A lone bagpiper plays traditional tunes during the Québec students strike protest march that took place on Monday May 7th, 2012
First of all, I wish to thank you for the interest that you are taking in our movement. In these difficult times, it is always reassuring to know that our movement is known in other countries. As I write you, we are at the one hundredth day of our strike: excuse me then of an excessive partisanship. I will try to present the 2012 Quebec student strike as objectively as possible.
The last great student strike dates from 2003: at stake was the disposition of 103 million dollars in scholarship loads that had been voted by the Jean Charest government. The participant student groups were the same as today: the Federation of University Students of Quebec (FEUQ); the Solidarity Union of Students (ASSE) and the Federation of Secondary School Students of Quebec (FECQ). The strike came to a bitter conclusion due a too-hasty agreement of the two national student federations and the government. The ASSE, as the association of the most militant members of the student movement, understood very poorly that fact that the agreement should have been be made in a consultative cooperative manner, given that it advocated a combative syndicalist posture and direct democracy.
In 2008. The Charest government announced a small increase in university fees. An attempt at an unlimited general strike was undertaken by the ASSE, without, however, much success. The strike project was thus aborted and the increase was instituted. In 2010, the government announced its intention to raise the costs of higher education by 75% over a five year period. It called for a meeting of those concerned parties in order to consider the practical details of this increase. The union of professors and the student associations refused to participate in this meeting given the refusal by the government to consider any alternative to a fee increase.
At the beginning of February, the ASSE launched a mobilization under the name of the Large Coalition of the Association for a Student Solidarity Union (CLASSE). Peaceful civil disobedient actions began to occur as the strike votes came at the end of the month. In a few weeks, the movement was strong by several tens of thousand students for an unlimited general strike.
March began on a big scale when the government, having tried in all sorts of ways to discredit us, had to confront events in Montreal of an economically disruptive nature. On the 7th of March, a peaceful blockade of the head office of Loto-Quebec becomes a confrontation of the forces of order. The Police Force of the City of Montreal (SPVM) violently represses the students with clubs, shields, tear gas bombs and deafening noise bombs. This was the first real excessive moment of a long series. Still the mobilization did not crumble: by the 12th of March, 196380 are on strike and by the 22nd, we were close to 300 000 – about three quarters of the university and secondary school students of Quebec.
April begins with a change for the worse as the university administrations and certain students who oppose the strike try to obtain injunctions permitting the resumption of courses. Nonetheless, most of the injunctions are ineffective as large scale blockades oblige the administration to close down institutions for reasons of safety. The FEUQ and the FECQ are now the principal players and all the national associations support their policies. For the FEUQ-FECQ, the policy is to clean up the poor administration of universities and thus to finance a freeze in costs, while the CLASSE proposes a reestablishment of the 4% tax on banking institutions in order to finance a freeze in support of free education, During this time, by calling attention in particular to acts of vandalism committed by certain students, the government holds to its hard line and undertakes a public relations campaign in order to convince the population of the reasonableness of its proposals. On the street, police repression increases the anger of the students who have been radicalized by the refusal of the Charest government to negotiate the question of the increase. This anger reaches its height on the 21st of April when the demonstrators attempt to shut down the room of the Plan Nord that was to be used for recruiting applicants for jobs in a large project to develop the mining and hydroelectric potential of northern Quebec. The demonstration rapidly turns into a riot and the pictures of violence and vandalism seriously trouble the population at large. This development is not without a relation to an unfortunate attempt at a joke by the Prime Minister, mocking the students by suggesting that one might find them a job in the north in the company of a crowd of businessmen. April ends with an offer on the part of the government raise the increase to $1778, now spread out over seven years. This extension is also accompanied by an enhancement of the scholarship and loan system, as well as by a plan for a payback rate proportionate to the income of student who had received support.
When the student association collectively refused the government offer, negotiations were opened at the beginning of May. Accompanied by the presidents of the three major Quebec unions, the negotiating committee of the FEUQ, the CLASSE and the FECQ engage in discussion for twenty-two consecutive hours. An agreement is achieved: a provisional committee of the universities will be formed in order to evaluate the administration of universities so as to identify possibilities of economizing administrative costs and the money thus saved will be deducted from required institutional fees. This offer, however, is refused by the group of local student assemblies on the grounds that students were in a minority on the committee and because of remarks by the Prime Minister reported in the media that seem to downplay the importance of the university committee. May also sees regular nocturnal demonstrations that often end in numerous arrests. Finally the National Assembly passes Law 78 in order to control the crisis. This law suspends the assembly of secondary school and university students on strike; it forbids student associations from interfering with or stopping courses for those students who wish to attend; lastly, it severely restricts the right to demonstrate. Rather than putting an end to this affair, the law has rather the effect of revitalizing the mobilization and the movement is today stronger than ever.
Guillaume Bertrand is a student of political philosophy at the Université de Montréal. He is finishing his senior year there, preparing to write a master’s thesis.
Thanks to Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, for sending this on. You can find Babette’s website here. Thanks To Tracy Strong, Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego, for kindly translating from the original French. Likewise thanks to Bettina Bergo, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montreal, for completing this long chain of mediation.