By Olivier Clain, André Drainville, Gérard Duhaime, Andrée Fortin, Gilles Gagné, Sylvie Lacombe, Simon Langlois, Richard Marcoux, Daniel Mercure, and Stéphanie Rousseau from the Laval University
It is one of the characteristic traits of the great movements that make a people’s history that they defy the most solidly endorsed predictions. Beyond a certain threshold, the effervescence that solidarity generates and to which major movements owe their existence escapes from the tendency of ideas to bend them to their anticipatory thinking based on historical experience. The 2012 student movement that was transformed in the spring into a broad popular movement has opened up deep fissures in Quebec’s history. While its immediate future and long-term effects remain unforeseeable, it is already raising a question that merits consideration: what were the reasons for its emergence and for the strength that allowed it to persevere? Trying to answer this requires considering a whole number of dimensions whose elements have been created by the movement itself. Some of them are circumstantial, others appear to be necessities. However, even setting aside attempts to anticipate its future, the collective ferment that underlay the movement made it transcend its contextual limitations.
Carefully maintained by the different authorities, by the boards of the Quebec universities and long since adopted by the Quebec Rectors’ and Principals’ Conference (CREPUQ), a certain alarmist discourse about the accumulated deficits of the Province’s universities and the under-financing which caused the problem, was used by the Quebec government as the major justification of its decision to increase university tuition fees by 79% for the next five years and subsequently to index them to the cost of living. According to the rectors, the pan-Canadian comparison of university revenues and of tuition fees (which varied depending on the province) made it obvious that the network of Quebec universities “suffers from a loss of revenue” and that “the gap in revenue imputable to the lower tuition fees in Quebec corresponds, to a great extent, to the total loss of revenue”.1 The “loss of revenue” in question here is calculated solely by comparison with what is called the “operating revenues” of the universities. However, these only represent a part of their overall revenues. Moreover, if one compares the latter with the average number of full-time students for each province and compares the resources of these revenues, the picture of the situation substantially changes. It can be noted that the amount of the average financing per student is not lower but higher than the Canadian average and Canada if Quebec is omitted. Yet even if we politely recognise that the rectors have exaggerated and that “the extent of under-financing of universities is very much a function of the methods chosen for the evaluations and comparisons with the rest of Canada”,2 the Universities Financing Plan for 2012-2017, published by the Quebec Finance Ministry in March 2011, repeats the thesis that there is an under financing even though the data provided contradicts it. It thus adopts the rectors’ central argument that the tuition fees of Quebec students should be raised. Thus the plan provides for their paying their “fair share” in the autumn of 2012.3
A year later, this formula was to become the one repeated by all those who, for one reason or another, think that students should pay more. The Ministry’s plan very concretely means that by 2017 the Quebec Government’s contribution to the overall financing of the universities will have dropped by 2.6% and that of the students increased by 4.2%. Bourgeois reasoning’s metamorphosis of the “loss of revenue” into a “fair share” involves the state’s disinvestment, and the arbitrary nature of the decision this expresses is hidden behind the appearance of an unavoidable necessity. Thus, even before the Ministry’s plan was revealed, the Ministry of Education had invited the CREPUQ, representatives of business circles and students’ associations as well as the various university-staff trade unions to a consultative meeting, which took place on December 6, 2010. However, the representatives of the eleven student’s associations and trade unions soon noticed that they had not been invited to discuss the appropriateness of the increase but simply the way it would be carried out. It is easy to understand why, half way through the day they marched out of the meeting.
The Quebec government decided this increase for reasons that had nothing to do with an unavoidable economic constraint but came from doctrinal coherence and strategic calculation. Ever since it took office in 2003, under the leadership of Jean Charest, former head of the Canadian Conservative Party, the Quebec Liberal Party has made itself the constant promoter of a redefinition of governance in line with the principle of “let the user pay”, which it intends to apply to all the state’s relations with civil society. By unilaterally deciding this increase, it embodied this principle by reducing the state’s annual contribution to university financing, and, above all, it hoped to win over an important part of the population to its doctrine in an area where it seemed easier than elsewhere.
The extent and determination of the mobilisation surprised even those who had patiently prepared it since December 2010. The entry of the Quebec students into resistance only became fully apparent in mid-winter when, on February 13, 2012, the first general assembly of under-graduate and post-graduate sociology student voted to strike. The vote quickly had a domino effect, except in the English-speaking network, where the votes in favour of strike were very limited. Thus it was that by March 25, while 100,000 students of the French-speaking CEGEPs (General and Vocational Secondary Schools) of the province were on strike no English speaking CEGEP was. Moreover, at the height of the movement, the strike never affected more than 30% of the students of Concordia University, while at McGill University only a little more than 1,600 students participated. On the same date, however, throughout the province, 316,000 students went on strike, that is, about two thirds of the students in secondary schools and universities in Quebec. The peak of student mobilisation thus occurred in spring, and at first it only involved French-speaking Quebec.
Never have there been so many demonstrations in Quebec as since February. Whether in silence or shouting in rage, masked, naked in the streets or dressed up in disguise, zigzagging along an improbable route to foil the police; whether blocking Montreal port or a bridge or solidly linked together to block entry to a building, day and night there were demonstrations everywhere, especially in Montreal. Since April 25 and the apparent negotiated agreement between the government and the student representatives (an agreement overwhelmingly rejected by the strikers’ assemblies), there were days, in both Montreal and Quebec, when two marches took place, either successively or simultaneously. From that date onward, there were demonstrations every evening. Permanently connected to their networks, the young protesters discussed the events, drew up and negotiated strategies and relayed invitations and slogans for the day’s activities. Twitter and Facebook have become places for coordinating activities. Of course the demonstrators read the print media and still watch television, but less for keeping up to date with events than for seeing how these are presented to others – to those outside the mobilisation circuits. Whether festive and good natured or tense and violent, whether the riot squads fire plastic bullets or deafening grenades shoulder high spray gas, whether the mounted police use violence, they film and photograph everywhere, constantly, from almost every angle. Minutes or hours later they upload these images, edit and distribute them before the press has time to cover the events. At the same time, others write songs, form queues in the metros, give yoga lessons in the middle of the street or do many kinds of performance-art. What is at stake is, first, the urgency to create a distinct personal expression of adherence to the cause and to give it substance. By its ubiquity in images and in the streets, the students’ struggle has entered into everyone’s consciousness. This spring it is on everyone’s lips.
The 2012 student movement has surprised both by its imaginativeness and the tenacity that permeated it. In addition, the force and coherence of its spokespeople’s arguments were impressive as were the diversity of its tactics and the unity of its organisations in pursuing their common objective – namely blocking the increases and defending access to higher education. Thus, the 2012 student movement followed a deeply rooted tradition in Quebec, since the majority of student strikes in its history were over issues of access to higher education and scholarship rights. In French Canada, higher education was the preserve of an elite. Broader access to universities was won by the quiet revolution4 (1960-66) and it is this that gave birth to Quebec’s middle class. Even before being one of the distinctive characteristics of the C.L.A.S.S.E. (Broad Coalition For Student Union Solidarity) in 2012, the argument that university tuition should, eventually, be free was written into the Parent Commission Report that entirely rearranged the educational system at the time of the quiet revolution. The broadest possible access to higher education has thus become the symbol of a historic conquest and of a shared identity. Today this access is closely tied to the question of indebtedness.
In Quebec, the young people from low-income families rarely attended university for reasons that are not only financial but also cultural. The Consultative Committee for financial accessibility to Higher Education, an organisation attached to the Quebec Education Council that regularly advises the Education Ministry, estimated in 2004 that every increase in tuition fees is seen by the “students from disadvantaged circles and the lower middle classes” and “especially among the most disadvantaged as an additional barrier to access to higher education. Any increase, especially if it is substantial, could have significant consequences for the already relatively low participation of people from disadvantaged circles, even if the programmes for financial aid to education are maintained or adapted”. In September 2011 this committee advised the Minister of Education that the increase decided by the government could lead to a drop in university attendance in the coming years. It estimated this drop at 2.5%, that is, 7,000 students. The loans made by banking institutions and guaranteed by the state, which form the bulk of the aid given to students, weigh heavily on young people, of whom many work while studying.
The Quebec Government’s University education Financing Plan has, indeed, raised the thresholds for parents’ or spouses’ income above which students have the right to a scholarship. The strength of the 2012 student mobilisation made the government improve financial assistance for tuition on April 5 and then again on April 27. The indebtedness of the middle classes is a very real problem in Quebec as is the indebtedness of young people – hence there is particular fear of more indebtedness. At present 65% of university undergraduates have an average debt of $ 14,000. Indeed, for a quarter of Quebec students, indebtedness reaches $ 20,000 by the end of their undergraduate studies.
The students’ struggle against this increase is not only a struggle against indebtedness; it is also, they emphasise, a struggle against the commodification of knowledge. The latter points to a qualitative transformation of the nature of research taking place in the universities and to a continual increase in the research aimed at satisfying the demands of the private sector. In the long term it leads to a limitation of educational choices. Moreover, the more tuition is increased and the less one expects that educational programmes will lead to well-paid careers, the more likely it is that attendance will diminish and programmes be closed. However, the reasons for the struggle already cited, important though they are, are not enough fully to explain the extent of the 2012 student mobilisation or its capacity to ally with wider strata of Quebec society. This seems particularly important since the generation concerned is weak demographically. The inter-generational balance of power has been completely transformed since the 1960s since the percentage of young people under 30 has dropped from 58% of the population in 1971 to 35% in 2012. Indeed, the students are themselves only a part of this minority social group, and those of them who are struggling against the increases were only able to reach and involve the rest of their age group and the population as a whole because the themes around which they protested were capable of speaking to everyone.
To understand this spring’s events one must consider two other important circumstances. First, with the economic crisis, which has been continually deepening in Quebec and the world since 2008, there is a palpable increase in feelings of indignation in the face of social injustice and the choices governing economic policies. Two government projects in particular have provided a very local and concrete target for this indignation. On the one hand, the project of “exploiting schist gas” has become a highly sensitive issue in Quebec since 2010, because it endangers fragile ecological balances while serving the very private interests of the gas companies, many of which are foreign. On the other hand, the “North Plan” involves draining a substantial part of public funds ($ 40 billion over 25 years) to build hydroelectric plants that are not aimed at providing households with cheaper electricity but at benefitting the shareholder profits of transnational mining and metallurgical companies. (Hydro-Quebec has long relegated this, the mission for which it was founded, to the rank of secondary preoccupation.) The students did not miss the point that the increase in tuition fees was a political choice rather than an economic or moral necessity, nor that the ritual incantations of “a fair share” was sophistry. Nor did it escape their notice that the costs of their common demands for freezing tuition fees or even for completely free higher education were pathetically small compared with the weight of public investments aimed at favouring the companies exploiting Quebec’s natural resources.
The student movement’s resistance is also inseparable from the loss of moral legitimacy of the Liberal Party, which no longer only seems a party worn out by nine years in office but also a corrupt party. For two years it did everything to prevent the functioning of a Commission of Enquiry into Corruption. However, by late 2011 it was obliged to give in. So, at the very time that the events of the spring of 2012 were taking place, the Commission of Enquiry into Corruption was beginning its work, focusing on corruption surround the construction industry. The press daily reports on suspicious cases, and the special police force established to track down corruption is carrying out arrests of public figures. In Montreal, Frank Zampino, Mayor Tremblay’s former right-hand man, was arrested on May 17. Hardly a week goes by without some ex-Ministers of the present government drawing journalists’ attention to the issue of corruption. The new Minister of Education, Mrs Courchesne, has admitted to having “shown some creativity” in granting permits for building children’s nurseries – which didn’t prevent her from being severely criticised by Quebec’s Auditor General for another case regarding the building of sport centres. It is thus not surprising that the demonstrators’ banners and the public speeches of its representatives linked the demand for freezing tuition to the government’s choices, to increasing indebtedness, to ecological destruction, to the gifts given to businesses and to corruption. Thus they chartered the route taken by the popular movement that followed.
Faced with the remarkable unity of the student movement of winter 2012, which, learning from the struggles in 2005, chose to respect a diversity of tactics and solidarity to achieve the objective, the strategy used by the Quebec government at first consisted of refusing any negotiation. It tried to discredit the students, to mock their demand for freezing tuition, attributing it to the attitude of spoiled children, and to challenge the representative character of their associations or even of the democratic character of some choices made by their general assemblies. It rapidly chose to reduce the conflict to a legal question, suggesting to all students who opposed the strike to appeal to the courts to oblige the institutions and professors to continue holding lectures at any cost. As in the past, when “the freedom to work” was invoked by the courts to authorise strike breakers to enter work sites or factories with police protection despite the pickets, so on the campus the “students who wanted to” crossed the pickets under police protection – it would, however, be more accurate to say they only could attempt this, because while the strike-breaking injunctions multiplied, most of them were never observed. However, since 1977 in the field of labour the anti-strike-breaker law (Law 45) has forbidden employers from hiring workers to replace strikers during legal strikes. A strike is legal if a vote to strike is passed by a majority of the members of the recognised union. Although accredited, the student associations are not subject to the Labour Code, and if their action takes the form of a strike following a democratic vote, this right has been recognised by Quebec political tradition for over a quarter of a century. It is precisely this right that the authorities wanted to knock out, even if it meant having police and security guards forcibly enter the campus, putting professors in an impossible situation: ordered by the judges to continue their lectures at the cost of giving rise to more and more frequent clashes between striking student, professors and even students’ parents, on the one hand, and the non-strikers and the police, on the other. This was just what Jean Charest’s government wanted – that is, that the “silent majority”, witnessing a growing number of clashes, would demand a return to “social peace” at any price. The Liberal Party is facing an electoral deadline in the coming eighteen months, and it is wagering on remaining in office in the name of “public order” and fighting against “intimidation” and “threats”.
Apart from the notable exception of the national and independent daily, Le Devoir, of some free papers like the Montreal Le Voir and community media, the written and audio-visual press more often than not endorsed the authorities’ line that posed the students as opposing the legitimacy of its policy either as “child kings” or “spoiled children” – expressions that became overused by editorials, blogs and columnists. The major French-language papers kept showing pictures of the most spectacular clashes with the police, each time stressing the “professional work” of the latter. The political authorities and the bulk of the French-language press expressed the crudest disregard and paternalism vis-à-vis the students. The English Canadian press went them one better. Not only did it call on Charest on no account to give in to the “spoiled brats”, to not negotiate with them, but, in the same breath, threw to the political lions the “Quebec model” that had “spoon-fed” them. As a whole it vilified the Equalisation Payments that the Federal Government pays to certain provinces, including Quebec, and which, they claim, has led to this headlong rush of the new generation (Toronto Star editorial May 15). The press has gone as far as to make the student strike a symbol of the Hellenisation of Quebec, since, like the Greeks, Quebec is said to have taken advantage of free public services while refusing to bear its share of the fiscal burden and the accumulated debt (Kheiriddin, National Post, May 17; Francis, National Post, May 18; Wente, Globe and Mail, May 19).
The movement had already taken on an inter-generational dimension by March 22, when one of the most important demonstrations in the history of Quebec took place – if not the most important. It took place in Montreal, called by the student organisations but also 140 community groups and Quebec’s four largest trade union confederations. The first day of spring thus saw crowds coming from every background and all age groups invading the streets of Montreal in a festive atmosphere. On the occasion of the second “monster demonstration”, on Earth Day, April 22, the struggle against the government’s development projects and the very real threat they represent for the environment was clearly the centre of attention. However, the students’ associations called to join the demonstration and it was no accident that the demonstration’s organising committee announced that it was being held for the “common good”. Finally, on May 22, a vast joint rally was announced that was to confront all the policies of Quebec’s Liberal Party government. “A human flood” (Le journal de Montreal, May 22) invaded the city despite the recently passed Special Law, and it thus became the first national demonstration against this law.
Anticipating the extent of this expression of popular discontent, the authorities decided on repression. On May 18, 2012, they passed an emergency law, Law 78: “a law allowing students to receive instruction given by the post-secondary level institutions that they attend”. Passed by the National Assembly after more than 20 hours of stormy debate, it claims to ensure the continuity of instruction in the CEGEPs and Universities by imposing a three-month suspension from courses affected by the strike votes. Paradoxically, this law, which denies the student organisations the right to strike and contradicts the spirit of our regime of labour relations, is related to the special return-to-work laws adopted in the past to put an end to a conflict between the state as employer and its unionised employees in a legal strike. It is also used today to force a return to work of wage earners employed in a sector considered essential. It kills the capacity for action by the student associations and their activists who can have astronomic fines imposed on them if, from now on, they obstruct the “right to education” and renew the picket lines in mid-August. It obliges the professors and educational institutions to provide courses at any cost from that date. It contains provisions that considerably limit the freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate. It is akin to the laws passed by authoritarian regimes throughout the world and contains several articles incompatible with the constitutional principles of a state of laws.
Its immediate effect was an unparalleled extension of police arbitrariness in increasing its power to “interpret” situations. It led to the biggest police roundup in Quebec’s history, even though the police did not use all the articles it contained. More people were arrested in Montreal in the single night of May 23-24, 2012 than after the imposition of the war-measures law in October 1970. Since the beginning of the strike movement in February, over three thousand people have been arrested and by now the police are carrying out dozens and even hundreds of arrests every night. During the Montreal Grand Prix weekend, June 9-10, it carried out mass preventive arrests. In the daily demonstrations that continued, as in Genoa during the 2001 G8 summit or in London during the G20 summit, the demonstrators were singled out by political profile, trapped and taken in for questioning in groups, tied up, photographed and kept in detention – then tentatively released. Since this law in fact covers all Quebec citizens there was a mobilisation against it not only of student associations but also of trade unions, of the University and secondary school professors’ and teachers’ unions, the Quebec Bar Association, artists and intellectuals, eminent jurists and an ever increasing number of citizens throughout the Province. From May 18 on, saucepan concerts, which spread like a powder trail to all the towns, again gave expression to the latent anger against the party in office. Demonstrations are continuing to take place in all the towns and regions of Quebec, and the protest movement against the police state that Law 78 has established is still continuing today.
As during the “French McGill” riots in 1969 for making this English-speaking bastion grant courses in French, as during the 1974 strike against aptitude tests for university entrance formalising the entry of students to the state science and technological spheres, and as in those in 1996 against the unfreezing of tuition fees and again in 2005 against converting scholarships into loans and thus turning the right to education into a commodified privilege, the 2012 student movement defended the possibility for Quebec’s population to have a self-conception. As in 1996, when the CEGEPs strike adopted the same language as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional two years after the Chiapas uprising, so today it has drawn on a contemporary repertory: occupations, spontaneous and saucepan demonstrations, constituent general assemblies, a diversity of tactics, festive airs and fleeting tweets. Let Anonymous intervene in the confrontation between the Quebec government and the student movement, now become a popular movement; let Amnesty International attack police brutality here; let the students of the City University of New York, of Brussels, or of Paris demonstrate in support of the students of Quebec or let their position be included in the discourse peddled by Agence France Press or the New York Times and make their uprising a global event. May the uprising challenge the capacity of the neoliberal order to deprive citizens of their means of thinking and producing their collective life; may it be made directly universal. However, the resistance that nourishes it has its roots deep in the soil of Quebec.