Quebec: how we won

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After a six-month strike students in Quebec celebrated a victory last month when the new Parti Quebecois government announced it would reverse a planned tuition fees hike. The new government also repealed Bill 78, an emergency law introduced in May, aimed at restricting the right to protest. Aamna Mohdin and Jamie Woodcock spoke to Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesperson for CLASSE, a radical student coalition that played a central role in the movement

“Half a million people marched through Montreal on 22 May - the largest ever act of civil disobedience in North America.”

Jérémie Bédard-Wien

There has been a history of student strikes in Quebec. What was the trigger for the 2012 student strike? And what was the inspiration?

The trigger was a tuition hike of 1,625 Canadian dollars, which represented an increase of about 75 percent. This increase came on top of another that was introduced in 2007 which was met with an attempted student strike, but things did not take off at that moment. Sadly we were forced to let that hike pass which meant the government was confident about this hike too, announcing that it would "fix" the "under-financing" of universities.

This proves tuition hikes are not just a disconnected measure but are part of the neoliberal project in education. Arts are increasingly underfunded as governments invest more in partnerships with corporations over research. So we aimed to challenge this narrative by going on the 2012 general strike. One inspiration to us was when we saw British students occupy Millbank and we even talked about following "the British model" of student resistance.

How was the movement organised and what is CLASSE's vision of student unionism?

CLASSE's vision relies on a long history of student unionism in Quebec. This is our ninth general strike as we have sought to maintain tuition at an accessible level for all and maintain investment in loans and bursaries.

The structures of our union are rooted in militant unionism. They came out of criticism of the trade unions in the 1970s when they sold out a general strike. It aims to be what trade unions have failed to be since that moment.

The general assemblies are the highest governing body of the union and without them being well attended and making decisions the union cannot function. All other structures in the union are bound by the decisions taken by the assemblies. The strike was voted for and debated in twice weekly general assemblies. But the assemblies continue to operate out of strike periods too.

CLASSE is a temporary coalition of 100,000 students set up in November 2011 which aimed to open up the structures of the most militant union, ASSÉ, and get as many students as possible to demand an end to all tuition fees and fight for free education. It's a real achievement of the strike to have properly regrouped 100,000 students. But the students always controlled the movement - they were not foot soldiers in an army.

It's also worth mentioning that the Quebec student movement did not operate by consensus decision making. We operated by a strict code of procedures that allowed for direct democracy and that meant general assemblies were more democratic, we think, than the consensus model favoured by much of the left nowadays.

There's no filibustering; people can't just block decisions. Most importantly they are legitimate. They are so well attended by different students holding different local opinions that even if a strike is voted for by 51 percent or 52 percent then those strikes are enforced and even those who voted against respect the picket lines because they participated in that decision-making just as much as the ones who voted for the decision. They have shaped the strike mandate too. And this legitimacy would give our strike much strength.

Was there any collaboration between lecturers and non-academic staff, and the student strikes?

Very early on the lecturers started wearing the red square, which became a symbol of the movement, on their clothes. They wrote papers arguing that the academic community shared our vision of education. We had collaborated with them for years in an organisation called the TPU (the group of university stakeholders) which said education should be free in monetary terms and free from the insidious influence of corporations.

Very early on in the strike you saw teachers forming grassroots groups in order to support us. Trade unions are limited in what they can accomplish because of legal restrictions on strikes in Quebec. Consequently our lecturers also came to organise on a more democratic basis too. Profs Contre La Hausse (Teachers Against the Hike) was formed and published papers. Teachers clapped as we entered general assemblies, joined our demonstrations and held their own. Trade unions also provided important financial backing that allowed us to maintain the strike for so long.

What are the differences between students going on strike and workers going on strike?

The student strike, because it is not restricted by a legal framework, is able to go far beyond trade union strikes in terms of its objectives. Trade unions in Quebec are restricted by the fact that they have to strike over their immediate working conditions. The student strike is much more open-ended. We could go on strike against a war in Iran, for example, if that ever becomes an issue. That is not to say there is an intrinsic difference. I think we should always aim for student strikes and labour strikes to coincide.

There have been cases in Quebec's history where trade unions have gone on very militant strikes, notably in 1972 when the three major trade union leaders were imprisoned for calling for the continuation of a strike in spite of a back to work law. It's something you've seen in our student strike as well. Our co-spokesperson is currently facing charges in the courts with potentially one year in prison. There are a lot of historical links between trade unions and student unions and those links need to be renewed.

It seems like there were splits inside of the ruling class. What did that mean for the different strategies and debates within the movement itself?

The government constantly invoked this flawed concept of the "silent majority" that would naturally be against whatever we did. Yet interestingly we drove such a wedge between business and the government that business called on the government to negotiate. We blockaded several banks and the stock exchange, causing the loss of millions of dollars. A lot of direct action had more diffuse effects on the economy too. For example, someone allegedly threw smoke bombs in the metro which created a lot of debate within the movement. But at the same time it caused ten million dollars in economic damage. The metro closed down and people were late for work. These were all very powerful motivators for the government to negotiate and eventually to concede our demands.

The passing of the repressive Bill 78 which aimed to limit the right to protest was clearly a turning point. How did it feed into the protests?

Half a million people marched through Montreal on 22 May, the largest ever act of civil disobedience in North America. Bill 78 created an unprecedented movement, not only by its scale, but also by the fact that it wasn't organised. Organisations lost control as people just descended into the streets spontaneously. Bill 78 attacked students and any future would-be demonstrator.

It challenged a deep-seated idea about the legitimacy of social movements which has existed in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution (a period of rapid social change in Quebec in the 1960s).

Many people went into the streets, not all of whom were in support of the student movement; however, they drew the line at that repressive bill. Not since the October crisis in 1970 when the War Measures Act was invoked by Canada and which saw the army patrol the streets of Montreal has democracy been attacked as much. Lots of people drew that comparison and it's a worthwhile comparison to make. Bill 78 led to a crisis of legitimacy. People looked at the hundreds of thousands marching on the streets and decided they were more legitimate than a corrupt government which has been holding onto power for nine years.

Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province of Canada. Can you say something about how the Quebec national question played out in the movement?

The national question didn't really come up and CLASSE itself has no line on the question. Rather students had an internationalist outlook, looking outwards from Quebec. There was solidarity with popular struggles against austerity and capitalism everywhere. The national question is widely seen as belonging to another era. However, it might be worthwhile to note that while it didn't really play out there was a divide between Quebec and Canada that was made clear by the strike. Last year Canada had voted in by a large majority a conservative government and Quebec had voted in a social democratic party. There is a Canada wide student union a bit like the NUS in the UK, and it was very supportive but its structures aren't really able to support a student strike.

After the victory where does the movement go now?

CLASSE is now moving towards an offensive campaign on free education. The new government in Quebec is trying to be conciliatory, so it's holding a summit on education. That summit, if we decide to participate in it, will be our opportunity to put forward the case for free education. We are also planning massive mobilisations around the summit.

We always said we would fight against all tuition hikes with free education as our goal. It's a fairly easy economic project to realise. It costs between 300 and 700 million Canadian dollars, less than 1 percent of Quebec's budget. And it would be a powerful first step in changing an education system that is increasingly neoliberal in its nature. I don't think we'll get that out of the summit but it will allow us to create the basis for an offensive struggle that will not be fought round the negotiation table, but will be fought on the streets, as always.