Lazar Konforti

A conflict between students and the government over a tuition increase has exploded into social revolt. Montreal, Quebec’s metropolis, is covered in red squares, the symbol of the striking students, which can be seen pinned lapels, draped over balconies, or glued to windows and public signs. Spontaneous night-time protests snake through city streets daily since April 24th. Every day at 8-o’clock neighbours gather on street corners to bang pots and pans in unison before taking to the streets and, using social media, meeting up with other pot-banging marchers to form a cacophonic orchestra of thousands.

Such scenes are very unusual in Canada. Even in Quebec, the country’s only officially francophone province, with its history of strong labour unions and militant student organizing, these events represent a sea change on the provincial political scene… Ostensibly, this is a student strike over post-secondary tuition increases, declared in February. Four months later, residents of Quebec live under an emergency anti-protest law and are committing acts of mass civil disobedience daily – and no one really wants to stop until the government falls.

“Stop the hike!”

The Liberal Party of Premier Jean Charest was elected to form provincial government in 2003[1].  The Charest government has since been doing its best to turn Quebec’s modest social-democratic system into a neoliberal paradise. The Liberals have been making slow but steady cuts to Quebec’s welfare state, reducing taxes on the rich, and investing money in extractive industries instead. Finance minister Raymond Bachand once called it a “cultural revolution”, underlining what a monumental feat it would be to take Quebec society closer to the American model instead of the European-style welfare state that the last two generations of Quebeckers fought for.

The tuition hike that sparked the current unrest was in fact the third attempt at cutting from education. Emboldened by a victory against students which saw tuition rise by a modest 20% in 2007, the Charest government announced last year an additional 75% hike starting in September 2012 – bringing the total rise in tuition fees since 2007 to 127%. Higher education was already at the limits of affordability and the latest hike would force many students to either take out loans or drop out of school, effectively taking Quebec closer to the rest of Canada and the US where higher education is financed through private debt. This time, neither of Quebec’s three major student federations would take it lying down.

For almost a year, the Charest government refused to even meet with the student federations to discuss the tuition issue, leaving them no choice but to call for a strike in early 2012. At the time of writing, local student unions representing an estimated 150,000 students[2] have voted to go on strike while many other student unions held symbolic one-day or one-week strikes or simply expressing support, stopping short of going on strike themselves.

The government’s initial response was simply to keep avoiding dialogue. Students belonging to the Youth Wing of the governing Liberal Party filed court injunctions to force classes to resume (unlike labour unions, student unions in Canada are protected neither by the right to strike nor by anti-scab laws). Police used tear gas, sound grenades, and rubber bullets to suppress protests on the streets and break up picket lines on campuses. The government also began a public relations offensive portraying the students as lazy, spoiled “little emperors”, irresponsible, unreasonable, and violent. The discourse was parroted by the mainstream media, the vast majority of which controlled by two corporations, both of which are owned by right-leaning moguls.

Movement resilience and widening the debate

The government’s offensive however failed to break the students. Student unions, particularly those which form the more radical federation of unions called CLASSE, had embarked on a year-long popular education campaign on campuses since finding out about the hike in early 2011. They had consolidated a strong Leftist base of student support. Of the four provincial-level student federations, CLASSE has succeeded in mobilising far more of its membership. It is estimated that 70% of striking students belong to CLASSE, which gives them extra clout in negotiations with the government relative to its more moderate counterparts. CLASSE was actually formed in response to the perceived cooptation of the other student federations. Unlike its counterparts, CLASSE’s organisational structure is based on participatory democracy, realised through a series of General Assemblies at every level, from local departmental associations to the province-wide federation.

 As the strike went on, it became clear that the government was turning the dispute into an all-or-nothing fight. In General Assemblies and on the streets, began to discuss not only tuition and the strike but wider grievances as well. The discourse that began to emerge out of the student movement was that the government’s policies, not just on tuition but on all fronts, were a direct transfer of money from public services into the private coffers of certain industries and the financial interests that support them.

Students were by no means the only ones to formulate such a critique. However, they were now uniquely posed to take this discussion to the next level. This could turn out to be the great coup of the student movement. When the conflict exploded into wider social unrest in May, it was not only Charest who came under fire but the entire vision of a neoliberal, federalist Canada and Quebec’s place within it.

Turning points

The Charest government was already unpopular for a number of reasons: corruption and involvement with organized crime, a revolving door between government officials and the extractive and energy industries, a back-door attempt to sabotage environmental assessment and public consultation over its plan to exploit shale gas, a very contentions plan to develop northern Quebec, etc.[3]  As many pundits pointed out in retrospect, the government’s uncompromising approach to the student conflict was an electoral gamble. In escalating the dispute over tuition into a full-on conflict with students in the streets and in the courts, all the while portraying its opponents as lazy, irrational, and violent, the government would emerge as the responsible protector of economic stability and, most of all, law and order – thus cleaning up its reputation just in time for the next election, which must be called sometime in the following year.

And then, in a rapid series of events, everything changed. A conference on the government’s already controversial Plan Nord, which would see $80bn of public money go to mining and logging companies, was disrupted by students on April 21st and violently repressed by the police. The media coverage of the Plan Nord conference was such that no one could ignore the contradiction between cutting social services in the name of austerity and the corporate largesse of the Plan Nord. Inside the conference hall, speaking to industry executives, Charest made arrogant and condescending jokes about the students. His comments, when contrasted with the tear gas, sound grenades, and rubber bullets that flew outside, were replayed countless times on TV and radio and became a major political gaffe. The police repression witnessed by all outside the conference hall also exposed to the mainstream media how violently the state was willing to act in order to protect its vision of corporate welfare over social welfare.

That weekend public opinion began to turn against the government. Perhaps sensing this, the government finally sat down with the students only to expel the radical CLASSE federation from the negotiating table within less than 24 hours, citing unrest at a CLASSE-organised protest as a pretext. As news of the CLASSE’s expulsion spread on social media that evening, a spontaneous protest broke out in Montreal. The protest was violently suppressed by police in the end, but students vowed to return “every night, until victory.” That day was April 24th. At the time of writing, we are preparing for a 39th night of protest.

With each passing night of protest and suppression, public opinion only sided more and more with the students. By May 14th, the education minister resigned, feeling she could no longer resolve the crisis. The resignation was seen as relatively inconsequential, with many pundits even accusing Charest of using his minister as a sacrificial lamb instead of resigning himself. However, within two days of her appointment, the new education minister and premier Charest announced they would be enacting an emergency law to resolve the crisis.

Emergency law and mass civil disobedience

Bill 78, cynically named “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend”, was spun as a necessary measure to re-establish ‘law and order’ and create a ‘cooling-off period’. Firstly, Bill 78 officially reschedules the remainder of the semester that was cut short by strikes for late August, delaying the start of the following two semesters. Student groups have therefore dubbed it a lock-out.

But Bill 78 also creates new restrictions on freedom of assembly. Any protest of 50 people or more must announce its planned route 8 hours in advance to police which may approve or modify the route. Any unannounced protest is therefore illegal and individuals participating in an illegal protest can be fined $5000 while unions who organise such a protest can be fined $125,000 – the amounts double for repeat offenses. In addition, anyone found to encourage by act or by omission such illegal protesting is subject to the same fines. Bill 78 was meant to punish specifically the tactics used by the student movement, i.e. the unannounced marches that snake along city streets, unpredictably disrupting traffic and causing police a headache, while the fines are meant to financially cripple the unions as well as their leaders, personally.

The reaction to Bill 78 has been overwhelmingly negative. Labour unions and opposition parties condemned the bill unanimously, as expected. But the bill’s attack on civil liberties also drew attacks from libertarians and middle-of-the-road liberals. The Quebec Bar Association deemed Bill 78 an unreasonable restriction on civil rights and over 500 lawyers and jurists have volunteered to help mount a constitutional challenge.

The reaction on the streets was perhaps the most overwhelming. Inspired by the Cacerolazo popularised in Chile and Argentina, people in various neighbourhoods started banging pots at exactly 8pm in order to drown out the sound of the disinformation on the nightly news broadcast. People began to congregate with pots and pans on street corners and initiate unannounced noisy marches through their neighbourhoods. In a further act of direct disobedience, individuals have been pledging to disobey Law 78 by posting their names and pictures of themselves holding signs encouraging disobedience to a website called “arrest me”.

The government however refused to budge and Bill 78 came into effect on the 19th of May. Though initially tolerating a larger march that day, Police began an offensive against the night marches, declaring them illegal as soon as they would begin.  In Montreal, 69 people were arrested on the first night and police showed up with decidedly more muscle on the second night, arresting over 300 this time. Unfazed, student federations called for a massive march on May 22nd to mark the 100th day of the strike. This march too was declared illegal as organisers refused to announce the itinerary in advance, but police were left powerless when 400,000 people showed up for the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

Police replied with a massive operation against the night march on May 23rd, arresting 519 people and drawing criticism from Amnesty International and the United Nations in the process.  But it was the reaction in the streets that broke the police’s resolve and de facto made Bill 78 unusable. The following day, the Casserole marches, as they are known in French, exploded in a further act of defiance, growing in numbers and expanding to new neighbourhoods in Montreal as well as smaller cities around the province. As people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds participate in the Casseroles, police simply backed off, unwilling to use blunt force as they would against a crowd composed entirely of students.

Hundreds of people now showed up in each neighbourhood taunting the police with chants of “We are more than 50!” and “We don’t give a fuck about the special law!” Through live updates on twitter, various neighbourhood Casserole marches eventually meet up with each other and then with the larger nightly protest. The applicability of Bill 78 was essentially broken by sheer people power. Not a single arrest for illegal assembly has been reported in Montreal since May 23rd.

What next?

Both in the polls and on the streets, the government seems to have backed itself into a corner. Echoing the mood at the nightlyCasserole marches, student unions have publically stated that they are no longer just fighting for tuition but for the repeal of Bill 78 and the resignation of the entire cabinet.  And with calls to disrupt the annual Montreal Grand Prix coming up in two weeks’ time, the government is facing a potential international embarrassment on its hands. The government’s priority now is surely to get the students off the streets at whatever cost.

The mood at the demonstrations since May 23rd, the day police’s willingness to use blunt force was broken, has been festive and joyous, with many people sensing a political awakening and change in the air. There was also a sense that the worse was over, and that it was only a matter of time before elections were called. However, as negotiations collapsed once again on May 31st, it emerged that student unions had offered a sizeable compromise that the government refused to accept, insisting on maintaining the hike almost in its entirety. Now that the government has shown that it does not care about the mood on the street, things may get worse before they get better. It will be an interesting summer.

A lasting legacy?

Whatever happens this summer, it is right now inconceivable that the Liberal Party could win the next election. Quebec’s students can take credit for that. They were the canary in the gold mine that felt the so-called “austerity” measures first and warned the rest of the population to the dangers of the poisonous direction in which their government was taking them. Students are politically aware, they are organized, and they have nothing to lose and their entire futures to fight for. Seen that way, it only makes sense that students were the ones who galvanized an entire province into action against a system that favoured corporate welfare over social welfare.

There is always a pending danger that elections could simply pacify the movement and that, beyond a new government, there will be no lasting legacy of the 2012 student strike. A change in government would not necessarily bring the systemic change that many on the streets are clamouring for. The existing political establishment – which, regardless of party affiliation, is responsible for the right-ward shift over the past 20 years – will contest the next election. There are no mass-party alternatives in Quebec right now.  It will be extremely important – and extremely difficult – to channel the political awakening that Quebec has witnessed over the past few months into actual policy changes and a move away from neoliberalism.

That is the challenge that lies ahead. What is certain is that some sort of awakening did occur. The students have helped break the perception that there is no alternative to neoliberalism and broke the establishment’s stranglehold on public discourse. People have realised that they are not alone in their disgruntlement and have joined with their neighbours in banging pots and discussing politics and the future of the country. Whatever happens at the negotiating table or at the next elections, no one in Quebec will soon forget these events.

[1] In Canada’s federal system, provincial politics, which is where decisions on education, health, environmental policy, and many other areas are made, is far more influential on people’s daily lives than federal politics. This article therefore refers almost exclusively to provincial politics.

[2] Quebec has a total population of 8 million and an estimated 400,000 students.

[3] lists a total of 73 ‘aberrations’ of the Charest government’s nine years in power.

Lazar Konforti is a researcher and activist. He’s authored reports for Canadian non-profit Équiterre and with Carbon Trade Watch, an international collective. He is currently working on a series of short films about land conflicts in Central America. Lazar has been active in several international solidarity collectives based in Montreal and was an organiser during the previous student strike in 2005. He currently resides in Montreal, Quebec.

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