The student strike in Quebec has ended, in a rather clear victory. After a seven month-long struggle—the longest of its kind in Quebec history—students have won a cancellation of the proposed tuition hike, a pledge to repeal the infamous Law 78 that had criminalized demonstrations, and the ouster of Premier Jean Charest and his Liberal government.
The strike began officially in February, after the Charest government had announced it would raise tuition by 75 percent over the course of five years. At its height, around 185,000 students were participating, recognizable by the red felt squares they wore to symbolize being “carrément dans le rouge,” or squarely in the red, because of the debt they would have to incur with rising tuition rates. The strike formally ended in early September, with the election of a Parti Quebecois minority government promising to concede to the students' main demands, although smaller actions continue, to ensure the government follows through on its commitments, and to continue the broader fight for free education.
An examination of how the Quebec student strike unfolded yields significant practical lessons for how the working class, including students, can effectively organize itself. Students in Quebec demonstrated that our power lies in our ability to mobilize mass collective action, to disrupt the functioning of the institutions that undermine our interests—and that mobilization must come from bottom-up coordination, rather than effective leadership.
Background and the Quebec Historical Context
Like governments around the world, the Charest government had been pursuing an aggressive program of austerity—one announced even before the 2008 financial crisis. Compared to the rest of Canada or the United States, however, Quebec has been slower to implement neoliberal reform, in part because of a social compact struck during the “Quiet Revolution” the province underwent in the 1970s, during which the Francophone majority demanded greater economic equality with the wealthier Anglophone minority, resulting in a sort of New Deal according to which Quebeckers would receive significantly more social services alongside expanded educational opportunities, among other things.
One result was a freezing of tuition at $540 between 1968 and 1990. It rose significantly in the years that followed, but no increase was as significant as that proposed by the Charest government in 2011–12. Throughout this forty-some-year period, Quebec students often took to the streets—eight times since 1968—and their demands went well beyond stalling increases to the cost of their education. They demanded free tuition, democratic administration of the universities, the expansion of francophone instruction and facilities, an increase in bursaries, and the elimination of more stringent aptitude tests.
The Quebec government's latest proposal to raise tuition forms part of its attempt to achieve a new “cultural revolution,” one that would strip away citizens' expectations of social services. Billions of dollars in spending cuts have been proposed, to be compensated for by implementing “user pay” systems. Naturally, this comes alongside massive tax breaks to the wealthy and to corporations over the past ten years.
These cuts affect the entire working-class population of Quebec, but it was the students in the province who were finally able to mount a counteroffensive to the government's austerity plans. Inspired by the history of student protest in the province, as well as by more recent events worldwide like the Arab Spring (the movement in Quebec even came to be known as the “Printemps Érable,” or maple spring), they organized their resistance.
The Beginnings of the Strike, and How It Was Organized
In March 2011, the Quebec government announced its intention to raise tuition fees from $2,168 to $3,793 over the course of five years, beginning in September 2012. By August 2011, a campaign began in earnest insisting the government repeal that plan. It was organized by ASSÉ (pronounced ah-say), the “Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante” (Association for Student Union Solidarity, or Syndicalist Student Solidarity), a federation that unites various student associations across campuses in Quebec. Already in August, ASSÉ was underwriting its opposition to the hike with the threat of organizing a “grève générale illimitée,” or unlimited general strike, among students across the province. The threat, as we now know, turned out to be a credible one, in part because of the particular theoretical and practical orientation of ASSÉ.
ASSÉ stands alongside two other major student federations in Quebec, the FEUQ (Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec), and the FECQ (Fédération Étudiante Collegiale du Québec). These latter two groups are both politically moderate, having ties to the Parti Québecois (PQ), a populist, nationalist party in the province, as well as various trade unions. ASSÉ, on the other hand, is unaffiliated with any such entities, and has an explicitly anti-capitalist (and feminist, and anti-colonial) stance, which means that it recognizes austerity as an assault on the working class by the capitalist class. When ASSÉ announced its opposition to the tuition hike in August of 2011, spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois flatly stated that “What is hiding behind this increase in tuition fees is an attempt to privatize the educational system in Quebec.”
ASSÉ had been created in 2001 with a decidedly strategic purpose: to learn from the past lessons of Quebec student movements, and determine how best to fight for student interests, against the government, the universities, and whomever else. From these insights it developed a strict position as to how student mobilizations should be organized: bottom-up, using assemblies inclusive of all students, with clear meeting procedure, voting by majority rule. In other words, the reliance would be less on leadership and individual negotiators (as most student unions and trade unions operate), and more on the will of the majority and coordinated mass action.
ASSÉ was able to disseminate this model through the now-famous CLASSE, or the “coalition large” of ASSÉ, an entity organized in December 2011. CLASSE was created to allow department or faculty-level student organizations to affiliate with ASSÉ, even if they were already affiliated with the less radical FEUQ and FECQ. CLASSE met regularly, composed of elected, recallable delegates from each member student group, who voted (according to the mandate assigned by their assembly) upon strategy and strike actions, as well as responses to government offers during the course of the strike. Thus, CLASSE was able to disseminate the model of direct, democratic decision-making by stipulating that its member student associations implement the assembly system, and allow that body to be the supreme decision-making entity concerning the strike and negotiations, even above the local union executive. Effectively, this circumvented the existing student union leadership and bureaucracy and placed all control in the hands of the rank and file of students.
The strike itself officially began in February, with two general assemblies—fine arts students at the Université du Québec à Montreal (UQAM) and sociology graduate students at the Université Laval—voting on the 13th in favour of walking out and doing so the following day. By a few months later, it had grown to approximately 75 percent of the student body. It built momentum by first spreading the strike among more radical departments and faculties, which then encouraged more moderate departments to join. In fact, some departments voted to go on strike but to wait until a certain number of students had also adopted the strike mandate before actually walking out.
Once strike mandates were adopted, they were enforced, in picket lines as acrimonious as those at any workplace. Organizers soon learned that it was more effective and less inflammatory to block professors from entering classrooms—who for the most part were sympathetic—than to block fellow students.
Besides the picket lines, students organized manif-actions, or demonstration-actions, against symbolic political and economic targets. These included the Stock Exchange on February 16, and the offices of the CREPUQ (a Quebec-wide university-governing body) on March 7. CLASSE voted to approve such actions but did not organize them itself, leaving this to independent affinity groups. One of the more heady confrontations between the students and the Charest government came on the weekend of May 4–6 outside of a Liberal Party gathering in Victoriaville, a small town about 100 miles from Montreal—a location chosen to avoid protesters. Provincial police acted with tremendous violence, using tear gas, sound grenades, and even rubber bullets, one of which took out a student's eye.
Government Attempts to Repress the Strike
Police violence was consistent throughout the strike, in fact, part of the government's attempt to break the students through sheer repression. Towards that end, it passed the notorious Bill 78 (later: Law 12) on May 18. The emergency law suspended the semester until August, in the hopes of killing the momentum of the strike. It effectively made the strike illegal by declaring that no one was permitted to interfere with a university's provision of education, and legislated students back to school. Even more significantly, it required any public protest of any more than 50 people to obtain police approval by registering their venue or planned march route with the police 24 hours in advance. The law was made enforceable through draconian fines: $1,000–5,000 for individuals, $7,000–35,000 for student or union leaders, and $25,000–125,000 per day for student or labour organizations (doubling in the case of repeated infractions), which were indeed handed out.
The passage of the law was a serious shot across the bow not only of the student strike, but of student and labour unions in general (it included a provision suspending dues checkoff for unions that violated the law). The difference in their respective responses was very telling. CLASSE (after holding emergency meetings, including waiting for individual assemblies to vote on their own responses) not only refused to comply with the law, but announced as much publicly, meeting the government's offensive with a salvo of its own and putting itself at tremendous risk of fines. The labour unions, however, complied with the new law and counseled others to do the same. In fact, union executives responded to CLASSE's call to expand the student strike into a social strike by circulating an internal memo advising locals not to contribute financial assistance to the strikers, nor to organize solidarity actions in other provinces—all in the name of Quebec's national sovereignty, a card often cynically played by political parties in the province as well (CLASSE remained admirably silent on the issue of national sovereignty, instead declaring that its struggles were one with those of young people everywhere).
The strike did expand, however. The non-student population of Quebec found the passage of Bill 78 so offensive that it began joining students in the streets, in what were called “casseroles” marches.
Residents would leave their homes at eight o'clock in the evening, banging on pots and pans to summon neighbours, eventually gathering into a noisy march through the city centre (the practice originated in Chile in the 1970s, in response to food shortages). One such event, on May 22, involved up to half a million people, prompting some to call it “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.” By then, students had been holding nightly marches for over a month. Involving anywhere from 5,000–25,000 people, they would snake quickly through the downtown area, cheered on by many of the people they passed by, militant but peaceful, despite encountering tear gas, flashbangs and baton charges on the part of the municipal police (the SPVM). The marches were extraordinarily disciplined however, and despite not having marshals, would make decisions (including what direction to take, and how to handle provocations by police) extremely quickly, soberly, and efficiently. The students, and not the police, controlled the streets. Chants were aggressive and creative, criticizing Premier Charest, the police (Police partout, justice nulle part: “police everywhere, justice nowhere”), and Bill 78 (La loi spéciale, on s'en câlice!: “We don't give a fuck about the special law”), and reinforcing the core message that On veut étudier, on ne veut pas s'endetter (“We want to study, not go into debt”).
Negotiations and the Election
With its various tactics, the students had made it clear that it would be impossible for the universities, and the Quebec government, to pursue their strategy of ignoring the strike and conducting “business as usual.” On April 19, after a few months of obstinately refusing to negotiate with students, Education Minister Line Beauchamp invited them to the bargaining table. She attempted to exclude CLASSE on the pretext of the acts of vandalism that had taken place during street protests (arguing feebly that CLASSE had incited them, or at the very least endorsed them). The FEUQ and FECQ, representing their students' express wishes, in turn refused to participate unless CLASSE was included.
The initial government offer was to spread the tuition increases over seven years instead of five, and it was met with contempt by the student population. Negotiations continued, with representatives from the umbrella student associations sometimes bringing offers back to their constituencies for voting, though none was accepted. On May 14, Minister Beauchamp resigned, declaring “I have lost faith that student leaders wish to come to a meaningful conclusion.” She was replaced with Michelle Courchesne, who likewise was unable to convince students to accept a compromise on the matter of a tuition freeze (which was being framed by CLASSE within a larger demand to repeal tuition altogether), the most generous offer coming with an increase in bursaries and the tying of loan repayments to income.
After the semester was suspended, manif-actions continued to be organized, targeting the Grand Prix among other events. With no end to the student crisis in sight, Charest finally announced on August 1 that he would dissolve the Assemblée Nationale and call for an early election, on September 4. Some student associations campaigned on behalf of the Parti Québecois, the more left-leaning Québec Solidaire, or other parties, but CLASSE itself maintained its refusal to affiliate with any political party, declining also to encourage students to vote, instead noting that its interest was in political goals and ideals, including that of free education for all, best achieved through direct action tactics like a strike, rather than at the ballot box.
As the beginning of the new semester neared, students, who had been legislated back to school by Bill 78 (now become Law 12), voted in their assemblies whether to renew the strike mandate. Some chose to return to class, others to stay on strike, and some to revisit the issue once the election results came in. When classes resumed, universities invited riot police into their hallways to enforce Law 12, which had made picketing on university grounds illegal, and an uncanny tableau was painted of students being literally forced into classrooms to learn. UQAM even announced that it would be sending video and photos of striking students to police for prosecution.
As noted, the election resulted in the ouster of Charest's Liberal Party—defeating his expectation that the “silent majority” of Quebecers, wearied by the strike (indeed the students never had a majority of public support for their tuition struggle) would punish the Parti Québecois for having made statements supportive of the students. Instead, the PQ came out ahead in the election, obtaining a plurality, but not majority, of seats in the new provincial Assemblée Nationale, with Charest himself losing his seat to a PQ candidate. PQ leader Pauline Marois immediately announced that her government would drop the planned tuition hike, and repeal Law 12.
Lessons From the Strike
The reaction on the part of students was one of relief and celebration, but not jubilation—after all, this concession was less than the demand for free education. Moreover, having had a taste of how governmental politics works, especially in an era in which austerity is treated as a matter of blind necessity, students seemed to have realized that their struggle will likely never actually be over. Indeed, the Marois government has already declared that it will organize a summit within a few months to address the question of future tuition increases (it would like to tie them to inflation; students oppose this) and the democratic structure of student unions. This indicates that the government understands well how the students were able to consolidate their power and press their demands, and the government will likely be only too eager to undermine the structures of direct, democratic decision-making that CLASSE proliferated. It remains to be seen whether students keep to the strategic lessons taught by the strike.
After all, what was achieved in Quebec came as a direct result of the particular forms of organizing that were deployed. Students were able to force the government's hand, not by working within existing student union channels, but by working around them. Having breezily declared a massive increase in tuition, the government had no intention of negotiating on the matter with the student unions in Quebec, even though the latter legally have some collective bargaining power (albeit with their own universities). Instead, students were able to force the government to the bargaining table, and then force them to repeal the hike, because they successfully disrupted business, from the functioning of the universities, to the city of Montreal, to the government itself.
This model of organizing makes Quebec stand apart from student organizing in both the rest of Canada, and in the United States over the past year. In the rest of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Students (or CFS, the equivalent overarching body to the FECQ / FEUQ / ASSÉ) relies primarily on lobbying politicians and on brief demonstrations and actions, with rather limited success (tuition is on average twice as high elsewhere in Canada than in Quebec). Interestingly, when Ontario students called upon the CFS to bring the strike to their province, some Quebec activists responded with a gentle correction that it could only be brought through popular organizing in the assembly system, not the intervention of the Federation.
Student unions like those in Canada do not exist in the United States, but students in the United States, reinvigorated by Occupy Wall Street, have started organizing in the past year around issues like the accessibility of education and student debt. Thus far, its methods have included non-disruptive peaceful protest, like “days of action” to raise awareness about issues, and more recently the “Free University” organized in New York to coincide with the first anniversary of OWS. But crucially, students in the United States have yet to begin disrupting the functioning of the university or student loan system. Protests at the City University of New York in fall 2011, over a nearly identical tuition hike as that proposed in Quebec, offer an illustrative point of contrast. When the CUNY Board of Trustees met on the proposed hike, it closed the meetings to students, going so far as to cancel classes and lock students out of their own campus. Peaceful protests raged outside for several hours, but the outcome of the meeting was to approve the tuition hike, with no fallout from students afterwards.
Nevertheless, the Quebec student strike did garner the attention of students worldwide, sparking solidarity casseroles marches and the distribution of carrés rouges. It remains to be seen whether students—and, for that matter, workers and community groups—outside of Quebec can learn some practical lessons from the way that strike was organized. To that end, a number of individuals and groups have been writing about Quebec for the past several months, and organizing speaking tours of the organizers involved, and even trainings to disseminate their model. At a time when protests against austerity have been sweeping the globe, the student strike in Quebec stands out as a model for actually effectively resisting that agenda.
For further reading
Translating the printemps érable, a website translating important documents and news stories about the strike into English.
Anarchopanda pour la gratuité scolaire (Anarchopanda for free education), unofficial mascot of the strike.
See also the Twitter hashtag #ggi.
- March 2011: Charest government announces plans to raise tuition
- August 2011: ASSÉ threatens to mobilize a student strike if the tuition hike is not repealed
- December 2011: CLASSE forms
- February 13: First votes to strike
- May 6: Protests at Victoriaville with heavy police violence
- May 14: Education Minister Line Beauchamp resigns
- May 18: Bill 78 is passed, pickets are made illegal, protests are restricted, and the university semester is suspended
- May 22: Massive march against Law 78 on the 100th day of the strike, perhaps the “biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history”
- May 31: Govt pulls out of talks
- August 1: Charest announces an early election, to take place the Monday after Labour Day
- September 4: Election takes place, resulting in a PQ victory
-  Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for CLASSE (see below) claimed in a speech that at its height, the strike had amassed 75 percent of students. ↩
-  “Syndicat” is the ordinary French term for union, so the adjective “syndicale” can be read either as “syndicalist” or “union” here. ASSÉ is an explicitly syndicalist organization, however. ↩
-  «Ce qui se cache derrière la hausse des droits de scolarité, c'est une tentative de privatisation du système d'éducation québécois» http://journalmetro.com/actualites/montreal/35723/lasse-menace-de-declencher-une-greve-generale-illimitee/ ↩
-  A “faculty” in Quebec is like a college or division in the United States—the Faculty of Liberal Arts, for example. ↩
-  Further description of the nuts of bolts of how the strike was organized. ↩
-  An excellent description of this tension. ↩