William Ging Wee Dere



Through its seven month strike and mass action, the Québec student movement can claim a victory after the newly elected Parti Québécois (PQ) premier Pauline Marois issued an order in council to repeal the university tuition increase for this school year. However she is calling for a summit meeting of the student organizations with the government before the end of the year to try and legitimize her plan to index future increases in tuition fees to the cost of living. Marois also repealed the repressive Bill 78 (Law 12) which was passed by the previous Liberal government to limit mass protests.


The two moderate student organizations Fédération étudiante universaitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) have endorsed the PQ government’s position. The more radical Coalition Large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) is critical of the new government’s policy and it continues to demand free tuition. It is working to continue the mass mobilization of students, trade unions and community groups to fight for an end to the government’s austerity program in education, healthcare and other social issues.


Mass Movement in the Making


The strike began in February 2012 with 250,000 students taking part. There were daily protests and marches for over 100 days. Some demonstrations in Montreal attracted over 300,000 people composed of students, parents, grandparents, workers organizations, community and national minority groups. At the height of the student movement, which was gaining mass support, the beleaguered Liberal government of Jean Charest called a general election for September 4.


The election call put a damper on the protest movement and folded the FEUQ and the FECQ into the electoral process. The student strike was essentially broken through institutional and administrative manoeuvres used by the government and school administrators. After the protests were deflated, government officials and administrators used the fear of losing the entire school year to pressure the students to vote to end the strike.


Opportunism of the PQ


The Parti Québécois, a party working for the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada took the opportunity to latch onto the coattail of the student and mass movement to garner votes. Pauline Marois wore the red patch of the student strike which she later discarded for the fleur-de-lis of the sovereignist movement. Past PQ government also ruled with neo-liberal policies by putting the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of working people.


The PQ also tried to impose tuition fee increases when it was in power. Past student protests have blocked or rolled back the increases to maintain Quebec university tuition as the lowest in Canada.  The financial secretary for CLASSE, Jérémie Bédard-Wien states, “Had there not been a general strike, the PQ would never have taken this position on the tuition hike. This is a party that has proposed tuition increases in the past and does not listen to the concerns of students, but it did respond to intense political pressure.”


The PQ campaigned on a sovereignist platform to split Québec from Canada. In this process, many xenophobic positions were put forward in order to safeguard “Québécois values.”  Marois proposed a “charter of secularism” which forbids all government employees from wearing any religious related paraphernalia such as the Muslim hijab or the Jewish yarmulke. A small cross would be permissible since it is part of “Québec’s heritage”. Marois also wanted anyone running for public office to pass a French fluency test. On behalf of the nationalist faction of the ruling class, the PQ wants a European style bourgeois monolithic nation-state under the guise of protecting the French language and culture.


Co-optation of the Movement


The former leader of the FECQ, Léo Bureau-Blouin was elected as a PQ member. Many students campaigned for the PQ and for the smaller social democratic sovereignist party, Québec Solidaire. The election campaign de-mobilized the direct action of the student and mass movement. By leaving the streets for the voting booth, the back of the student strike was essentially broken. However, through the electoral process, the students were able to help defeat the Liberal government.


Québec Sovereignty and the Student Movement


During the seven months of the student strike, the issue of Québec independence was not raised. The student struggle was fought around the fundamental contradictions of who will pay for the capitalist economic crisis, ordinary students and people or the corporate class. The struggle was a left vs right struggle not a nationalist struggle. The PQ and other sovereignist parties use national divisions to divert the people from uniting against the capitalist crisis.


With the government in Ottawa under Stephen Harper putting forward a right-wing ideological program, some progressive Québécois could easily slide into the sovereignist camp, seeing Québec independence as a way of fighting against the Harper government. However. the student youth movement showed that the struggle for social and political rights and justice has taken precedence over the struggle for independence. Through this process, the new generation of Québec youth has become more politically aware and active in order to shape a more just and distinct society.


Nevertheless, the PQ was elected with a minority government and only 31.9% of the vote in an election with a high turnout of 75% of eligible voters.


Solidarity and the United Front


Of the three major student organizations, only the CLASSE puts forward a program along class lines. It sees the student struggle as part of the overall social struggle against government austerity. Its platform calls for unity of various social groups to fight for free quality education, healthcare and other social demands. CLASSE is continuing to call for street demonstrations and to mobilize support for free education. At its August general assembly, the CLASSE passed a manifesto to express its political stand of solidarity with peoples’ struggles around the globe.


Where to Go From Here?


Thousands of students and their families have experienced direct democratic participation. Now they need to sum up that experience and draw lessons for on-going mass struggles. The Québec student movement has shown leadership to the student movement across Canada in fighting against government cut-backs and in uniting a broad spectrum of the population for greater government services and against austerity. CLASSE members and other Québec students toured Canada during the summer to explain the lessons of the Québec student struggle and to seek support from students, trade unions and social groups from the rest of Canada. They see this united front as crucial for their ongoing struggle. We will see in the coming months if the Québec student movement can regain its momentum or whether the PQ can succeed in diverting the student and social movement with its sovereignist project.

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