Quebec's long-running student strike is set to resume at the start of the new semester on August 17. Students from universities and colleges are seeking to force the government to stop its plan to raise fees.
The student movement has turned politics in Quebec on its head, challenging not only the fee hike but the status quo of neoliberal politics. It has called into question the existence of fees and raised the idea of free education as a right.
Student Andrew Knowles said at TheSpec.com on June 22: “To those who would say youth are lazy, that we want something for nothing, and that the Quebec students should be satisfied with their low tuition fees, think about the issues facing us: high unemployment, high student debt, living longer at home, unaffordable housing, low incomes, etc.”
The movement has maintained its strength despite several large obstacles. These include repression from authorities in the form of the anti-protest Bill 78, which imposes harsh penalties on anyone taking part in or advocating protest actions related to the strike.
The mainstream media has also attacked the movement, smearing the students as spoilt “rioters” who pay the lowest fees in Canada.
The movement will also likely face a new obstacle in the form of an election campaign. Embattled Quebec Premier Jean Charest is tipped to call an early election for September.
Reuters said on July 11 that September 4 was the most likely date, with Charest looking to avoid scrutiny by holding the campaign in the summer holiday period.
“Maybe Mr. Charest is saying (his) risk of losing will never be lower,” Christian Bourque of polling firm Leger Marketing told Reuters.
Election periods typically see a narrowing of media focus onto the major contenders, leaving alternative voices on the sideline. These contenders ― the Liberal Party and Parti Quebecois ― both agree that fee rises should take place in some form.
The early election is a response to the wave of protest against the government, as well as an attempt to shelter the ruling Liberal Party from the damaging findings of an inquest into corruption in Quebec.
The taskforce found laundered money from organised crime groups was financing political parties, including the Liberals, Reuters said.
The chief investigator of a taskforce looking at the construction industry was forced to leak his report to the media after then transport minister Sam Hamad appeared uninterested when shown the findings last year, Nationalpost.com said on June 14.
Investigator Jacques Duchesneau told the inquiry: “I began my presentation only to notice at a certain point that he was not even listening.”
Thestar.com said on June 20 that the inquiry detailed claims of collusion by companies to destroy competitors, fraudulent gouging of government contracts and underfunding government departments ― ensuring proper checks could not occur and leading to high turnover of workers between government departments and private firms.
The election also has the potential to divert the activity of sections of the student movement. Martine Desjardins, the president of the FEUQ student coalition, told Postmedia News on July 5 that her group and the FECQ student coalition would focus on defeating Liberal Party candidates above building the student strike.
The FEUQ and FECQ have so far maintained a united front with the more radical CLASSE coalition. CLASSE is the largest student group and was key in pushing the movement in a militant direction.
CLASSE is working to spread the movement beyond Quebec, holding a tour of Ontario universities that began on July 12.
“We are optimistic that a general student strike in Ontario can and will succeed, given the right ingredients,” an open letter from Quebec activists said. The letter said this was “a first step towards creating a radical, democratic strike movement in Ontario and beyond”.
CLASSE is also considering tours of other provinces.
Leading member of CLASSE Guillaume Legault ― who will visit Australia on a speaking tour later this month ― told the US Socialist Worker on June 4: “We have over 160,000 people who are on general strike for various reasons.
“From them, more than 100,000 are striking for more radical demands. Some are on strike until we get a reasonable offer from the government; others until we get back the 2007 level of tuition; still others until we get free tuition; and there is even one campus that recently voted to be on strike until the social revolution, even though this is not part of CLASSE platform.
“These 100,000 people are not coming off the strike until we get a reasonable offer at least on tuition fees.
“Until now, we didn't have a single offer from the government on tuition fees. This is astonishing, because right now, they've lost way more money than they would have gotten from the tuition hike.
“They have not even finished counting how much this strike is going to cost them. This truly shows the political and ideological objectives behind the tuition hike.”
Even though the outcome is still undecided, the movement has changed the shape of Quebecois politics and shown the potential of mass movements in Western countries. Legault told Socialist Worker: “I'm proud to say we're one of the major movements in North America at the moment.
“We never thought it could happen here. But people see what's going on throughout the world, what happened in the Middle East, and what's happened in the Occupy movement.
“All of these actions opened everyone's minds about the problems with our economies, all the absurd financial speculation, and how much we live in a false world, with false things and false debates. In this system, our future is gambled on the roll of dice.
“We can consider ourselves in the same global struggle, even if they are affected dramatically worse than we are here, and the fight is not on the same scale, too ... However, we are pleased to consider the actual mobilisation the start of something that could somehow grow bigger.”
[CLASSE leader Guillaume Legault will be a featured speaker at the national conference of Resistance, socialist youth organisation, in Adelaide on July 20-22.]