When the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) announced that it would be breaking ranks with its more moderate colleagues in the student federations and boycotting the new government's education summit, it was clear that they were taking a huge risk.
When they called a mass demonstration for the last day of the education summit and publicly announced that it would be the largest demonstration since the end of last year's unlimited general strike, and that they expected in the neighborhood of 10,000 students to show up, they were doubling down with reckless abandon.
When such radical stalwarts as CEGEP de Vieux-Montreal voted against going on a one-day strike to join Tuesday's demo, and the term "strike fatigue" began to enter the popular vernacular, it looked like ASSE's all-in gambit might prove disastrous.
If the turnout was disappointing, it would embolden the government to run roughshod over Quebec students without fear that they might return to the streets. It would seriously damage the credibility of the ASSE, and empower the federations and their strategy of participating in the summit and using that forum to push for a tuition freeze.
You can be certain that many a fingernail was chewed raw in ASSE offices as the Facebook RSVP list stalled just shy of 5,000 and a relatively scant 46,000 students voted for a one-day strike.
As it turned out, they needn't have worried. As ASSE spokesperson Jérémie Bédard-Wien told Rabble.ca:
We counted until we got over 9,000, and we stopped counting. There were definitely more than 10,000 there today, which is actually more than one-fifth of the students on strike. It was a very impressive turnout. Honestly, we didn't expect so many people to show up.
I think it sends a strong message. The PQ government is still pretending that indexation will calm students, while over 10,000 are marching in the streets for free education and against the PQ tuition hike. That they ended the summit early to prevent it being disrupted by the demonstration is a testament to its impact.
During last year's extended student strike, crowd estimates became a contentious issue, but here, there was some rare unanimity, with the CBC estimating the crowd at 10,000 and other outlets using that figure or the more general "thousands." I personally was estimating around 8,000 on Twitter, but who am I to argue with such rare consensus?
The turnout may have been aided by the announcement earlier in the day that the much ballyhooed Parti Québécois education summit had ended with the PQ deciding to increase tuition at a rate of 3 percent annually. This increase will amount to roughly $70 in year one and progressively more each year thereafter. Unlike the Liberal tuition hike, which triggered the Maple Spring, this increase will have no end date and will mean permanent tuition increases for Quebec students.
There was a clear mood of anger and betrayal among the crowd, as mentions of the PQ's record of broken promises were repeated like a broken record. Students complained bitterly that the government had promised all options would be on the table at the summit, but ultimately considered only three variations of indexation.
Many students also expressed disbelief that Education Minister Pierre Duchesne could state publicly that the medium- to long-term goal of a PQ government is to enact free education, and yet endorse a permanent tuition hike which amounts to moving in the opposite direction. Little wonder then that the familiar orange of Québec Solidaire signs dotted the crowd.
As Bédard-Wien said:
The PQ will no longer be able to tell the 10,000 who took to the streets today that they are the party of conciliation and dialogue. People here today understand that the PQ is in fact very similar to the PLQ (Liberal Party of Quebec). They are trying to award inaction, and are following the same vision of education as the PLQ, the same vision of democracy as the PLQ and are violently repressing political expression, just as the PLQ did.
Today, there was a clear attempt to make the demonstration appear violent and radical, which was not the case, and I think this is a prime example of the PQ's fear. Our students did nothing more than throw a few snowballs at the police, and the response was brutal and disproportionate. People in wheelchairs were being chased by horses. There were sound grenades, tear gas and intense repression, none of it called for. We have never seen such a large demonstration repressed so seriously.
The demonstration was declared illegal before it even left its starting point at Square Victoria under municipal bylaw P-6, for failing to disclose its route. Despite the PQ having repealed the contentious and questionably constitutional Bill 78/Law 12 after its election victory, its draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly live on, under the radar, in the carbon-copy bylaw.
There was a strong police presence as the march wound its way through the downtown core, and intermittent snowballs began to be thrown in the direction of riot police lining the side of the street as it headed up into the Plateau neighborhood of Montreal.
As the march hit the corner of Berri and Cherrier, mere blocks from its end point at the ground zero of last year's protests, Place Émilie-Gamelin, the Montreal police and provincial SQ engaged in what they would later describe as a joint crowd dispersal exercise.
From where I was standing, it looked more like a series of violent charges at protesters, in which shields and batons were swung liberally and protesters fled in panic. Swept up in a surge of protesters retreating to St. Denis, we found ourselves blocked off by police, who fired tear gas and then charged, causing a stampede down Carré Saint-Louis.
The crowd around me was blocked off and the police lines caught up, proceeding to use their shields as weapons against the unfortunate protesters caught between the mass of people ahead and the police lines behind. I was forced up the stairs of an apartment building to avoid being assaulted by the advancing police line, and watched many protesters who were not so lucky get hit repeatedly.
After this incident, the protest splintered into a number of smaller marches, with most heading south to Place Émilie-Gamelin. One small group of about 500 was driven north by police charges, tear gas and sound grenades, and by all accounts, should have dispersed in the face of such repression.
Instead, they remained together, looped around and came proudly marching down St. Denis, chanting at the top of their lungs, their resiliency a testament to the strength and conviction of this generation of newly empowered Quebec students.
In the end, ASSE were the clear winner on this day, proving that they retain the ability to mobilize massive numbers of students and will not hesitate to do so as they fight for their agenda.
It was a bad day for the PQ government, which continues to be its own worst enemy, but the real losers were student federations FECQ and FEUQ. The federations, who have a reputation for being exceedingly close to the PQ, put all their eggs in the basket of the summit and bet the farm that they could use their influence to achieve their goal of a tuition freeze.
Given the paltry amount of money raised by indexation, it was a reasonable bet. The federations even held a joint press conference with the youth wing of the PQ on the eve of the summit to call for a freeze. This very public demonstration of their inability to negotiate gains for their students, coupled with an emphatic show of force by ASSE are a nightmare scenario for federations beset by disaffiliation campaigns and increasingly marginalized by the successes of their more radical competitor.
Despite the strong turnout, thoughts of a second Maple Spring are very much premature, as even the ASSE suggest that a return to an unlimited general strike is unlikely. However, the PQ is learning the hard way that students retain the ability to embarrass governments and shut down Montreal at will–and will do both without hesitation in their fight against this new tuition hike.