Quebec: Students mobilise against draconian law aimed at breaking four-month strike
For more coverage and analysis of the Quebec students' struggle, visit Life on the Left.
By Roger Annis, Montreal
May 19, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The strike of post-secondary students in Quebec has taken a dramatic turn with the May 18 approval by the provincial government of a special law to cancel the school year at strike-bound institutions and outlaw protest activity deemed disruptive of institutions not participating in the strike.
Details of Bill 78 were unveiled the day before and debated in a special, overnight session of Quebec’s National Assembly. They include a ban on demonstrations within 50 metres of a post-secondary institution and severe financial penalties on students or teachers and their organisations if they picket or otherwise protest in a manner declared “illegal”. Demonstrations of ten or more people must submit their intended route of march to police eight hours in advance.
The elected representative and co-leader of the Quebec solidaire, Amir Khadir, told the National Assembly that the law aims to “criminalise and destroy” student organisations. Thousands of students marched angrily in the streets of Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke on the evening of May 17 as the law was being debated in the National Assembly.
Courts are beginning to process the hundreds of students who have been arrested over the past three and a half months of the strike and issuing severe restrictions on movement and activity pending rulings.
The 24,000-member Bar Association of Quebec has spoken against Bill 78. Among its concerns is the provision that the education minister may rule by decree on education matters, bypassing the National Assembly, including ordering education institutions to withhold the transfer of membership dues to student organizations.
Leaders of the unions of university and CEGEP (junior college) professors (the FQPPU and FNEEQ, respectively) as well as the large, trade union centrals have also condemned the measure.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of the CLASSE student federation called the law, “repressive and authoritarian. It restricts students’ right to strike, which has been recognized for years by educational institutions.”
His colleague, Jeanne Reynolds, says the law is a "losing proposition” coming from a “haughty and arrogant” Quebec premier Jean Charest. Both leaders reaffirmed the mass protest for May 22, saying, “No law will stop us from demonstrating”.
A mass, student protest in Montreal on May 22 that is already planned by the three largest students associations on strike will assuredly be even larger than the tens of thousands of participants already anticipated.
Government was failing to intimidate students and supporters
The Quebec government provoked the student strike with its proposal last year, confirmed in its March 2012 budget, to increase tuition fees by 60% over the next five years. That was then modified to a 75% increase over seven years.
The deeply unpopular government has been battered and bruised by the strike, including on May 14 when minister of education Line Beauchamp submitted a surprise resignation. She buckled under the pressure of her responsibilities in carrying the government hard line.
In the lead up to Bill 78, politicians and editorialists were calling for greater use of police violence and court injunctions to break up student picket lines and support action by teachers and professors that have closed many colleges and university departments. But education administrators complained that the injunctions were “unenforceable” due to mass picketing. They were also nervous about the consequences of even more blatant exercises of police violence against students. Now they hope that the punitive measures in the new law will dissuade militant action.
The law targets another area of concern—teaching staff. Many professors have joined the picket lines of their students. They have said they would not be forced to teach under the threat of injunctions and riot police. Following a police attack on students at CEGEP Lionel-Groulx north of Montreal on May 15, for example, Jean Trudelle, president of the FNEEQ said, “The scenes we witnessed here this morning have shocked everyone, beginning with the students and professors directly concerned. It is inhuman to ask people to teach after such events.”
Pressure on all the parties involved in the strike is intense because the school year is at stake. Both available options—cancellation of the school year or an unlikely concession by the government to temporarily suspend the tuition freeze permitting classes to resume—involve heavy financial sacrifices by students, making their tenacity all the more remarkable.
Adding to the pressure on students is uncertainty over summer employment and the need to earn course credits during the summer months.
Bill 78 will complicate life for those in strike-bound CEGEPS because it projects that the current school year would resume in August and be completed in October. That means graduates intending to enter university would have to wait until September 2013.
The government, the business elite and editorialists in the mainstream media are counting on these pressures to push through the tuition increase. But they have underestimated student determination until now and, according to students, are still making the same mistake.
Some 160,000 students are on strike, approximately 35% of the post-secondary student population in the province. Of those, 65,000 are CEGEP students, all in Montreal and surrounding regions. Only small numbers of students at the three English-language universities are on strike, while the three English CEGEPs (located in Montreal) are fully functional.
One additional feature of the strike has been the participation of high school students. They have staged one day walkouts from school and will likely have a strong presence at the May 22 action.
Calls for inquiry into police violence against students
Television, radio and print news reports are full of discussion of the police violence that erupted in Victoriaville on May 4 in front of a hotel conference center where the governing Liberal Party was holding a meeting of its executive council. The riot squad of the Quebec provincial police (Sûreté du Québec) unleashed unprecedented violence against protesters that shocked many in the province.
According to estimates published in the daily newspapers, police fired 30 plastic bullets, more than 100 concussion grenades and countless canisters of CS and pepper gas. Two students were gravely injured when struck by police projectiles—Maxence Valade lost an eye and Alexandre Allard suffered a life-threatening concussion. Others suffered broken bones and teeth or other traumatic injuries from police truncheons.
Witnesses say that projectiles were fired point blank by police at the height of heads and upper bodies, in violation of police protocol (and elementary human rights). Photo and video news reports confirm the accusations. One video image captured the injury suffered by Allard.
Police blocked bridges leading out of Victoriaville when the protest was over that evening in order to intercept and arrest protesters returning to Montreal or other points of origin. They turned back three entire buses of students and supporters, turning the buses into overnight prison cells. Passengers were selected for arrest as the night wore on and were otherwise instructed not to speak to each other or use communication devices.
The Montreal daily Gazette reports 110 arrests by police, and counting. There are widespread calls for a formal inquiry into police action. Among those voices are Québec solidaire, the Parti québécois and the League of Rights and Freedoms.
The use of plastic bullets against civic protests was harshly criticised by a panel of five members of a legal observer team created by the Quebec government to observe protests during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001. A member of that team says today she doesn’t know what became of their report. She says that in light of events in Victoriaville, it looks like in was simply “filed away”.
The student strike has also occasioned other attacks on democratic rights. The federal government is moving on a new law that would criminalise the wearing of a mask at public assemblies declared to be “illegal”. Montreal mayor Gilles Tremblay is rushing a similar municipal law into place. (The mayor has his own troubles at hand. Three of his recent top aides were arrested on May 17 as part of a massive corruption probe of the construction industry in Quebec that has rocked the province from top to bottom.)
Four young people may face prosecution under “anti-terrorist” legislation for releasing several smoke bombs in Montreal’s underground subway system on May 10. The stunt closed the system for several hours during the morning rush hour. The accused surrendered to police the following day. Student leaders criticised the action and how it is being used to deter attention from the issues of their strike.
Background on student strikers
Members of the three student associations waging the strike voted by massive margins during the week of May 7 to reject a shabby government offer to end the strike. The offer issued from 22 hours of overnight talks on May 4, 5 between the government and the three large student associations—CLASSE, the FECQ and the FEUQ.
The revolt is fueled by deep opposition to what students consider to be the commercialisation of education and degradation of social rights across the whole of society. Some view the strike as part of a broader, anti-capitalist struggle for a society of social justice. The association that expresses this most forcefully is CLASSE (Broad Coalition of the Association for Trade Union-Student Solidarity).
One of the goals of CLASSE is to spearhead a broader social movement in Quebec society that could challenge capitalist dominance and fight for a new society based on principles of social justice. It proposes the tactics of broad “social strikes” to forge a fighting alliance with workers and others victims of class society. Specifically for education planning and policy, it wants to convoke États généraux (civic assemblies) to discuss and decide education policy. The assemblies would be composed of the elected representative of the main protagonists in Quebec education.
This resembles the “red university” strategy of the mass, student rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s in which students sought to use their capacities and the resources of the universities to spark broad, anti-capitalist struggle.
CLASSE represents just over half of the 160,000 striking students. The association’s numbers have grown by 10,000 since the beginning of the strike from students switching membership from the other student groups. CLASSE’s appeal is due to its principled stand for free, public education and its democratic internal functioning.
The association held a two-part meeting of its national council on May 10 and 13 in Montreal and Quebec City, respectively, which discussed and approved strategy in the ongoing fight. It approved continuing mobilisations as well as support for campaigns of other movements such as womens’ rights, refugee rights and trade union-led opposition to privatisation and other attacks by governments on social services.
There were some 200 delegates at the meetings.
Delegates voted to demand that representatives of employer associations be excluded from future talks on education with the government. The association considers that public education is being treated as a commercial entity in the capitalist market instead of the precious human and social right that it should be. “The elite already have enough outlets to express their views to government”, said one delegate in the discussion of the resolution.
Another resolution proclaimed that CLASSE will not participate in permanent councils to oversee the management of education institutions. One aspect of the failed government proposal of May 4, 5 was the proposed formation of a multi-partite council to study education spending and recommend cuts to government. Student representatives and their allies (teachers, education workers) would be a minority on such a cost-cutting body or on more permanent versions.
Several delegates argued that “co-management” is a trap that places
student representatives in unequal and disadvantageous positions. They said that
the power of students stems from mobilising actions in the streets and in the institutions.
The goal of CLASSE, they reminded the Montreal conference, is radical social
change, including free and universal access to education.
The conference session in Montreal spent considerable time discussing the relationship of CLASSE and the student struggle to the trade unions in Quebec. There is dissatisfaction over the role that leaders of the large, trade union centrals played in the talks on May 4, 5. They were invited to participate by the government.
The union leaders came out of the talks saying that the government proposal could be a “road map” towards mitigating the government’s tuition hike. They treated the proposal as a fait accompli, whereas student leaders insisted it would go to vote of their members.
Many student activists also consider that the non-education union federations and their affiliates have been long on statements of support and short on action.
Delegate after delegate in Montreal spoke of the importance of relations with the unions, saying that workers’ rights and the social wage are under attack by the same government that is attacking students and education services. In the end, the meeting resolved to continue seeking points of agreement and common action with workers and their unions.
A powerful movement in need of more allies
One need only ride public transport or stroll through downtown Montreal to appreciate the scope and power of this student strike. Montreal has the highest per capital post-secondary student population of any city in North America. In the city core, there are four universities with an enrollment of 175,000.
Students recognise that they need allies in order to win demands for free, accessible education. The CLASSE association explains on its website that it is not asking simply for statements of support:
We wish, on the contrary, for a convergence of the entire Quebec population against the politics of cuts and merchandising of social services and our collective rights. Only a generalization of the student strike to workplaces will make such a convergence effective. Our call, therefore, is a call to the entire population for a social strike!
Lex Gill, president of the student union at the English-language Concordia University, wrote in the May 12 Montreal daily Gazette that the students, not the government, speak for Quebec society on education matters.
A ballot in a box every few years should never trump the will of an entire generation. When the electoral process fails an entire generation, when public consultation isn’t meaningful, when petitions, letters and phone calls to elected representatives go unheard, there is often no other option than to express (social) convictions in the streets.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of CLASSE explained to journalists on May 13: “After 13 weeks of strike, an exceptional solidarity has been formed. Students are prepared to go much further in the struggle than was imagined at the outset".
This is the great fear that the capitalists in Quebec and in Canada have for this movement. As a columnist in the national Globe and Mail daily lamented on May 14, “In Quebec, students are confronting the Liberal Charest government ostensibly over tuition fees, but in reality over who governs.”