By passing Bill 78, a law designed to curb freedom of assembly and the right to strike, Premier Jean Charest expected to quell the three-month-old Québec student strike against tuition fee hikes. But this authoritarian gambit only galvanized the student movement and summoned a wave of support which transformed the student strike into a popular protest against austerity policies. On May 22, four days after the bill was adopted in the National Assembly, a quarter of a million people rallied against the bill in Montréal. Two days later, nightly marches held by the students were totally transformed when tens of thousands of people spontaneously poured into the streets across dozens of Montreal neighbourhoods, banging on pots and pans. This was the beginning of the “casseroles movement” which marked the passage of the student strike into a popular battle against neoliberal policies and repression.
Amir Khadir, MNA for Québec Solidaire, was among 60 persons arrested and handcuffed in Québec City on June 5 and charged under the highway traffic code with obstructing the streets. In a press conference, Khadir defended peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience of Bill 78. “When a law is immoral, when a law is unjust, there is a law of conscience that must be obeyed,” he said. Hundreds of thousands of Québecers clearly agree.
Not only did Premier Charest grossly underestimate the tenacity and resilience of the striking students, he also failed to gauge the depth of popular anger and frustration at his neoliberal crisis policies, not to mention the disgust with the endemic corruption of his government. Mass civil disobedience has now become standard practice with nightly casserole demonstrations, which are technically illegal under Bill 78 when they involve more than 50 people and the route has not been disclosed to the police eight hours in advance. Charest’s cynical bid to restore the flagging electoral fortunes of his Liberal Party by playing the law-and-order card is so far coming up empty. Not only is dissatisfaction with his government sky-high, but he has to contend with a social upsurge that is threatening to upset his austerity plans.
For the Charest government, the stakes of the student strike were never purely economic. The real intent is to implement a user-pay system of public services and forestall any challenge to austerity policies. The unprecedented display of support for the students reflects people’s recognition that this is a test case in the government’s strategy of multiplying user fees as a means to combat fiscal crisis. This is precisely the point the students have been making from the outset of the battle in March 2010, when the austerity budget was first adopted. And they have succeeded in mobilizing determined and sustained resistance to right-wing economic policies and repression, including the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
What lies ahead? At its annual congress in early June, the CLASSE, the most radical of Québec’s three major student organizations, adopted a three-part action plan for the months ahead: to sponsor mass national demonstrations on June 22 and July 22; to participate in a demonstration on July 13 organized by a broad coalition against user fees and privatization of public services; and to lay the groundwork for widespread mobilization this fall, including the possibility of a “social strike” at the end of the summer.
Things will never be the same in Québec. An entire generation of young people has taken up the politics of protest and is getting an education in the strategy and tactics of mass movements. Anti-capitalist consciousness is growing. And there’s a budding movement of support for Québec students spreading throughout Canada which may just harbour the promise of a coast-to-coast upsurge against the pernicious policies of the Harper government.
This article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Limits of Medicine in a Sick Society).