a “Québec spring.”
The Québec student strike is one of the longest student protests in North American history and has seen some of the biggest mobilizations in Canadian history.
To achieve this magnificent level of resistance, the Québec student movement has had to work on the “ground‑level” of their campuses, convincing their members of the importance of accessible education, but also beyond their campuses, reaching out to larger forces in society and building unity.
What we are seeing today is the result of many years of hard work and some painful lessons, especially over the last five years.
In 2007, after several years of tuition freezes won through student pressure, the Charest Liberals increased fees. The most recent student mobilization was in 2005, when 200,000 students hit the streets in a record united effort against an attack on bursaries. Charest waited two years, and then announced an increase of $500 in tuition fees. There were immediate calls made by the left student organization ASSE for an unlimited general strike (like today, where there is no end date set for the mobilization other than victory).
Unfortunately, because of a lack of unity and a low level of preparation, the strike did not succeed, although a large three‑day strike took place on many campuses.
This taught an important lesson to the Québec student movement, particularly the ASSE. Recognizing their mistake, the progressive and left students went back to work knowing that this was just the first round of a much larger battle.
FECQ, FEUQ, ASSE
For those who don’t know the Québec student movement, there are three major national student union centrals. The FECQ and the FEUQ are the largest and always work together. They are somewhat oriented towards lobbying and parliamentary strategies; whereas the ASSE, smaller but much more active, is oriented towards actions in the street.
As the strike votes were just beginning to be organized, the ASSE decided to unite with a number of independent (unaffiliated) student unions for the time of the struggle. This CLASSE coalition currently represents 47% of the strikers. These two poles of organisation have a long standing history of conflict, but as we see today ‑ when they are together, they have achieved amazing mobilisations.
Red Hand Coalition
After 2007 the ASSE made a lengthy two‑year reflection and internal debate on the question of strategy (including about how to place the question of elimination of tuition fees, and how to work with other forces). ASSE decided to push for the creation of a united left front against austerity, the Red Hand coalition.
The Charest Liberals announced in 2010 the tuition fees will again increase, by an unspecified amount. A series of demonstrations were made with the student movement, labour and community organisations under the Red Hand Coalition’s banner.
Their rallying cry was not just against the fee increase, but more largely against austerity measures in the Charest budget ‑ such as a regressive flat tax for health care of several hundred dollars. Electricity costs for working families and sales taxes have also been jacked‑up.
Every month, statements were spread on campus calling for an unlimited general strike, whatever the actual increase. An important agitational role was played by regularly published newspapers produced by the national Québec student unions.
A year ago, nobody thought that the very elitist McGill University could go on strike. Today, McGill students (and other campuses that are usually removed from the broader student movement) are in the middle of the action. At McGill the strike of PSAC‑affiliated campus technical support staff reinforced the solidarity between workers and students, as well as the students` class consciousness.
Mobilisation is never easy, but it works!
All this organizing has also been done in a special context of the global economic crisis and a political crisis in Québec.
Québec unemployment has spiked with 25,700 job losses in January alone. Employment fell by 2% in seven months following May 2011. (To put this number into context, Canadian employment fell by 2.5% in the nine months following the October 2008 economic crisis). Official youth unemployment is 13‑16 percent in Québec cities, +20 percent in the Saguenay.
Scandals and victories
A major corruption scandal (linking the mafia with the government) has also been building. For over a year, the Charest government refused to launch a public inquiry. The resulting Charbonneau Commission will hear witnesses in June, but the RCMP are not cooperating with the commission.
Plus, a huge mobilisation against Hydraulic Fracking inspiringly succeeded in reversing the government`s position.
In this context, the Communist Party of Québec (and other left voices) have begun calling for a general social strike to make a sharp break with the current direction and win a people`s alternative agenda.
While the student strike is supported by most Québecers, there has been a polarization of opinion. The far right‑wing is more brazen. On April 12, high‑level bureaucrat Bernard Guay published an article on the Québec city‑based Sun newspaper website calling for the use of “fascist tactics” against the students and the left. Earlier, a right‑wing (and Islamophobic) mayor of Hérouxville called on drivers to run over students blocking traffic and to deploy the military against students.
The government, on the other hand, has mocked the student strike. For example, while a police riot took place outside the Palais des congres de Montréal against a tent camp of Aboriginal people and protesting students (who were opposing the promotion of a major corporate resource extraction project in northern Québec called Plan Nord) Charest joked inside that the students just wanted to get in to get jobs.
Blind in one eye…
Before the student strike the government also announced the formation of a special police unit ‑ clearly anti‑communist, anti-democratic, and anti‑student – against anarchist and marginal groups or GAMMA.
By February the violent methods of the police were evident. Rallies were suddenly gassed, protestors pepper sprayed. Student Francis Grenier lost sight in his right eye when riot police fired a sound bomb into his face at a non‑violent picket. Grenier was playing a harmonica. There are sometime arrests of 500 people in a weekend. The students are threatened with criminal records.
The government is also using tribunals with injunction powers, forcing the students to return to class. But the injunctions have failed because of the amazing actions by the students and teachers ‑ occupying offices and shutting down university buildings.
The teachers have been key players in this movement ‑ respecting the students in their strike and challenging the university administration, and creating Teachers Against Fee Increases. The teachers have constantly worked in the media and strongly encouraged “yes” strike votes on campus. Some teachers have even been arrested by the police on the picket lines.
Finally, the government agreed to talk with the students ‑ but not on the question of fee increases! The government will only discuss the administration of public funds within the university (apparently covered by an old law that the ministry never implemented).
Minister of Education Line Beauchamp also refused to meet with the CLASSE because they do not openly condemn violence. The CLASSE, however, did not play the game, passing a resolution “defending the principle of civil disobedience […] condemning deliberate physical violence against persons except in self‑defense […] and condemning police and institutional systemic violence, including discrimination in access to education as socio‑economic criteria, injunctions harassing the right to strike, and freedom from association, humiliation, intimidation, and violent repression by the security forces and government[…]”
Begrudgingly, the Minister has started negotiations with all three student groups.
The Young Communist League of Québec and the Communist Party of Québec are both calling for the students to stand strong, together “just one minute more” than the government can.
Québec now needs solidarity. The Charest government continually justifies the tuition increase by pointing to English-speaking Canada`s higher fees. Québec students, they say, are cry babies. We must show English‑speaking Canadian students do not agree. Proposals and draft resolutions are at www.RebelYouth‑Magazine.blogspot.com
Lastly, we must to break the silence about the Québec student strike, which shows that with hard work, an escalating plan of mobilization, and brave leadership ‑ the people will fight. Spreading the information about the Québec strike is therefore calling to begin such a broad and united mobilisation in the rest of Canada!