How Quebec Was Won
In late spring the pepper spray was so thick in Montreal that it seeped into Anna Sheftel’s apartment, even though the student protests, and the police gassing them, were blocks away.
It was the third month of the Quebec student strike, a movement launched by a proposed tuition hike that would eventually topple the provincial government and rekindle an entire generation’s faith in street politics. But at that time, two students had lost an eye each, thousands had been arrested, and Sheftel, a conflict studies professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa who translates student movement documents from French to English, found herself tearing up around the house on balmy spring evenings.
Still, she wouldn’t describe it as a dark night of the soul. “The general consensus among people my age who were involved with and supported the movement was that this generation of students blew our minds,” Sheftel told Campus Progress.
By May, when the government took repressive steps to quell the student strike, it had already grown beyond the wildest imaginings of Quebec leftists. The strikes had continued since February, hundreds of thousands of students were refusing to attend school, most student unions voted weekly to extend the strike, students generated new protest techniques and art every day—and the government was refusing to back down.
This is the story of the Maple Spring, and the battle for one of the last bastions of affordable higher education in North America.
I. “Maybe we had 5,000 people, and you go, wooo, this is a good start.”
The Quebec student protests didn’t appear from thin air. “The tuition hike was announced in 2010, and between then and to this winter we had a plan—we had a petition, we had a demonstration, we had really basic stuff you do when you mobilize people,” Hugo Bonin told Campus Progress. Bonin is a political science student who serves as an English-speaking spokesman for CLASSÉ, an anti-tuition hike coalition built around the ASSÉ province-wide student union (in English, CLASSÉ could be translated as the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity).
The proposed hike from the ruling Liberal Party, led by Premier Jean Charest, would have slowly raised the cost of attending a Quebec university for one year from $2,168 to $3,793. It’s an improbably low sum for American students, and even for other Canadians; the average Canadian student paid $5,313 last year in tuition and fees.
Quebec students maintain that their tuition rates may be below average, but that doesn’t make the average right. As one of the more radical student unions, ASSÉ explicitly advocates for free tuition, and links it to the democratization of education.
This might be the first hint that the Maple Spring wasn’t just about tuition. From the movement’s inception, Quebecois students linked debt, education, labor exploitation, the economy, and environmental concerns. They pointed to both privatization of the university and privatization of Quebec’s public natural resources as against Canadian values. “Despite [the tuition hike’s] initial appearance as an accounting measure, it is in fact a squarely political measure, part of a neoliberal project to transform the relationship between youth and knowledge, institutions, and society in general,” two professors wrote in an endorsement of the student actions.
“The protests were not that big in the beginning,” Bonin said. “Maybe we had 5,000 people, and you go, wooo, this is a good start.”
An extensive student union system drove the slow mobilization. Quebec's student governments form large coalitions, many of which function off of democratic assemblies—like workers' unions. The unions previously voted to go on strike in 2005, a shorter strike prompted by the conversion of $103 million of government grants into student loans.
(That strike was the origin of the iconic square red patch worn by protesters and supporters—a visual play on the phrase “squarely in the red.”)
This time around, the student unions escalated over the year and a half of non-response from the provincial government. Bonin and his compatriots in CLASSÉ always suspected that, as in 2005, it would come to strikes.
II. #GGI, Grève Générale Illimité (Unlimited General Strike) — Student Strike Twitter Hashtag
Supporters of the action called it a strike; detractors called it a boycott.
The two terms describe similar things, but position the actors very differently: By calling it a strike, the students were asserting their place in the production of society.
“Quebec has a very strong union culture and union history, probably one of the strongest union cultures in North America,” Sheftel said. “Progressives recognized their right to the strike; the government questioned the legitimacy from the get-go, because they said they weren't a real union because they weren't workers.”
A full year of organizing and networking paid off at the first strike vote on Feb. 13. School after school, department after department, other student unions elected to strike, until 250,000 students (and supportive professors) shut down their classes and took to the streets. They faced little resistance at first, and the picket lines grew into mass demonstrations streaming through Montreal.
Toward the end of March, with no response from the provincial government, students began to target centers of the Montreal economy. They threw bricks in the subway tracks, halting the trains; they occupied the port and blocked bridges—anything to disrupt the flow of capital, to place economic pressure on the government. Police crackdowns became more brutal, with pepper spray wafting through the provincial capitol and batons cracking student bones.
“By April, pretty much everyone involved was in unknown territory and we were just making it up as we go on,” Bonin said. Even CLASSÉ was surprised by both the sheer mass of striking students and the government’s refusal to back down. An avowed pessimist, Bonin predicted defeat throughout April. “Every weekend I was like, ‘This is going to end,’ but every week students decided they would continue one more week.”
In late April the government and student representatives met over a negotiating table. The government refused to allow CLASSÉ’s representatives a seat at the table, saying that the group was too radical; other student unions refused to negotiate without CLASSÉ, and the talks dissolved into further protests.
More than 150,000 students were still on strike, and voted against a compromise for a slower tuition increase reached in resumed talks on May 10.
They were in it to stop tuition hikes, completely.
III. “It wasn't just students anymore, it wasn't just activists anymore. It was across the city.”
Quebec’s emergency measure went from proposal to law in two days.
Bill 78, passed on May 18, criminalized marches of more than 50 people unless they’d been pre-approved by Quebec police. It effectively banned picket lines, jacked up fines for disobedience of the law to the tune of several thousands of dollars per violation, and threatened student unions associated with illegal protesting with three years of dissolution. It granted Charest the power to add additional regulations as needed to insure the continuation of classes. And it suspended winter classes at every school with strike activity, a measure that student activists saw as uniquely punitive.
"For the majority of students and the population, it was something that really poured alcohol on the fire," Bonin said. Every protest from May 18 through the summer was illegal. But they broke out in the streets, anyways; on May 22, students, 500,000 labor union members, and supporters flooded Montreal in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
Students began banging pots and pans for 15 minutes every evening, in a protest of their imposed silence. Within a few days, they’d grown into night marches of broad sectors of Quebecois society. Even older people initially disinterested in the student movement found the new bill odious; the government crackdown was so severe that it rallied other citizens against violations of civil liberties.
“It wasn't just students anymore, it wasn't just activists anymore. It was across the city,” Sheftel said. “It's one thing for cops to control one protest, but when there's a dozen protests happening across the city, there's nothing for the cops to do.”
As the protests continued in defiance of the law, the police presence slowly faded—there were a few more incidents here and there of brutality, or mass arrests, but the broad restrictions on speech went mostly unenforced.
“It seemed pretty likely that [Law 78] was unconstitutional,” student activism advocate and CUNY Professor Angus Johnson told Campus Progress. He followed the Quebec protests closely. “Giving students a test case that they could use to shut it down was not something the government was interested in doing.”
The ebbing of repression may have had something to do with the start of an electoral season. Quebec’s government needed to call an election before Spring 2013, and rumors that it would be in the fall prompted opposition parties to take stances on tuition and the student protests.
When the Liberal Party called the election for Sept. 1, the separatist Quebec Party’s Pauline Marois had worn a red square for months.
IV. “I’m reticent toward the word ‘victory.’ ”
Shortly before the election, students voted to suspend the strikes: Not a permanent end, but a brief abatement to allow the election to run its course. Instead the student unions turned to educational efforts, creating a web site with information about the candidates’ positions on education, the environment, and other issues.
On Sept. 4, Premier Jean Charest and his Liberal party narrowly lost to the Quebec Party and Pauline Marois, who included in her platform a rejection of the tuition hikes and Bill 78. At her very first cabinet meeting last month, Marois followed through and announced both a cancellation of the tuition increases and a repeal of Bill 78.
While the students were expecting a cleaner victory, there is little doubt to them that their actions made a difference. Marois and the Quebec Party previously supported cuts to higher education and tuition increases; officially, the party endorses tuition increases tied to inflation.
“The new government is not canceling tuition hikes because they love students or they have the interests of the majority at heart, but they're doing so because they were forced by a popular movement that put pressure on all political parties to take a stance and to assume the consequences of the stance,” Bonin said.
Understanding that they’ve won the battle but not yet the war, students have vowed to keep fighting any and all tuition increases. But they say that the biggest change has been a resurgence of belief in politics, and hope that people can make a better future if they organize and struggle.
“We began talking together,” an unnamed older woman says in a video made by protesters during a June demonstration. “We left our homes and began talking rather than staying in a corner and thinking there’s no point in trying. It’s thanks to the students that we’ve reached this point. Hats off to them! Bravo! I love them!”
Sheftel understands that joy. “I've never taken part in a protest movement like this one, and it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ve certainly never been part of a protest movement that won!”
Quebec students have proven that the privatization zeitgeist is not irresistible. They’ve proven that government can still be held accountable, and that there can be successful political action beyond voting every few years for one pro-austerity candidate or another.
They’ve proven they can win.
V. “We’re beginning to see the first cracks here in the U.S.”
Though there are key differences between the situation in Quebec and the situation in much of the United States, American student activists have kept a close eye on their northern comrades. Both the Student Power Convergence and the National Student Conference featured updates on Quebec; by the end, many American students pinned a red square to their clothes.
Quebec offers not just inspiration but lessons for the growing American student movement.
“We’re beginning to see the first cracks here in the U.S. of this wave of huge ongoing tuition increases,” Angus Johnson said. Johnson has three takeaways for student activists: Form broad coalitions, be bold, and call the government on its mistakes.
“The three major Quebec student unions were not in ideological lockstep w each other and they were not in tactical lockstep with each other,” Johnson said. “They didn’t necessarily agree on every part of the puzzle, but they worked together and made it much, much stronger.” The major principle of CLASSÉ, for example, is to unite the left, rally the center, and dissolute the right—which prevents the radical group from becoming parochial.
“I think the willingness to be rhetorically and tactically audacious was really important as well,” Johnson continued. “They were willing to stand up and say that in a province that already has the lowest tuition in the country, we’re going to stand up and say that the tuition is too high. We’re not going to say, well, we want it to be slightly lower—we’re just going to say no.”
Finally, as the response to Bill 78 demonstrates, the Quebec activists were quick to expose government error. That component, along with connecting the tuition fight to other struggles against privatization, helped to mobilize other citizens against the provincial government.
Anna Sheftel has led her students in discussions of the Quebec strike, quietly hoping that it will inspire them to take action. As student debt mobilizes greater numbers of American students, whose activism has made it a topic of national discussion, Quebec might prove prescient for ascendant student power.
“We didn't reinvent the wheel,” Bonin said. “Students at university are not politically conscious, and they're not in favor of tuition hikes or against it. You have to do the work to convince them to be against it.”
Then he paused in self-reflection. “Coming back to this idea that I was pessimistic … my lesson is that I should never underestimate the power and the will of the people.”
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.