Right next door to the apathy that is almost universal on U.S. campuses, there has been an amazing revival of student activism unseen for decades in Québec. Yet almost no U.S. students will know anything about it because of a virtually complete black-out in mainstream U.S. media–and very little coverage even on U.S. alternative and left-wing sites. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, since most U.S. students seem perfectly content with the status quo. But if U.S. radicals knew more about the Quebec upheaval, they might find ways to spread the fire to the young south of the border.
Between 60,000 and 100,000 militant students marched in Montréal on March 16. Thousands more marched in Québec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivière, and just about every other Québec locality with a CEGEP (somewhat similar to U.S. community colleges) or University. Students blocked the Port of Montréal, closed down the lucrative Montréal casino, blocked Federal Highway 40, and occupied various government and Liberal party offices in Québec City and Montréal–often for days at a time. In all, close to 300,000 students went on strike, closing almost all public higher education in Quebec for up to seven weeks (and continuing on many campuses). Up to 15,000 secondary school students joined demonstrations in solidarity–with backing from teacher’s unions. Many University and CEGEP professors’ and administrators’ associations also endorsed the strike–as did a wide range of Quebec’s other labor unions.
The strike began February 23 with a walkout by 30,000 CEGEP and University students, organized by the most radical of the three major student associations, CASSÉÉ (a coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity–ASSÉÉ–and unaffiliated student groups). The motivating grievance was a drastic cut in student stipends from the Quebec government, announced by the Liberal Minister of Education–some $103 million (Canadian dollars–U.S. equivalent about $80 million)–per year, beginning with this academic year’s promised amount. ASSÉÉ included in its demands an end to the Liberal government’s planned privatization and decentralization of some CEGEPs and other higher education programs, as well as a call for free tuition, and “humanistic curricula.”
Tuition in Quebec is already the lowest in Canada–which is, of course, lower than almost all public institutions in the United States. Disabled and very low income students receive further assistance, which were not included in the cuts. Yet student groups were nearly unanimous in outrage at the take back of scholarship money. The two largest federations of students–FECQ for CEGEPs and FEUQ for universities–endorsed the strike almost immediately. Even traditionally conservative associations representing students in medicine, law, business and education, joined in. The elite private, English-speaking universities took symbolic but important steps by staging a one-day strike (Concordia) and issuing supportive statements–though the militant atmosphere did not carry over to the Anglo institutions, for the most part. (Concordia’s radical student government was ousted after a huge and heavily funded media campaign vilifying it’s pro-Palestinian stance last year.) Among the French-speaking, working-class students, CASSÉÉ itself grew rapidly in membership–now up to about 60,000.
All during March, the cities of Montréal and Québec were swarming with student militants. The daily protests have often been quite creative, including hunger strikes, streets barricaded with tires and garbage, and “bed-ins” (more intimate than sit-ins). There was also an assortment of cultural events ranging from dance and film showings to “24 hours of radical philosophy” at UQAM, the university in Montréal with a primarily working class student body. Everywhere, from the fashionable cafés of St. Denis to the gay village, the tourist-filled Old City and the Parc LaFontaine (Montréal’s Central Park), the red felt patch symbolizing resistance was visible, not only on students, but on many sympathizers among the gentry of the Plateau and the queens along St. Catherine’s. March was cold this year, and students often wore scarves and hoods and quilted parkas, but seemed undeterred by the winds and snow. Drivers in cars blocked by demonstrators waited patiently and smiled or waved at the students. Call-in shows were full of supportive comments–and opinion polls showed more than 70% of Québecers still supported the strike at the end of March, after all the disruptions.
The political ferment throughout Québec this spring has not been seen there at least since 1975–during the drive for independence–and recalls for many the student uprisings in the U.S. and throughout Europe between 1968 and 1972. One striking UQAM student, spoke to me of “a revolutionary consciousness that is growing again among young Québecers.” I attended a rally of about 10,000 students in Parc LaFontaine where many of Québec’s leading singers and comedians performed. “More of a circus, really,” said one young woman, “Don’t get the wrong impression–we are serious, but we also like fun at the same time.” Clifford Kraus reported in the Canadian on-line journal, Autonomy & Solidarity, April 3, that students told him the same thing. One young woman at UQAM told him, “It is a really special moment….with deeper, more radical possibilities.” “The cultural revolution” could come again, she hoped.
The provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest–elected by a slim margin two years ago–already had the highest disapproval rating of any sitting government–about 70%. Other strikes by workers and social service agencies staged a variety of protests against proposed cuts in housing assistance and the “$5 day care” available to all Quebec children. The Federal government is a “minority” government, with Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin only propped up by the left-leaning Bloc Québecois (which won almost all Quebec seats in last year’s Federal election) and the moderately socialist New Democrats (NDP). Martin has already taken some important symbolic steps to satisfy the left–most important was his about-face in refusing to support Bush’s missile defense program. The wrath of students has spared neither the Québec nor the Federal Liberals.
And the strike has been a huge success. On April 3, the Liberal government caved almost completely on the student stipends–promising to restore immediately $70 million this year, and to return to the $103 million for coming years. They also shelved immediate plans for privatization and decentralization (seen as an attempt to divide students).
The FECQ (CEGEPS) did not take a stand, urging members to decide for themselves. FEUQ (Universities) favored accepting the proposal, seeing it as a complete victory. Campus by campus votes were taken, and some already began to reopen by April 6. Others–including the largest unit at UQAM in Montréal–extended the strike at least until April 15. The elite campus of the University of Montréal voted April 8 for its 40,000 students to remain on strike. ASSÉÉ itself urged rejection, and as of April 12, final votes of its members had not been tabulated, though it appeared that those favoring a continued strike would win. Radical demands had not been met, of course, but some radicals saw the strike result as a victory that could lead to further victories.
CASSÉÉ took the lead in attempting to broaden the student strike toward a more general protest against Liberal cutbacks. They declared a second round of so-called “echo” demonstrations in solidarity with all workers and social services against the “neo-liberal” platform of Charest–with major demonstrations planned for April 14. Although eschewed by traditional labor unions, CASSÉÉ joined a wide range of other “civil society” groups including the anti-globalization network,CLAQ, in calling for a day of mobilization, that some called a general strike. Meanwhile, groups of anarchist students held sit-ins at Walmart (waging a struggle against unionization), the state liquor warehouse (under strike from workers) and the Stock Exchange. Police counter-actions brought several minor injuries and arrests.
Whether most faculties and campuses will continue the strike is unclear, as is public reaction to a broadened set of social protests, but all agree that significant organizing has begun, with important consequences for all labor and for Quebec society itself. An ASSÉÉ organizer, a young woman student, told Radio Canada on April 11, “Whether the vote is to continue the strike or not, we have won–this is a step toward real change.” The direction of change was clear from the slogan of the proposed general strike: the social peace is finished! Most activists–including those from traditional unions and neighborhood associations–predict a huge turn-out for the May day demonstrations this year.
I asked my Québec friends why they think so little of this gets reported in the U.S. media. “The isolation of Québec from the rest of North America works two ways. It’s partly a cultural and linguistic veil–we would like it to be a wall, really–that also keeps out some of the worst elements of U.S. and Anglo culture and politics here–so it’s not altogether negative.” Yet one wonders if the veil could be lifted long enough for U.S. radicals–and potential student activists–to get a whiff of the potent political and cultural winds now blowing just across the northern border.
TOM REEVES was co-author with Karl Hess of THE END OF THE DRAFT (Random House, New York, 1970). He was National Director of the National Council to Repeal the Draft from 1968-1972. He has written about a range of U.S. foreign policy and other political issues for CounterPunch, Z, Rabble, Interconnect, Dollars & Sense, the NACLA Report and other print and internet magazines.