Students and their supporters throughout the Canadian province of Quebec are celebrating the ousting of Liberal Premier Jean Charest, the promise of the withdrawal of Bill 78 and most importantly the freeze in tuition fees. This victory comes after six months of student strike involving more than 190 000 students.
Quebec students who already paid the lowest tuition fees across North America were faced with a 75% tuition fee increase. Even if the planned increase had gone ahead, Quebec students still would have pay less than in any other Canadian province. Why? Quebec students have a strong tradition of fighting for free education since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. And if you fight you can win!
During the six month –long strike many the demonstrations held on the 22nd of each month reached up to 500 000 protesters. However, it was the roughly180 local unions organised in CLASSE which carried the fight from day to day shutting down the Port of Montreal, ministerial meetings and nearly all classes in post-secondary education across the province.
In the face of state repression, the use of tear gas, shock grenades, the arrest of thousands of protesters, and riot police in college corridors, students didn’t buckle but instead called upon workers and the neighbourhoods to join in nightly pots and pans protests, the casseroles. Charest’s unpopular Bill 78 acted as a catalyist for the student movement to turn into a popular movement.
But student protesters were not only campaigning against tuition fees. Time again, they argued that Finance Minister Raymond Bachand’s provincial budget of 2011-2012 would cut public and accessible healthcare, hydroelectricity and education.
Over the last nine years in power the Liberals have pursued to restructure society in the interest of the rich. Tax cuts for corporations have gone hand in hand with increasing the retirement age to 67. After trade unions suffered a blow in 2005 it was announced that student fees were to increase. As the ‘sacred cows of Quebecoise society’ came under attack students engaged in a ‘general strike’, causing significant economic damage to the provincial government. This meant that the elections were a referendum on the student movement and dominated by two topics: tuition fees and student debt.
With full privatisation looming, students did not want to see a repeat of their 2005 strike, which saw them go back to class empty-handed. Students have learnt some important lessons. They are organising on a departmental/faculty basis, which has strengthened the overall organisation of the strike. This has also helped them to hold their unions and executives to account.
The high point of the ‘Quebec Spring’ has been the 350,000-strong demonstration in Montreal on May 22. Following the biggest student demonstration ever, students called for a week of economic disruptions, bringing inner cities’ traffic to a standstill while also mobilising 30,000 parents in support of the students’ demands. The two largest public sector unions also called their membership on to the streets for the mobilisation.
The looming summer break did not succeed in breaking the strike either. Instead students continued to carry their message into the streets and to the election rallies.
While the mainstream media continuously claimed that the liberal government had “extended a hand” by offering students an “increased bursary and loan programs”, the government was intent on breaking the movement time again. Premier Jean Charest said: “The decision has been made and we will not back down”. This only strengthened the determination of student strikers, and led them to forge new alliances. Students organised solidarity with locked-out Rio Tinto Alcan workers and with hundreds of Aveos employees who recently lost their jobs.
Protests also saw environmentalists and students come out together. They stormed the top floor of a conference centre in which Charest was to unveil further details of his ‘Plan Nord’, a mining plan which will see a 1.2-million-square kilometre stretch of indigenous land be sold off to big business.
At the same time, other students stormed a meeting of the federal Immigration minister Jason Kenney, best known for his anti-gay and anti-immigration stances.
This display of resistance has inspired activists far beyond the provincial borders of Quebec. The question is whether the newly elected nationalist government will stick to its promises and whether students will continue to be part of the fight for a different kind of society. Another Quebec is possible! Another world is possible!