Their demonstrations have shaken Quebec in recent months, and on September 20, students and environmentalists won big victories.
At her first news conference as premier, Pauline Marois announced that her Parti Quebecois (PQ) government had cancelled the university tuition fees rise imposed by the previous Jean Charest Liberal government.
The PQ government, which won the September 4 elections, said it would also repeal the repressive provisions of Law 12 (formerly Bill 78). Charest had imposed the law in a bid to smash the province's huge student strike.
Among other things, this will remove the restrictions on public demonstrations and the threat to decertify of student associations.
Also, Marois has ordered the closing of Gentilly-2, Quebec's only nuclear reactor, and promised funding to promote economic diversification to offset resulting job losses.
And she will proceed with her promise to cancel a C$58-million government loan to reopen the Jeffrey mine, Quebec's last asbestos mining operation.
The new natural resources minister, Martine Ouellet, announced an end to shale gas exploration and development in Quebec. “I do not see the day when there will be technologies that will allow their safe development,” she said. Residents of dozens of Quebec communities have been mobilising against shale gas.
As of March, there were 31 wells already drilled, and 18 had been fracked. The shale gas industry, which has spent about $200 million in Quebec, had plans to drill up to 600 wells a year by 2015.
A former president of water protection group Eau Secours!, Ouellet is one of three new ministers with strong environmentalist credentials. The others are environment minister Daniel Breton, a co-founder of the Parti Vert (the Green party), and his deputy Scott McKay, a former Montreal city councillor and one-time Greens leader.
Student leaders were jubilant at the cancellation of the tuition fee rise. “Bravo to the striking students,” tweeted Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the former co-spokesperson for the CLASSE, the most militant of the student groups that led the unprecedented four-month student strike.
“It's a total victory!” said Martine Desjardins, president of the FEUQ, the university students’ federation.
“September 20 will be etched in the annals of history in Quebec,” tweeted the FECQ, the college students’ federation.
The students also welcomed Marois’ announcement that her government would maintain the $39 million boost to financial assistance introduced by the Liberals to offset their tuition rise.
The PQ government is committed to holding a summit on education in the coming months to debate and propose new arrangements for funding higher education in Quebec. Marois says she will be defending her party's proposal to index tuition fee rises, which she says amounts to a freeze on current levels.
CLASSE pledged that it will continue to fight for free tuition, as did the left-wing party Quebec Solidaire, which won two seats in the election.
Marois also announced cancellation of the $200 per person health tax imposed by Charest, which would have brought almost a billion dollars into the government coffers.
The loss of this user fee will be made up by a tax rise on incomes more than $130,000 a year and a 25% cut in the capital gains exemption, she said.
Marois also confirmed her determination to bring in a balanced budget by 2014, which means that these popular decisions will no doubt be followed by major cutbacks in spending in other areas, yet unspecified.
However, it was a good day for the new PQ government. Predictably, it was met by cynical reactions in the capitalist media. Typical were the editors of the Montreal Gazette, who expressed hope on September 21 the right-wing opposition parties would come up with what they described, in a mixture of hope and prediction, as “a persuasive alternative to what might probably be the shambles of PQ governance”. (This was later changed online to “what may likely be”.)
In a more sombre vein, Le Devoir's environment columnist Louis-Gilles Francoeur drew attention to the powerful business interests who will be quick to campaign against even modest efforts that threaten their profits.
“The lobbies that profit from the lack of rules governing wetlands, for example, have already claimed the head of Thomas Mulcair, then Environment minister [Mulciar had been environment minister under Charest and is now federal head of the social democratic New Democratic Party].
“The review of [Charest's] Plan Nord and the changes that will be made by minister Ouellet – to whom we owe some caustic analyses of the proposed overhaul of the Mining Act – will no doubt provoke a groundswell of protest from the major investors... for whom the green economy is still an irritant and not a potential.
“Then we will see whether minister Breton took his dreams for reality when he declared that the greens were now in power ...”