MONTREAL, Quebec — Psst! The secret is out: We fought the law and we won.
Quebec’s five-month student strike against college and university tuition hikes has ended in victory. Coming on the heels of the Arab Spring, the European revolts against disastrous austerity policies and the Occupy movement, Quebec students in three province-wide associations struck, hung tough and refused to back down against the repressive Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition 75 percent (or $1,625) over five years — winning a major battle against neoliberalism that was all but ignored by the U.S. media.
Over the last four decades, Quebec students have collectively struck against tuition hikes and cuts to loans and grants, but this strike was by far the most ferocious, drawing battle lines between the corporate state and the general population. But students didn’t risk their school year just to save money — this was a communal revolt of values and passion, built on a solid foundation of mass province-wide democratic associations and a culture of militancy.
In Quebec, most colleges and universities are public. Before the strike, Quebec graduate students’ tuition averaged $2,624, less than the average $3,000 tuition for community college in the United States. For example, Dawson Community College in Montana costs $3,006 a year in tuition and fees — 15 to 30 times as much as Dawson College in Montreal, which charges between $100 and $200 for students to attend.
Also, what Americans may find very different, is that the students did not look to the political parties for salvation — nor did they organize behind any party after having forced a provincial election. Instead, they made the parties respond to them.
Nicknamed Printemps Erable, or Maple Spring, the strike sparked a great deal of criticism. Although most Canadians support their universal free healthcare, many think that students should pay for education. Detractors called the students les enfants-rois, or child-kings (a reference to the spoiled young Louis XIV).
The students who participated in the strike paid a heavy price. Many were beaten by police; more suffered academic consequences. More than 200,000 students maintained the strike for five months, with 3,387 arrested (including the author of this piece) and hundreds injured — some seriously — by plastic bullets and batons.
There were more than 100 night-time demonstrations, including theatrical, aerobic and nearly naked protests with thousands of participants, and usually another three or four daily demonstrations or direct actions, like blocking bridges, schools and streets.
The strategy of the students was simple: organize, hold general assemblies, strike, take it to the streets and resist the corporate state. Many thousands who were not students joined in. After the government made student demonstrations illegal on May 18, they morphed overnight into noisy street protests, with people banging on pots and pans. It truly felt like the neighborhood was out in the streets breaking the law.
Since most of the demonstrations were declared illegal, they were some of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the history of North America: three involved as many as 300,000 protesters. Quebec spent about $200 million repressing the protests and suspending and adjusting the school schedule, which is more than the government would have recouped from any tuition increase.
The students and then the citizenry, wearing their carrés rouges (red squares), forced the Liberal government into a stalemate. The government finally called an election, in which the Liberals suffered a major defeat. The Quebec nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ), which supported the students’ demand for a moratorium on the tuition hike, won a minority government.
Immediately after the PQ took over in mid-September, it announced a tuition freeze, rescinded most of the anti–student strike Law 12 (formerly Bill 78), ended Quebec’s support for shale gas fracking and pledged to shut down Quebec’s only nuclear power plant. These measures are popular, but the movement must maintain pressure to ensure that the PQ follows through: during its last period in power from 1994 to 2003, it attacked the nurses union and attempted to raise tuition by 30 percent. The PQ is a neoliberal party that, like the Democrats, absorbs many union members and progressive Quebecois nationalists into its ranks and maintains a thinly disguised antipathy to Muslims and non-French-speaking immigrants.
The strike was composed almost entirely of French-speaking students, many of whom saw this as a battle for the future of “their Quebec.” Race, nationalism and ethnicity loom large in Quebec’s political movements and often contribute to divisions within them. Though most of Quebec’s “ethnic communities” and immigrants are French-speaking and educated in French, they were not well represented in the strike. This is due at least in part to systemic racial divisions. Most strikers were liberal arts students, not those in the engineering, science and business programs favored by immigrants.
Political divisions in the student movement remain as well. The Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), which organized half of the strikers and mobilized most of the direct actions, wants free tuition as a goal. They have been supportive of other progressive demands, recognizing the colonial occupation of native lands and opposing “Plan Nord,” the anti-indigenous state-sponsored plan for development of north Quebec by mining and development corporations.
While the unions were financially supportive of the striking student associations, they didn’t mobilize their members, which was a major disappointment. Had they done so, their broader working-class demands are something the movement might be striving for now, instead of getting distracted by competing capitalist parties.
It is too early to say what this all means. The students who struck are tired, but elated. They won all of their “realistic” demands. Quebec is one of only three provinces to see no tuition increases in the last few years. What appeared at first to be a single-issue strike against tuition hikes provided important inspiration and lessons about defeating neoliberalism.
Quebec’s successful student strike shows that there is no substitute for building sustainable, democratic and progressive mass organizations like those started by Quebec students decades ago. Those students are now the parents of today’s strikers, and they are impressed and gratified to see that their organizing efforts have paid off.
Students and their families across North America are being forced to pay skyrocketing tuition as governments attempt to abandon their support for education; meanwhile, private schools cherry-pick students from wealthy families. Many will have to decide whether higher education is worth the debt. Quebec’s difficult lesson is clear: building and supporting large organizations that mobilize a critical mass of students, parents and teachers is the only model that can successfully make education affordable.