Quebec: Thousands march for social justice, against capitalism

Huge protest against attacks on students and civil liberties, Montreal, August 22.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to Montreal's streets on August 22 for the monthly protest march of Quebec's student movement.

The movement has organised big marches on the 22nd of each month since March of this year.

The march was an impressive display of militancy and determination just 12 days before the September 4 provincial election. Some members of the radical Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity (CLASSE) student association said that 100,000 people took part.

A “professional counter” employed by the state broadcasting network Radio Canada gave a figure of just 12,500. The broadcaster has routinely downplayed or not reported the size of past marches.

To this writer's “unprofessional” eye, the march exceeded 50,000. It wound its way through downtown Montreal for two hours. On any straight stretch of roadway, one quite long, only a fraction of the march was visible.

The march was called by CLASSE and the Coalition Against the Privatisation and Tarification of Public Services. It was co-sponsored or supported by the FEUQ and FECQ student associations, political parties, several trade unions and the pro-student community organisations that have mushroomed in neighbourhoods throughout the city and province in recent months.

Quebec's students have been fighting a proposed hike to tuition fees for months. A huge student strike was organised, to which the government responded with the draconian Bill 78 — that severely restricts the right to protest in the province.

Trains and buses full of students poured into the city for the action from the city of Sherbrooke and other urban centres around Montreal.

CLASSE said about 90,000 junior college (CEGEP) students went on strike for the day in Montreal. The Montreal daily La Presse reported 10 CEGEPs were shut down.

At CEGEP Bois-de-Boulogne, early morning pickets by students and community supporters frustrated the effort of college administrators to keep the institution open for the day.

Striking CEGEP students whose school year was suspended by Bill 78 in May, and was to resume on varying dates this month, have voted during the past several weeks to suspend their strike. They are awaiting the outcome of the provincial election on September 4 before deciding if the strike will resume.

Limited election polls in the past week suggest that the governing Liberals are headed for defeat, but it is too early yet to make any definitive predictions.

There was a mood of cautious optimism throughout the march that an incoming Parti Quebecois government would have no choice but to carry out its promise to repeal Law 12 (as Bill 78 is known after it became law) and postpone any tuition fee hike.

On the march, banners, placards and red-colored squares in all shapes and sizes voiced the key issues of the student movement — no hike in university tuition fees and repeal of the anti-democratic Bill 78/Law 12.

Some placards called for amnesty for the more than 3000 people who face civil or criminal charges for taking part in student protests since the outset of the strike.

The march also contained many broad, anti-capitalist themes. The lead banner read: “Broad mobilisation against neo-liberalism”.

Speeches at the beginning of the march, in the centre of Montreal's business district, voiced strong defence of social programs and opposition to attacks on them by the Liberal Party government. Speakers included representatives of the Quebec Federation of Nurses and the Federation of Quebec Women.

At the end of the march, in the historic district along the city's riverfront, speeches by student activists were stridently anti-capitalist and hailed class struggle as a motor force of progressive social change. The assembled crowd there numbered in the thousands.

Small numbers of union banners were present on the march. They included the nurses federation and several post-secondary education unions affiliated to the Confederation of National Trade Unions.

There were few or no union banners from the FTQ federation and its affiliates, nor from the CSQ, the largest teachers federation in the province.

Leaders of these and other union federations have said that they won't take part in pro-student marches that risk being declared “illegal” by the police under Law 12.

Organisers of this march disobeyed Law 12 by refusing to seek police permission to stage it. One arrest was reported.

Political parties joined the march. By far the largest contingent was that of the left-wing party Quebec Solidaire. Hundreds of its members, including many of its candidates in the present election, marched together.

Scores of placards of the party, sporting its election theme, “Stand up!”, were scattered throughout the march.

A contingent of members of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) from the neighbouring US state of Vermont and further afield joined the march with a banner reading: “Solidarity with Quebec students.”

In recent months, the ISO has helped bring representatives of CLASSE to speak to students across the US. More such speaking tours are planned. Speaking tours of Quebec student leaders in English speaking Canada are planned for the coming months.

CLASSE says it is engaged in a long-term battle for free and quality education, health and other vital social services. It wants a government that has social justice and protection and enhancement of the natural environment as its watchword.

As its name states, CLASSE wants to forge unity of students, workers, Indigenous peoples and others in this fight.

CLASSE spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds told assembled media at the beginning of the August 22 march: “Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, we will continue to mobilise and we must continue to question where we are headed as a society.

“We must continue to talk of education because even if this present tuition hike is withdrawn, all the threats of the commercialisation of education will still be there.

“September 4 [the date of the Quebec election] is less important than September 5. From that date, we will continue to fight as we have done for the past six months until our ultimate victory.”

[Reprinted from]