MONTREAL—The Quebec student movement had been on strike against proposed tuition increases for more than three months when the provincial government of Jean Charest did it an unexpected favor. On May 18, Charest’s government passed a new, draconian anti-protest law — Law 78 — a direct attack on the freedom of assembly and the right to protest. The vaguely worded “special law” not only bans unpermitted marches or any unauthorized gathering of more than 50 people, but also threatens to levy enormous fines against organizers, unions and potentially anyone who participates in an unpermitted assembly.
On May 22, the students and their supporters responded — an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 students, workers and supporters took to the streets of Montreal (without permission) to protest the tuition hikes and the passage of Law 78. Nightly marches grew steadily larger as more people saw the struggle expanding from the single issue of university tuition to a broader one that includes the right to protest and the suppression of dissent.
The mainstream media in the United States have hardly noticed the Quebec student strike, despite it being one of the longest and largest in the history of North America with as many as 300,000 students at more than a dozen colleges joining at its peak. Those of us who have been following the movement have been amazed by the sheer numbers that these mass demonstrations have mobilized, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets on major days of action. What is less known, but equally important, is that every single night since April there have been marches of several thousand protesters. These high-energy marches snake their way across the eastern side of Montreal for hours, through residential and commercial neighborhoods. People in bars, restaurants and apartment windows shout back, wave flags, chant with the protesters and cheer them on, even banging their pots and pans, a reference to the Latin American tradition of cacerolazo protests.
‘Squarely in the Red’
The red squares that symbolize the student strike are omnipresent: pinned in the hair of a girl on the metro, worn as earrings by another, attached to a baby carriage, or duct-taped on backpacks, shoes, bike helmets and cell phones. But most of all the small, red felt squares are safety-pinned to people’s jackets or shirts, a visible expression of the crushing student-loan debt that Canadian students face — on average, $27,000, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. They’re derived from to the expression “carrément dans la rouge,” literally translated as “squarely in the red.” They are everyday reminders of the increased burden of debt that will come with increased tuition.
When we express astonishment that one of the largest universities in Canada, the Montreal University, has been forced to cancel classes and end its semester early because of the strike, and when we are amazed at the prevalence of red squares, people simply say, “Yes, but we have been working for two years to get here.” And it is true. The tuition hikes have been on the table since 2010, when Quebec’s tuition freeze ended. In March 2011, Quebec announced its plan to raise tuition by $325 a year over five years. In response to this, protesters occupied the finance minister’s office.
When we ask how, over that time, so many students have been mobilized and politicized, the answer is both simple and complex. As student organizer Myriam Zaidi said, “We’ve been standing on corners handing out leaflets and having conversations with people about this for years. Just opening up that space of conversation has been hugely important. This didn’t happen overnight.” These basic forms of disseminating information and fostering debate about the tuition hikes have been pivotal in mobilizing massive on-the-ground support behind the call for a strike.
But the source of the movement’s dynamism also lies in the organizing structure and history of student unions at universities in Quebec. Organized at many levels — from province-wide down to individual academic departments — these unions provide a way for students to organize politically, granting them both legitimacy and power. Longer-term mobilizing strategies include campaigns to build strike votes at general membership meetings, carefully navigated negotiations with governments and university administrations, and coalition-building between the various unions. These have been pivotal in securing a unified front during the current strike. This round of protests is only the most recent expression of a much longer history of radical student unionism in Quebec, dating back to the 1960s.
Solidarity in Action
Thanks to this deep organizing, student unions at the Montreal University began with a very strong base of support when they called for a strike on Feb. 14. Picket lines were organized in front of classrooms, and efforts to shut down the university required constant organizing and action. As one student activist told us, “In those first few weeks, it was very tedious. We knew the class schedule, and we would stand outside the classrooms with signs.… Many students would know this was going on and just stay home.… One conservative history professor charged the picket line once.”
The university didn’t take these actions lightly. In March, fed up with the picket lines and the strike, the university hired a notorious strike-breaking security firm. Armed guards patrolled its hallways, interrogating people about why they weren’t in class, stopping professors and students alike to bully and harass them. This, however, only lasted a few days until widespread outrage from faculty of all political leanings forced the administration to withdraw the guards. Unbroken, the strike continues to the present, and now the provincial government has called for an early end to the semester in yet another attempt to break the strike.
There are varying levels of support at different universities and in different parts of this province of 8 million people. At the English-speaking, elite McGill University, support has not been as widespread, and an attempted student strike there has not been successful (despite an occupation of the administrative offices there in the winter). In some ways, this is emblematic of historic divisions between the French-speaking and English-speaking communities in Montreal and Quebec, and how these divisions also fray along class lines. Occasionally this has meant that the protests have a nationalistic flavor to them, with people carrying the Quebec flag and chanting things like: “A qui le Québec? A nous le Québec!” (Whose Quebec? Our Quebec!)
These nationalist undertones have been increasingly contested by student organizers of color who have been actively working to articulate an antiracist and anticolonial analysis within the movement, while also combating the false view that the movement is dominated by white students. These efforts are increasingly successful, as shown by the creation of the students-of-color and antiracist coalitions that had a presence at the May 22 march.
During these marches, or while we banged pots on street corners with our Montreal comrades, the question often on our minds was how we as students in New York City can stand in solidarity with them. The first answer, of course, is to build our own movement and to build it in explicit connection with the one happening here in Montreal. We too are facing tuition hikes at public schools from New York to California. We too are met with repression and violence when we express dissent. And, fundamentally, the core issues at stake here are the same ones that students and workers around the world are facing right now: the implementation of austerity measures and the increasing privatization of education. What was once a common good is being intentionally transformed into an elite commodity available to only those who can afford it.
When we marched in Montreal, it was with the knowledge that hundreds of our Occupy Wall Street comrades in New York were marching in solidarity with us. Occupy Wall Street itself grew out of solidarity with the Tunisian, Egyptian, Spanish and Greek uprisings, after people began asking themselves, “How do we do that here?” Our generation of students in the United States has yet to mobilize on a mass scale, but after watching what’s happening in Quebec, perhaps that will change.
Zoltán Glück and Manissa McCleave Maharawal are both doctoral students in anthropology and student organizers at the CUNY Graduate Center. This report is adapted from an article that appeared at wagingnonviolence.org.