Quebec students on the march

March 22, 2012

Tom Gagné looks at the backdrop to Quebec's biggest student protests in decades.

UNIVERSITY AND college students in Quebec are gearing up for one of the largest mobilizations since the spring 2005 student strike. On Thursday, March 22, an estimated 100,000-plus students will march on Place du Canada in Montréal against the student fee increase of $1,625 (in Canadian dollars) planned over the next five years.

The increase will begin to take effect on September 2012. Currently, there are more than 200,000 students on an unlimited strike, represented by 145 student unions and associations. Including those on limited strike, the number totals around 250,000 students, with around 160 associations.

The battle began in January when students, expecting the call for a student fee increase, organized an emergency mobilization of 200 to blockade the Ministry of Education building and force it to cancel work for one day.

The student strike began February 14 at the Université Laval in Quebec City, with over 10,000 students participating.

On February 23, a student demonstration called by the Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity (Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE) brought thousands of students into the streets, temporarily shutting down parts of Montréal.

On the morning of March 20, a group of 200 students blocked traffic on Champlain Bridge, backing up traffic for four miles as a display of student power. The government is now using this "annoyance" as a wedge to try to turn workers against the students--in the hopes of stopping workers taking inspiration from the movement.

CLASSE is a self-identified radical coalition and represents the largest number of associations and unions across Quebec, totaling around 70,000 students. This coalition is calling for unlimited strike and has found broad support. It has a very active and spirited base and a progressive platform that envisions the future of higher education as a collective project in the hands of students and faculty.

Demonstrations and votes to strike spread rapidly across the province. On March 7, rallies and marches culminated in a rally at the Capitol building of Quebec, resulting in scenes of police violence, and the use of tear gas and on peaceful student demonstrators.

These scenes, not unlike those across the U.S. this past fall with the attacks on Occupy encampments, occurred under the leadership of the liberal party that holds power in the province, Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ).

In an all-too-familiar story, the PLQ leader who serves as Quebec's premier, Jean Charest, has presided over harsh austerity, giving students and workers the short end of the stick.

This isn't the first attack on students, however. Over the years 2004-05, the Charest government wanted to turn $103 million dollars of scholarships and grants into student loans. This move came after PLQ won an election on a campaign that included the promise of freezing all tuition at the level of higher education. Some 230,000 students went on strike, and Charest pulled back.

Alongside the larger strike, CLASSE has raised a demand for eliminating the "paternalistic" monthly disbursements of loans and scholarships in favor of disbursement by semester. They also demanded total student loan reform, and free contraception and abortion on demand. Although those goals were never realized, 70,000 students remained on strike a while longer for them.

In the past, the student strike tactic in Quebec has remained largely within the orbit of Francophone universities. This time around, six student associations at Concordia University, a large Anglophone institution, have voted to take up the call for an unlimited strike, which took effect on March 15.

The Concordia Student Union is a member of the Federation of University Students of Québec (Fédérations des étudiantes universitaires du Québec, FEUQ), which identifies as less radical compared to CLASSE.

The development of more Anglophone students taking up the unlimited general strike could potentially produce a broader and more united Quebecois student struggle.

DURING THE period of the "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s, there was an unparalleled era of development affecting much of the industry and other economic sectors within Quebec. This led to the establishment of a welfare state, along with huge advances in access to higher education. The Université du Québec, a system of 10 provincially-run schools, now with over 300 academic and technical programs taught in both English and French, was created at the time and became an incredibly popular institution.

In a relatively rapid period of time, the system of higher education in Quebec swept away many of the "New France" institutions that endured from the colonial settler period, shifting from a church-dominated system to a secularized state-run establishment.

The province of Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada for in-province students, at around $2,000 per year, with access to widely celebrated services and programs. This, however, is no accident. Since 1968, Quebec has had a vibrant and energetic student base that has engaged in no less than nine mass strikes over various sorts of demands, with various rates of success--mostly favorable.

The student population of Quebec numbers around 268,000, with close to 120,000 international students. The current unlimited strike of 200,000-plus students is obviously no small number.

During the years of the neoliberal backlash and the destruction of public services and social programs across the world, the courage, militancy and organization of Quebecois students was successful in resisting privatization and other measures.

This strike will be of crucial importance for the morale of the student movement in Quebec. If it wins this spring, it will serve as an example and inspiration for student movements elsewhere in North America, and possibly for the working class of Quebec.

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