Quebec’s conflict of contrasting social visions

What began as a protest over tuition hikes has now become a standoff over a much deeper political discord in Quebec.

Students march during a protest against

Montreal, Canada – A mass student strike in Quebec over rising university tuition fees is quickly turning into a major social movement and a real challenge to the provincial Liberal government.

Despite growing international attention and constant protest, including demonstrations among the largest in Canada’s history, Liberal politicians continue to hold firm on a decision to hike post-secondary tuition fees by C$1,778 over seven years, a 82 per cent increase per student.

Symbolised by a carre rouge or red square, inspired by the French phrase carrement dans le rouge, meaning “squarely in the red”, in reference to growing student debt, the Quebec student strike is clearly gaining political momentum. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets on May 22, marking 100 days on strike, as local media and politicians now openly acknowledge that Quebec is facing a “political crisis”.

“In response to growing social unrest the Liberal government drafted and quickly passed Law 78, radical legislation making all protests inside or near a college or university campus illegal.

In response to growing social unrest, the Liberal government drafted and quickly passed Law 78, a radical legislation making all protests inside or near a college or university campus illegal. Additionally the law makes any spontaneous demonstration across Quebec illegal, forcing all to seek discretionary police permission to protest. Now the police have the power to alter or reject public demonstrations, while individuals or organisations acting to defy the law face arrest and major fines ranging from C$5,000 to C$125,000.

Amnesty International describes the law as granting “unprecedented police powers,” and as violating “freedoms of speech, assembly and movement in breach of Canada’s international obligations.”

Student unions are now challenging Law 78 at the Superior Court of Quebec, while hundreds of lawyers joined an evening demonstration against the law in Montreal.

On the streets the emergency law is sparking a new wave of mass protests.

Across Quebec every night thousands are joining cacerolazo, or casseroles protests against Law 78, banging pots and pans in the thousands on the streets and off balconies. Protests commonly start on neighbourhood streets across the city, a few metallic bangs echoing off buildings slowly crescendo into street protests of thousands.

40,000 people took the streets for the largest night cacerolazo rally to date on May 26, a noisy defiance to the new extraordinary legislation that police clearly are finding impossible to implement to date. Inspired by a grassroots protest tradition that took root in Chile during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and more recently in during Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, nightly cacerolazo are gaining momentum.

Law 78, referenced on the streets as the “truncheon law”, undercuts the rights of all in Quebec and is clearly sparking a significant expansion of popular support for the student strike movement. Student unrest in Quebec is quickly becoming a broader social unrest.

Quebec’s conflict of contrasting social visions

Quebec’s Liberal party, led by Premier Jean Charest, is pushing students to pay a larger proportional amount of university financing via tuition fees, despite rising levels of student debt, openly claiming that “the bottom line is that you, as students and future graduates, will benefit from the additional revenues derived from higher tuition fees.”

        Canada’s second-largest province has a long history of mass protests [Erin Sparks/Al Jazeera]

In contrast la Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Etudiante (CLASSE), a major student federation, is campaigning for a halt to all tuition hikes and for Quebec adopt a bank tax, starting at 0.14 per cent and increasing to 0.7 over five years, as a way to raise public funds for post-secondary educational institutions. Beyond the key demand for a freeze on tuition hikes, the student proposal to tax banks is sparking public debate, illuminating possible economic policies that reach beyond the neoliberal economic box.

At a time of financial crisis, banks in Canada and Quebec are securing record profits, over $22.4bn in 2011, a 15 per cent increase from the previous year. Given record bank profits in 2012 and recent reports outlining a secret $114-billion bailout at the height of the financial crisis, the Quebec student proposal to create a relatively tiny tax on financial institutions to benefit education is gaining public traction.

Rapidly moving beyond a debate on controversial university tuition hikes, Quebec’s student rebellion now revolves around a deeper political discord in Quebec, a clash of social visions for public universities in an era of austerity economics. As Liberal politicians fight to increase student fees, on the streets students are openly campaigning for a shift toward free, publicly accessible university education, a vision that holds deep social roots in Quebec.

Quebec’s revolutionary history

Students in Quebec maintain relatively low tuition due to a history of major strikes, dating back to the turbulent era of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the late 1960s, a period of social upheaval that deeply transformed Quebec society.

Mass protests a generation ago lead to the formation of a Quebecois national identity, distinct from the French Canadian label, a cultural turning point that sparked the Quebec independence movement, a political shift that sustains a deep impacts on politics in both Quebec and Canada until today.

Quebec’s national struggle catapulted Quebecois French into the centre of political life, a linguistic shift that in many ways revolved around access to education, a collective social challenge to traditional class dynamics in Quebec society that for generations saw a Quebecois majority living in relative social oppression, a reality often symbolised by stark working conditions in Quebec’s factories.

A mass student strike in 1974 and again in 1978 saw hundreds of thousands of students striking in a standoff with the government over tuition fees.

Access to education was central to the Quebecois struggle, a series of mass protests in 1969 called operation McGill francais forced McGill University to provide courses and administrative access in French, after thousands converged at McGill’s symbolic gates in mass protests that involved confrontations with Montreal police. Social unrest also lead to the creation of Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM) in 1969, a government response to striking students and growing popular demands for broader access to French language university studies, today UQAM is a key hub to the current student strike movement.

During this era in Quebec calls to abolish tuition fees began to ring out on the streets, a mass student strike in 1974 and again in 1978 saw hundreds of thousands of students striking in a standoff with the government over tuition fees, students lost that battle for an end to tuition but won major hikes in student loans and bursaries programs.

Students in Quebec at the time created Association des etudiants du Quebec (ANEQ) a Quebec-wide student federation, an earlier formation to Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante (ASSE) the student group leading the current strike. Activist student unions, rooted in broader social justice struggles in Quebec, meant students realising a political potential to actively shape debates on education in Quebec and to collectively demand social change.

Rejecting austerity economics

Quebec’s Quiet Revolution certainly informs the very noisy current student strike, while vibrant street protests, now occurring under the eye of the international media, are also linked to broader global unrest on the streets taking aim at state-driven austerity measures.

Quebec students protest university-fee rise

As seen across the EU, from Ireland, to Spain, popular protests against austerity economics, now roughly translating into electoral maps in Greece and France, are rooted in similar battles over drastic cuts and market-driven reorientation of public institutions, or the commons.

In Quebec the distance between politicians in Quebec City and students on the streets is massive, a conflict spelling out the broader global disconnect between politicians and people at a time of financial crisis.

In contrast to student demands for an abolition of tuition fees, Quebec’s governing Liberals are calling for a “cultural revolution”, clearly a political joust aiming to undercut many points of the social consensus around the role of public institutions in Quebec society  established during the Quiet Revolution.

Today the Quebec social model, despite growing economic inequalities, remains discordant in many ways to the prevailing logic of corporate-driven social policy firmly taking root in the US and in Canada under the current Conservative government. Mass mobilisations on the streets right now in Montreal and beyond are rooted in the defence of a Quebecois national identity that includes major public funding for accessible education and other public services like healthcare.

Beyond education, the current Quebec Liberal government recently imposed $200-per-year healthcare flat tax, or “user fee”, for all in Quebec.

In response, striking student unions are actively aligning with community associations and workers unions, via La Coalition opposee a la tarification et a la privatisation des services publics, a coalition that held a major protest outside the Liberal Party of Quebec’s general council meeting last month in Victoriaville, Quebec, sparking unprecedented police violence against protesters via Surete du Quebec (SQ) forces, one student lost an eye and another suffered a skull fracture due to rubber bullet shots to the head.

Today Quebec is on edge, facing a major political crisis that started with a mass student strike against tuition hikes and is now quickly evolving into a very public battle over the future of Quebec society at a time of global turmoil.

The next weeks and months of political life in Quebec are difficult to predict, thousands continue to protest every day, however its clear is that the student strike of 2012 will sustain far reaching implications for not only Quebec.

Beyond the monumental obstacles facing the Quebec strike movement, from costly court battles, to daily police violence on demonstrators, a major challenge is to translate this massive show of popular revolt against the existing economic order into concrete long term social change, a challenge faced by revolutionary movement across the world right now, from Occupy Wall Street, to Egypt.

Given the creativity, endurance and tenacity of the growing social movement in Quebec, there is a real possibility that the 2012 student strike could result in deep changes to Quebec society that will echo across the world.  

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, musician and community activist.

Follow him on Twitter: @spirodon