Quebec: Student movement faces challenging months

Huge student march against in Montreal, May 22.

The student movement in Quebec is facing a crucial summer of discussion and organising.

Law 78, which suspended classes at strike-bound institutions in May, directs their resumption in mid-August. The government of Liberal Party Premier Jean Charest is preparing a judicial and police assault against striking students and their associations. It aims to force open school doors and see its proposed 82% university tuition fee hike over seven years prevail.

Some student groups are preparing to campaign against the governing party in a provincial election that could happen as early as September. The forward-thinking sections of the movement are pressing forward a debate throughout the working class on their proposal for a “social strike” to challenge the entire agenda of the government.

Student groups are coming fresh off another successful monthly day of protest on June 22. This fourth consecutive monthly protest drew up to 100,000 people into the streets of Montreal and 4000-5000 in Quebec City.

Challenges

In a speech delivered in June, co-leader of the CLASSE student association Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois outlined the challenges faced by the student strike in the new, Law 78 stage.

He said students “have reached their maximum capacity for mobilisation and disruption”. They have mobilised in unprecedented numbers for four months. At its height, 75% of post-secondary students in the province joined the strike.

Still the government did not back down, he said.

The student and community mobilisations have been important, he said, but do not have enough social and economic weight by themselves to tip the balance. The workers in the factories and offices do have that weight, he said.
But workers and their trade unions cannot be expected to engage in sustained protests, including strikes, for education demands alone. They must, Nadeau0.-Dubois noted, bring their own workplace and societal concerns into the fray.
Nadeau-Dubois appealed to trade unions and the broader working-class movement to join the student struggle and broaden it with their own demands. This is what CLASSE means by its perspective of a “social strike”.
A meeting of CLASSE’s national council on June 17 decided to co-host broad conferences in all the regions of Quebec to discuss and plan a social strike. It will publish a brochure to make the case for a broad, fighting social alliance.

Since re-election in 2008, the Liberal government has trumpeted “user pay” principles for delivery of social services in what it calls a necessary “cultural revolution” in citizen attitudes.

CLASSE estimated there are C$11 billion of spending cuts and higher service fees to social programs contained in the government’s 2012 budget.

It also noted there have been about $10 billion in tax breaks doled out to individuals and corporations by successive governments since 2000.

Debate in the trade unions

There is stiff opposition to the social strike from top union leaders in Quebec. A May 28 letter by Michel Arsenault, president of the FTQ, the largest union federation in the province, is addressed to union leaders across Canada and argues forcefully against the social strike.

Arsenault wrote that the best course for students was to negotiate with the government. His letter was written on the eve of negotiations that failed when the government walked out of talks and turned to police and judicial violence.

CSN federation president Louis Roy has also said his members were not ready for it.

The collapse of negotiations in late May apparently did not prompt any rethink among the union leaders. The three large union federations ― FTQ, CSN, CSQ ― did not announce the June 22 march in Montreal on their websites.

Like the Parti Quebecois (PQ), the main opposition party in Quebec’s National Assembly, union leaders are urging compliance with Law 78. That places them squarely at odds with the huge wave of civil disobedience that has washed over the province against the law following its adoption on May 18.
Nonetheless, there were many union banners and contingents present on the marches. The lead banner on the Quebec City march read: “Let’s join together, students and workers in Quebec.”

Discussion in the unions of such a course will clearly intensify in the weeks ahead. Members of the left-wing Quebec Solidaire (QS) party are part of this discussion.

A key issue will be the defense of student strikers and picket lines when the school year resumes.

Law 78 prohibits any act of public protest of more than 50 people that does not have prior police approval. It outlaws all but token picket lines or other forms of protest at educational institutions.

It sets out harsh penalties against individuals and organisations that participate or counsel participation in so-called “illegal” protests.

Elections

Having failed to date to break the student strike with police riot squads and Law 78, the government has another card up its sleeve ― an election. This is favourable terrain, where the power of money, lies and media misrepresentations weigh strongly.

But there is a major problem for the government with the election card ― namely the proceedings of the commission of inquiry into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.

The commission is looking into the financial links that bind the industry, the municipalities and government ministries that oversee or contract to it, and the two political parties that have governed the province for decades.

The Charest government was obliged to convene the commission after it could no longer keep a lid on public outrage over the brazen illegality and scandalous abuse of public funds that prevail in the industry.

The revelations during the first few weeks of its hearings, to resume in September, have been very damaging. The former head of a government anti-corruption unit, for example, has testified that 70% of the money going into the coffers of the major political parties is done outside the law regulating such financing.

The government has 17 months left in its mandate. But the longer it waits to call an election, the more it will be stained by the commission’s revelations.

Speaking to the media before the June 22 march in Quebec City, Nadeau-Dubois pointed to the commission as a new element in the student protests. He said: “Today’s demonstrations are taking a particular turn because of the information coming out ... staining the Charest government.

“It’s very insulting to students, on strike for more than 100 days, to be asked by the government to ‘do our part’ while hearing news of hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds fattening the pockets of the friends of the Liberal Party that could otherwise finance education.”

An online petition campaign is calling for a united electoral front ― PQ, QS, and Option Nationale. The petition has gathered more than 11,000 signatures.

The only party to stand clearly with the student movement, QS, has resisted such a call, citing the anti-social governing record of the PQ. But last week, the party said it would agree to talks under certain conditions.

A statement by the QS National Coordinating Committee (CCN) set out conditions for an electoral agreement, including a new electoral system of proportional representation, a freeze on tuition fees, the abolition of Law 78 and scrapping of all criminal charges arising from it, and major reform of Quebec’s mining law, which sets out the lowest mining royalty rates in Canada.

It is unlikely that the PQ could agree to these conditions. Many PQ caucus members openly oppose the student strike. Officially, the party is for a one-year moratorium on any tuition hike, during which time talks would take place to set an appropriate rise.

The FEUQ (university) and the FECQ (junior college) student associations say they are gearing up for elections and will target electoral districts where the PQ has the greatest chance of defeating the Liberals. CLASSE, on the other hand, favours defeating the Liberals but says student demands should not be hitched to the electoral fortunes of a party (the PQ) with an education record hardly better than that of the governing party.

Most top union leaders traditionally favour the election of the PQ as a lesser evil to the Liberals. Increasingly, this is also their alternative to the social strike now that any negotiations with the government appear out of the question.

Solidarity across Canada

Solidarity with Quebec students is slowly growing in the rest of Canada. Unions have been providing funding for logistical support and legal defense of the student associations. The national postal workers union penned a letter to its local and regional bodies on May 29 urging such support.

The “pots and pons” community protests that first sprung up in working-class neighbourhoods in Montreal and other cities in Quebec is spreading to cities and towns across Canada.

Hundreds of people turned out for three public forums in Vancouver over June 17-20 on the Quebec student movement.

On June 20, three CLASSE activists spoke to students at Simon Fraser University. One, Xavier Lafrance, explained that historically in Quebec, there have been two broad currents in the student movement.

One has focused on lobbying governments for education improvements. The other, codified in the emergence of the ASSE association in 2001, is militant and activist. It has a social agenda broader than education alone. ASSE activists formed CLASSE as a broader group last year.

Since the start of the student strike, about 10,000 members of the other associations have migrated to join CLASSE, attracted by its more radical social program and grassroots, democratic functioning.

However, the two currents described by Lafrance have grown closer through the recent battles.

The FEUQ is organising general assemblies in the coming period to discuss the social strike proposal. The student associations are calling for the monthly mass protests to continue on July 22 and August 22.

[A longer version of this article was first published at . A leader of CLASSE, Guillaume Legault, will be a feature speaker at  the national conference of the socialist youth organisation Resistancethe national conference of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, in Adelaide, July 20-22. Roger Annis is a social justice activist in Vancouver and retired aerospace worker. His website is .]