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Le printemps érable

Jessica Squires

April 24, 2012

Forty-four years ago students in Quebec went on strike for the first time. Inspired by events in Paris that same year, the students demanded student assistance reform, democratic reform of the cégeps giving more control to students, and the establishment of a second French-language university in Montreal.
In 2012, students are in the streets for the ninth time. As we go to press, about 170,000 students remain on strike in Quebec, and some have rejoined the strike, having previously returned to classes, in reaction to the government’s increasingly dismissive and disgusting attempts to divide Quebec society on the issue of tuition fees.
But this strike, now well into its third month with no end in sight, was never just about tuition fees. From the beginning, La CLASSE, a temporary coalition initiated by ASSÉ representing about half of those on strike, has consistently made their struggle about the very future of Quebec itself.
This point was made abundantly clear on April 22 when Earth Day organizers saw more than 300,000 people gather in downtown Montreal—the largest demonstration in Canadian history. The numbers were swelled by the ranks of student strikers and their supporters, as well as workers—including 100 locked out workers from Alma (six hours drive from Montreal), who three weeks prior had their own global day of action that striking students and workers across Quebec, Canada and the world joined. The sea of humanity in the Place des arts was sprinkled with red square badges—the symbol of the strike. The size of the crowd outstripped the 200,000-strong demonstration the strikers organized exactly one month earlier, while at the same time hundreds protested Charest in Gatineau.
Quebeckers have had it with Charest—on education, jobs, natural resources, and the environment. Just as they were in 1968, the students have been influenced by global events including the Arab spring of 2011, the worldwide “Occupy” movement, and student uprisings everywhere from Colombia to the UK.
From the start, they have been met with the brutality of state repression in the form of police riots, tear gas, batons, and mass arrests. They have been militant and consistent. And they have been non-violent, until recently when some have begun to fight back against police. A wave of injunctions requested either by local administrators or by anti-strike students—scabs—following a call by the Minister to reopen institutions and give classes by all means necessary, has led to police occupations of several campuses.
Students have fought back and won against several of these injunctions, both in the courts and through mobilization. In one high-profile example, students, professors and supporters at Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) successfully occupied the university, shutting it down; and then successfully disrupted classes again on a second day. Both events were entirely non-violent, but resulted in mass arrests—161 the first day, and a further 150 the second. The movement succeeded in shutting down the campus for the remainder of that week. On April 23 professors went before a judge to ask for the injunction to be lifted, since police presence on the campus has threatened their health and safety. Some professors were assaulted or arrested while inside the university.
Of course, the most effective responses to the repression have been the insistent demonstrations—over 160 in Montreal alone since mid-February—and the huge turnouts on March 22 and April 22.
In the last strike that took place in 2005, the main student unions, the Féderation étudiante universitaire du Québec (FÉUQ) and the Féderation étudiante collegiale du Québec (FÉCQ), negotiated with the government without the third organization—the most militant and the one that started that strike—Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ)—at the table. They won a great victory, but the cost was high: it took six years to rebuild the movement and a willingness to strike once again to win back what has been lost in the years since, including a $500 tuition increase since 2007.
In recent days, the government has attempted to bring about a repeat of the events of 2005 by inviting FÉUQ and FÉCQ to the table without CLASSE. Government officials blame this on the failure of CLASSE to denounce violence. But to their credit, FÉUQ and FÉCQ have refused to meet without CLASSE also in attendance.
On Earth Day, CLASSE met and debated for hours on end about the tactical situation. In a brilliant move, they called the government’s bluff by issuing a statement clearly against violence against people, and against vandalism aimed at workers—and stating that state violence and intimidation is unacceptable, and that civil disobedience is entirely legitimate; and they did it perfectly. Informed readers will understand the nuances; the state will; and everyone else will say, yes, that is reasonable—because it is.
It remains unclear if the government will now agree to meet with all three student associations. Even if they do, the student groups will insist on debating tuition fees, which Charest has stated is off the table.
Also, in an unprecedented gesture of unity, FEUQ stated they were going to include delegates from CLASSE on their own delegation if the Minister persisted in excluding them.
Through this whole mobilization, Québec solidaire has been supporting the movement in several ways, including the distribution of 30,000 copies of a special newspaper, contingents at several demonstrations and statements by Amir Khadir and Françoise David supporting student demands and arguing that even free education would be an achievable goal. This has not gone unnoticed and could bring a whole new generation of activists into the party.
The union movement has also been active in supporting the students, with the cégep and university unions taking the lead for obvious reasons, but also with statements by leaders and a physical presence at some demos. The student strike is helping radicalize workers, and May Day will likely be the largest in years.
Charest seems determined to end this strike without making any significant concessions by denying the students their right to organize and take collective action. His condescending jokes at the Plan Nord summit on April 20th were a clear indication of his will to not only ignore the movement but to provoke it deliberately.
This approach is only fueling anger and could lead to further confrontations on the campuses and in the streets. An escalation of repression is precisely what caused the transformation of a student mobilization into a national workers strike in the case of France in 1968. This is what the Quebec spring could potentially look like.
But the success of this movement may depend on broader support for the students by workers and unions. It remains to be seen if that support will be forthcoming. Meanwhile a more immediate concern is whether Charest will call an election, trying to capitalize on the polarization he has purposefully sewn among Quebec voters. If he does, he may be in for a rude awakening.

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