Quebec student show the way to win in Le printemps érable ("The Maple Spring")

Quebec student show the way to win in Le printemps érable ("The Maple Spring")

By Lev Lafayette

On September 5, 2012, after nine months of a general strike by students and their supporters, Le Conseil exécutif du Québec ("the Québec cabinet"), declared a freeze on tuition fee increases, abandoning a huge tuition boost the Quebec government had announced in March 2011. This decision did not come from the benevolence of the new cabinet, led by Pauline Marois of Parti Québécois. Nor did it just come from the simple fact of a large number of people engaged in protest over time. In a period where victories such as these are less common, it is necessary to understand what happened in Québec
that was different, so that lessons can be learned and perhaps replicated.

The campaign began with the proposal by the cabinet, by Jean Charest of the Parti libéral du Québec, to raise tuition fees by almost 75% between 2012 and 2017, or over 125% from the relaxation of tuition fees from 2007. Students responded quickly, organized by over a decade of previous mobilizations and strikes, including a two-month student strike in 2005. By August, an organization that had emerged from those struggles in 2001, the Association for Student Union Solidarity, had begun organizing for an unlimited student strike across the whole province. The Association, whose initials in French, ASSÉ, (pronounced ah-say) are a pun on the French word for “enough!”, is the anti-capitalist and independent federation of student organizations, in contrast to the other two the FEUQ and FECQ, who are both tied to the Parti Quebecois political party and to the major trade unions.

The Association insisted that all decisions be taken within its affiliated groups by general assemblies of all students, voting by simple majority, not by officers elected for long terms. When providence wide meeting were held, the assemblies elected recallable delegates for that meeting, often with specific mandates as to how to vote on some issues, the same form of organization that has repeatedly arisen in mass strikes. From the start, they raised a demand that went well beyond just opposing the tuition hike—they demanded free tuition for all—an improvement in the situation, not just the lack of deterioration, and a demand that would benefit the whole working class, not just the present students.

By the fall, all three student federations had agreed on a National Day of Action scheduled for
November 10th, 2011. In a huge success, 30,000 students march in Montreal and half the students in Quebec go on a one-day strike. Out of this majo0r mobilization, the Assocation launched a “large collation”, CLASSE, to allow local student groups to affiliate with ASSÉ even if they were also affiliated with the other two federations. But they insisted that member groups use the same assembly-based decision-making process.
As momentum grew for an unlimited general strike, the assemblies adopted a “floor” as a tactic to mobilize support before actually walking out. Individual assemblies, based for example in one department would vote to strike, but agreed that they would only actually walk out if at least 2,000 other students at the same school vot4ed to strike in other assemblies. This prevented the most active groups from becoming isolated with premature action.
Social science students at the Université Laval went strike on February 13, 2012, followed by some at Université du Québec à Montréal. Over the next two months, the number of striking students rose
to at least 180,000, but with over 200,000 attending a protest on March

It was quite clear by this stage the protest had reached major proportions. Certainly, it also had dramatic moments. Around one hundred student protesters were arrested on March 20, after demonstrators blocked a bridge with concrete blocks. On May 6, protesters were attacked when
outsiders (and possibly agents provocateurs) started throwing projectiles into the crowd. In the reaction that followed, and with clashes between the police and protesters, ten were injured, and two seriously, one losing an eye and another suffering a skull fracture.

Picket lines were set up everywhere, but for the most part adopted the tactic of blocking only faculty, who in general supported the strike, and letting non-striking students through. This avoided, of the most part, fights among students but prevented classes from taking place.

Forced to the negotiating table, the government made appeals to the students and their allies. They claimed that Québec students were already paying very low tuition fees relative to other provinces (Ontario, the highest, is at an average $6,640 per year compared to Québec's $2,519). They
claimed that the fee increases were necessary to properly fund tuition costs. They offered to extend the transition period of the increases from five to seven years. These proposals were rejected by the students, but the government in turn rejected the proposals by the students for other sources of finance, specifically a tax on the banks. The government attempted to split the students by excluding CLASSE from the negotiations, but the other two federations refused to participate unless CLASSE was included. On May 14 the Education Minister and Deputy Premier, Line Beauchamp, resigned and was
replaced by Michelle Courchesne in both positions.

Whilst bringing a conservative deputy premier and minister to the point of resignation may be considered a victory, the greater point here was ideological. The student advocates successfully argued, in the public if not always to the government, that an educated population has benefits as
well as some individual benefits and therefore requires substantial initial public investment to bring future gains. Thus the sector requires significant subsidies. However because authoritative education standards are required, a monopolistic situation arises where, left to pure market forces, overcharging would become inevitable as would inequalities of access .The result is that tuition fees become a matter of public choice resource allocation and equity; the students argued that even the total funding of Québec's universities (c$400 million) was less than half of the tax cuts introduced by the government in 2007, primarily for the wealthy.

This is just a partial illustration of a wider problem. Governments, nominally democratic, around the world are engaging in a starvation of public wealth by removing elements of redistributive social justice from their finances. Tax cuts for the wealthy, followed by austerity budgets targeting social welfare, are a form of class warfare and one which benefits the wealthiest members of the capitalist and landlord classes. In the late 2000s the Ontario government proudly proclaimed that it has delivered twelve billion in tax cuts over a mere three years; in British Colombia there was a 25% reduction in income tax, off-set by a new sales tax, again giving a massive advantage to the already well-off. As an example for minor contrast, in Australia the federal government has tripled the tax-free threshold, providing significant benefits for the lowest income earners, whilst increasing income from a levy on mining resources and carbon emissions.

The next few days after the inauguration of the new education minister sharpened the debate. Clearly in no mood for further negotiations the government passed "Bill 78" on May 18, an emergency law which seriously restricted public protest and especially that at universities. This barred all public protests of more than 50 people and levied enormous fines of $1,000 to $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 to $125,000 per day for unions or student organizations. Unsurprisingly, the bill had the support of Conseil du patronat du Québec (Quebec Council of Employers), if there was any doubt in whose interests the government was acting on. The labor unions complied with the law. But voting through the assemblies, CLASSE announced publically it would defy the law. Now the issue had expanded beyond one of student protests over tuition fee increases and had become an issue of freedom of assembly and expression.
This was immediately followed by protests and conflict, with scores of demonstrators arrested in Montréal, police firing rubber bullet and using tear-gas, whereas some protesters responded with projectiles and Molotov cocktails. Students organized marches every night, increasingly joined by non-student residents and with up to 25,0000 participating, large enough to overwhelm the police. On May 22 some 400,000 people marched in Montreal, correctly referred by organizers as "The single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history." Within days, the law was successfully defied on a mass scale, spreading the student strike into a general protest of the working class.

Already sympathetic to the student's protests, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) described the law as "violating fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression", with its president calling it "a terrible act of mass repression", with even the government's own agency for human rights (CDPDJ) engaging in serious criticism, along with the bar association and specialist academics. A Laval University law professor, Louis-Philippe Lampron commented, "Read it. Stunned. Can’t believe that a democratic government can adopt such a law." One remarkable and illustrative effect of the changing debate was that the protests against Bill 78 included many of those who actually supported tuition fee increases, witnessed by the wearing cloth squares of varying colors to
express their position.

With protests continuing, documents leaked from the Parti libéral du Québec suggested that an early general election would be called on August 4 to take place on September 4. This proved to be accurate, with the protests, Bill 78, and the tuition fee increases taking a prominent role in the campaign.
With over forty percent of eligible voters not turning out, and notoriously higher among young voters, the political landscape was facing for a potential shake-up. Dogged by protests throughout the campaign, the Parti libéral du Québec languished in the polls, but with much of its vote share being taken by the Coalition Avenir Québec, a centre-right party which supported Bill 78 and the tuition fee increase. "The law [raising the fees] is there and laws are to be obeyed", party leader François
Legault said.

As it turned out, Parti Québécois gained a plurality in the election with 54 seats, a gain in seats (+7) even with a decline in their vote (31.95%, -3.22%). For the conservatives, the Liberal's won 50 seats (-14), with
significant decline in their vote (31.20%, -10.88%), almost entirely taken up by CAQ, as expected (19 seats, up 10, 27.05%, up +10.68%). From the left, Québec Solidaire gained a seat and increased their vote by over a third (6.03%, +2.25%). In Laval-des-Rapides, former student movement leader Léo Bureau-Blouin defeated a government cabinet minister as a Parti Québécois candidate. In a press conference the following morning after the election, the new premier Pauline Marois declared the tuition fee increases and Bill 78 were abolished and that an education summit would be held to discuss funding options for the university sector. While tuition was not eliminated, the result was a tremendous victory for the student strike—one of the rare examples in the past few years of an austerity measure being decisively defeated by mass protests

Important lessons from these enormously successful events can be discerned for future political actions. First, was the effectiveness of mass industrial action. Protest itself against the tuition fee hikes would have been utterly insufficient, even of a larger scale, would have been insufficient to generate the sort of effects these events have had. Nor were one-days strikes like that of November 10 enough by themselves, useful as they were for further organizing. But by launching an unlimited general strike, and sticking to it for nine months, the students set in motion an open-ended ever-growing mobilization that scared the government.

Second, the student movement won the ideological argument by arguing that the relative advantage of Québec students was an example to be emulated and expanded for the purpose of accessibility, that there were alternative means of raising public income instead of austerity measures and that tuition needed to be abolished, not raised. This was a necessary, but certainly not sufficient, part of the
campaign. Third, the mass movements showed no fear in protesting when demonstrations were made illegal, acting on a principle that an unjust law is not worthy of following. Fourth, the mass assemblies, mobilizing the whole students and acting on majority vote prevented both bureaucratic leaderships and determined minorities from derailing the movement. Finally, the mass democratic organizations
eschewed sectarianism when the political debate expanded. When Bill 78 was introduced the possibility of limiting protests to those who opposed the fee hikes was certainly there; but the leadership was wise enough to realize that a wider number of people supported freedom of assembly regardless of their actual position on tuition fees. These lessons must be remembered as the government is forced to the negotiating table.