Student movement victory? The Québec Strike
governing Liberals to call an election, which resulted in a Liberal defeat and the repeal of tuition fee hikes and anti-protest legislation. The movement in itself is something worth celebrating. Students mobilized themselves to enforce a student strike that lasted for 8 months and, in the process, fostered a broad social movement in communities across Québec and internationally. People and families were inspired to take the streets on a nightly basis.
Students built their own democratic structures on a sweeping scale, fostering general assemblies across the province that directly engaged hundreds of thousands of students. In terms of the level of passion, engagement and creativity, there is nothing comparable in electoral politics or union organizing in recent North American history.
And students did this in the face of relentless cynicism and distortion from corporate media. A careful analysis of media coverage of the movement would reveal an anti-strike bias so severe as to truly merit the term propaganda. This was corporate propaganda, plain and simple. It carried an ideological fervor and contempt for the students.
Not surprisingly, students bore the brunt of these insults and degradations. I am of the firm belief that this media coverage fostered a culture of dehumanization. And when youth are painted as violent and extreme, it becomes far easier for authorities to impose a level of oppression that would otherwise not be tolerated.
I do blame the media for some of the serious, even critical, injuries that were inflicted upon students by an overwhelming police and state apparatus.
This was coupled with a troubling piece of legislation called Bill 78 (or Law 12), which undermined basic rights and freedoms, including the right to free speech and assembly.
Students endured all of this and, in doing so, achieved their principal goal: a repeal of the tuition hike. For CLASSE, this was always done with a long-term perspective of introducing free education for all.
Students deserve to celebrate this victory—one step along the way toward free and emancipatory education.
The decision to celebrate the repeal of the tuition hike was also invariably a strategic choice. It seems clear to me that many students were on the brink of emotional and psychological defeat leading up to the election.
Celebrating this victory simply makes sense and keeps people in good spirits. It is absolutely worthwhile to celebrate something that students fought for with incredible determination and resilience.
But this moment does also merit critical reflection. The election result and the Parti Québecois’ ensuing decision to repeal the tuition hike and Bill 78 have far-reaching consequences.
In my mind, student movements are not simply militant lobby groups with the goal of policy reform. They exist to offer an alternative vision of society based on active participation, real equality, climate justice and the common good. The elections effectively muffled this alternative perspective for the foreseeable future, precisely when it is most needed.
But there contines to be a desire within the movement for fundamental change which cannot be created through existing institutions. Hegemonic ideas of democracy are not deemed legitimate to many student organizers. Camille Robert and Jeanne Reynolds, co-spokespersons of CLASSE, describe this alternative vision with beautiful clarity in theirpost-election Toronto Star column, drawing from the pre-electoral CLASSE manifesto:
They write that we have a “broken system of democracy that comes up for air once every four years, in which politicians prefer the murmurs of business lobbyists to the voices of those they supposedly represent. Our faith is in direct, participatory democracy, which we practise in assemblies of thousands where every student can give input into the decisions that impact them.
“Our commitment to genuine democracy is a reflection of the type of society we seek to build: one that is more equal, not less, and revolves around the needs of people, not corporations.”
The strike was an attempt to foster a widespread social movement autonomously from electoral politics. Students raised issues of ecological degradation and crisis, sexism and racism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism – topics that cannot be easily filtered into the election outcome or the tuition hike repeal, which appears as a flash in a pan when compared with these deep-rooted challenges.
If the repeal of the tuition hike is a victory, and I think it was, the PQ decision can also be regarded as a partial closing of a window on these more transformative social goals.
Many students in Québec continue in their struggle as the dull rhythm of complacency and “business as usual” creeps back into daily life, precisely at a time when ecological and social crises are most pressing.
Camille and Jeanne said it beautifully in closing their Toronto Star column: “the social movement of the past year has taught us that police batons and corrupt politicians will not always prevail over the power of ideas. Ours is an age of cynicism, but we are learning that our dreams can be made real.” For many, the repeal of the tuition hike was simply one more step toward free education and a free society.
Matthew Brett: writer and activist based in London, England. Member of the Canadian Dimension editorial collective. Student in economics, School of Oriental and African Studies. Follow on Twitter @mattbrett_1984.