Whither the Quebec left and student movement after the ‘Maple Spring’?
The 2013 edition of the annual Socialist Register, a valuable publication, is devoted to “The Question of Strategy.” It contains 19 articles by more than 20 authors on the Occupy movement, new left parties and electoral strategy in Europe, the new progressive governments and movements in Latin America, and so on. Oddly, however, there is not a single article on the strategic lessons of the Quebec upsurge in 2012 and the massive student strike that shook the province for some six months, helping to bring down the Liberal government. A surprising omission, especially in view of the fact that two of the Register’s three editors are Canadians. There is not even a mention of the Quebec strike and its strategic lessons in the editors’ Preface, dated August 2012, written following the strike and in the midst of the Quebec election campaign.
Fortunately, a French journal, Contretemps, founded by the late Daniel Bensaid, recognized the importance of the Quebec struggle. In a recent issue (January 18) it published an interview with two Québécois — one of them a leader of this year’s strike, the other a leader of the 2005 strike — about the lessons they draw from these experiences. They also discuss the meaning of the election of the Parti québécois government and the role of the left party Québec solidaire and some of the problems they see in its relation to the student movement and other social movements.
The following is my translation of the interview, which was also published on the web site of Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, a Quebec journal. The most recent issue of NCS, No. 8, Fall 2012, features a number of excellent articles analyzing “Higher education – Culture, commodity and resistance” from a critical left perspective.
To answer the question in the title above, our French comrades of the journal Contretemps met with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, former co-spokesperson for the CLASSE (the major student organization in the “maple spring”), and Eric Martin, a co-author of Université inc. (Lux Éditeur, 2011), research officer at the IRIS and member of the CAP/NCS. They were interviewed by Hugo Harari-Kermadec on December 15, 2012.
This interview is a prelude to an article in the next issue of Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, in which Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois critically reviews the student struggle of last spring, its original dynamic and its relation to the social movements and to politics.
Contretemps: What is the situation in Quebec since the victory of the Parti québécois on September 4, 2012?
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois: Since the election we have been experiencing a certain return to reality, which is difficult for a part of the student movement. There is disappointment, since the mobilization, unprecedented in Quebec history, was not translated in the electoral results which were fairly tepid, with an electorate that was extremely divided by thirds. The Parti québécois [which won with a weak plurality] had promised some progressive but timid reforms. The increase in tuition fees has been cancelled (for the moment), the closing of a nuclear power plant has been announced, some nice measures in the first weeks. And since then we have gone from retreat to retreat. In terms of public policies, there is no change, and the PQ is again demonstrating its inability to be a real political alternative to neoliberalism. It’s sort of a return, not back to square one but not far from that. There is some disillusionment due to the fact that this movement was not immediately able to correct the direction in which Quebec was going.
Eric Martin: From the standpoint of the political consciousness of the youth, the movement launched some seismic waves, the full impact of which is not yet clear; it will be revealed in the long run. But it is the Parti québécois that proved incapable of reaping the harvest that the movement sowed in people’s minds. Thirty years ago, this party purported to carry the historic aspirations of the Quebec people and youth for emancipation, and proclaimed its proximity to the interests of the workers, its “bias in favour of the workers.” But in the end it showed it was incapable of seeing that an historic window had opened with the student movement, that the social crisis is deeper than education and poses the question of the future of Quebec, while the PQ did not even take advantage of what was being delivered to it on a silver plate. On the contrary, they closed the window, made some technocratic reforms, without any debate. And by retreating at the least reaction, because this government is very skittish media-wise. So the government is already discredited, and it will soon fall. What awaits us is the election of a right-wing party, either the return of the Liberals or, worse still, the Coalition Avenir Québec.
GND: The big promise of the PQ for education was to stop the fee hike and above all to open a sort of major summit on the future of higher education in Quebec, which would discuss all the options including free education. But what appears is a funnelling to consensus, and we know in advance what will come out: indexation of tuition fees to the cost of living and, worse still, the pursuit of commoditization of the education system with the establishment of quality certification [which guarantees the skills acquired by graduates]. So there will be a deal with the business interests: we don’t increase tuition fees but we will step up the commoditization process. The attack will be directed against costs, but also content.
EM: The PQ bought into the concept of the knowledge economy in the 1990s, with the performance contracts in the universities. So for this party there is a sort of continuity: “Regardless of what the kids in the street are saying, we take power and we get back to serious business, the paternalist technocrats know what is the right thing.” That’s the fine voice of the OECD. In what way is that party a party of change? No way!
GND: Many people were saying there might be some possibility with the conference on education: the last one was in the 1960s, it was time to inquire as to the role of higher education in Quebec. What is even sadder, or frustrating, is that one of the former student spokespersons was co-opted by the Parti québécois and is now telling people that this summit is part of the continuity of the movement. He is selling the movement to the PQ.
EM: The most frustrating thing is the disconnection between the talk, the discourse, and the functioning of the regime. There may be a major joint effort, with lots of studies on the table to show that it should not be done, but it will proceed anyway. And ultimately, that is what this former spokesman does. In Quebec we cannot express a demand that can be objectified, be translated politically and institutionally. It is blocked by a duopoly, as in the United States.
How do you explain the fact that a student spokesman, Léo Bureau-Blouin, ends up as a candidate and is even elected, when there is a strong tradition of separation between parties and social movements?
GND: It’s the student left that is intransigent on that. The CLASSE, unlike the moderate wing of the student movement, is completely impermeable on this, even intolerant with respect to anything that smacks of electoral politics, a position that is open to criticism. The [FEUC] spokesman who was co-opted by the power elite comes from the concertationniste [collaborationist] fringe of the student movement which defines itself as a student lobby and not as a social organization or union.
EM: So there is a danger that the radicalized students will become even more intransigent on this, which prevents any form of dialectic between the street and the ballot boxes. It is impossible, then, to make a link between the movement and Québec solidaire, the party that represents a sort of social-democratic left, which is the best we have: an organized left force with the ecologists, feminists, etc.
GND: In my opinion, there is a false opposition in Quebec, an “opposition d’entendement” [opposed frameworks of interpretation] between corporatist, concertationniste student organizations, which are in bed with the Parti québécois, and conversely a student left that refuses any dialogue, any link with political parties. To the point that when the election came, the CLASSE had a position of not taking a position: “We will not take account of the electoral context.” Which I find problematic, because it’s a denial of the circumstances in which the social movements are nevertheless evolving.
EM: This is an old problem in Quebec. For example, the national question and the social question are separated. The independentist movements don’t want to talk about social questions, to avoid divisions among them, and the social movement (the Marxist-Leninists in the 1970s, now the libertarian youth) view the national question as a monopoly of the bourgeoisie. So we don’t manage to link these questions together dialectically.
The student movement in fact managed to make some syntheses, and that was its strength, but it did not succeed in taking the next step. Without trying to condense the movement in the National Assembly, to give it a political and electoral translation.
‘The government’s intransigence favoured the more militant pole’
From a more individual point of view, are there some who have joined Québec solidaire?
GND: Yes, that’s the big irony: the separation is formal, and in reality there are some student activists who do join Québec solidaire. We saw this during the election: the position of the CLASSE congress, which said “we ignore the election and call for continuing the strike,” was rejected by the students who had mobilized for some months; starting with the first general assemblies when the new school semester began, they voted the opposite way: “There’s an election, we have an opportunity to overthrow the government, let’s go back to class.” So that was a major disillusionment, showing the gap between a certain far-left within the structures of the student movement and the majority of the militants, including some of the most active, for whom it was now time to translate the movement politically. So there was no organized translation of this attitude in the public space, which was very difficult for the CLASSE.
EM: The first-past-the-post electoral system puts a premium on strategic voting. Québec solidaire got 6%, well below its standing in the opinion polls, because in order to push the Liberals out people had to vote for the PQ as the party of alternance. But it was tweedledum and tweedledee. Since the student movement had in some ways cut itself off at the knees, and with the issue of strategic voting, the election of the PQ came quite naturally, without much effort. And because that party has since then exhausted the last symbolic capital remaining to it we are heading toward a victory for the right at the next opportunity.
The fact that the ASSÉ had majority support for the first time in the student elections, was that linked to the preceding mobilizations? Is this an indication of a stronger politicization of this student generation, even before the spring of 2012, with the ecologist or the altermondialiste [global justice] movements?
GND: I don’t know if we can say that. It’s explained more by some strategic factors, and by the student strike in 2005 against the same government, against a cut in student grants. At the time, that was the biggest strike in Quebec history, before being exceeded by the one this year. An eight-week strike, triggered by the militant fringe but reclaimed by the concertationniste fringe through the exclusion of the militant wing from the negotiations because it refused to denounce violence. An agreement was signed with the Liberals, putting an end to the strike, without consulting the striking students.
This fizzling out, in 2005, had an impact on the student organizations. The dominant university federation lost half its members within a few years. It was a shock for the entire student movement. During that time, the militant wing went after the student associations, one after another. And by 2012 the militant pole was a lot more solid, a lot more organized, a lot bigger than in 2005. From the outset of the strike, the CLASSE assumed its leadership role in the public space, on the campuses. Which meant that even the federations jumped into the dance, at the end of February, early March, when the CLASSE was already established as the majority force and continued to be in the way the strike was represented. It is really this configuration that explains 2012. And during the strike the militant pole continued to grow, and that is where we see the effect of the politicization: during the movement people were leaving the student federations and joining the militant coalition, association by association, because the CLASSE was present in the public space, on the campuses, advancing its ideas, its general political analysis, which went beyond the issue of blocking the fee hike, and this attracted a lot of new members.
EM: Another thing that is linked to that is proof by contradiction — concertation does not work. Its strength lies in the relationship to the state. These federations lobby, circulate petitions. But when the state itself decides not to negotiate, it’s as if the Prince is no longer listening to his advisor. That’s when they become de facto irrelevant, they jump. They have to confess their irrelevance, and to line up beside the CLASSE, and say “do something.” The government’s intransigence favoured the more militant pole, which is what the government wanted in fact: a confrontation, which could not occur with people who do not want one, who are basically lackeys.
GND: The student federations did not lead any actions during the strike, or demonstrations. There were dozens each day, perhaps 20 percent of them called or organized by the CLASSE. We had at least one big demonstration per week, there were several each day in the regions. And during that time the federations were saying “we want to negotiate”; it made them look totally ineffective.
EM: With the result that there is now a campaign of disaffiliation from the FEUQ. They have lost all their members.
‘Québec Solidaire proved unable to take a clear stand’
Is the present respite being used to open a debate in the CLASSE on the lessons to be learned from the mobilization and the electoral follow-up?
GND: That’s one of the problems with the end of the strike. Since the CLASSE said “we’re continuing” and people went back to class, there was no call to end the strike. It came to an end slowly, over two or three weeks. There really wasn’t an end to the strike, and immediately afterward there was the election. Then the work of preparing for the summit began, we drafted briefs… and people said to themselves “it’s not over, there’s the summit, perhaps there will be indexation….” There’s a certain indefiniteness, so for now there is no real balance sheet. This inability to take a break, to conduct a review is a problem perhaps. A congress of the ASSÉ was scheduled for January, but in the circumstances this has been postponed to the summer. So in theory there would be an opportunity to make an assessment this summer, but I don’t know if we will be able to do that.
The ASSÉ is returning to its usual form?
GND: Yes, the CLASSE was dissolved in October. It was a temporary coalition for the time of the strike. It had been founded like that in January 2011, with the explicit provision in its statutes that it would dissolve when the strike ended.
EM: But that’s a problem! In 2005, we experienced the same problem: we had created the CASSÉË, which we dissolved after the strike, so it took years to rebuild a movement like that, which has now scuppered itself again. I am very critical of this. I think there should be a permanent structure like that. And the other problem is that once people leave the student movement they fall into a vacuum. There is Québec solidaire, a political party, and you will get active in it if you want to engage in electoral politics. But if you want to participate in a radical political movement, there is nothing outside the student movement. For adults, workers, there is nothing in between, apart from a few tiny communist or anarcho-communist groups. But that’s not where everyone will go to be active. And for the students, they have to re-form coalitions each time. It happens when an adversary appears, and when it falls the coalition falls apart again.
Did Québec solidaire not take account of the events to renew its forms of activism?
EM: That’s another problem. There were two main tendencies in Québec solidaire; the one I was in came from the Union des forces progressistes (UFP). This Marxist tendency said “we have to organize the social movement.” But there were a lot of people in the other tendency, who came from the community movement, let’s say the citizen’s fringe, who were saying “We have to respect the autonomy of the community movement, so we should not interfere in the social movements.” That position has been dominant for a long time, which means that Québec solidaire has refused to play a role as organizer of the social movement, an initiator of coalitions. It has remained a sort of electoral tool, but not a force for actively unifying the left-wing forces. While the UFP was itself the result of an idea of a party-building process, which sought to merge the CP, the PS [PDS] and some small groups. This party-building project, as conceived by François Cyr, Pierre Dostie and Gordon Lefebvre, was unfortunately not translated into the way in which Québec solidaire now functions. There is an electoralist logic.
And on other current issues, like taxing the well-off, Québec solidaire has proved unable to distinguish itself: its interventions were not very firm, or are barely present. They are marginalized in the mass media but they don’t try, either, to organize the working class or the masses. The party is not voluntarist enough, aiming to organize people. [But] it is a good party, an immense progress compared with the 1980s and 1990s when we didn’t have a left party, nothing but the PQ.
It’s a purely electoralist party?
GND: No, we shouldn’t say that. It is a party that is still socially committed, but timid in its desire to present itself as the organizing pole. Moreover, there is a difficulty in going into the street. The idea of a party of the streets and the ballot boxes is not yet fully realized. Well, I am too hard. There are some difficulties in organizing the street, and the street has some difficulties joining the party. We have to understand that in Quebec there is a traumatism in the social movements, which is the experience with the Parti québécois. It emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as the first political vehicle for the Francophone working class, the majority in Quebec. It was an immense hope, that party. Many social movements bet everything on that party. Which explains why many people today find it hard to detach themselves from it. Even some people on the far left.
There was a first PQ government and they say it was a good one, but very quickly, beginning in the early 1980s, the PQ government turned against the unions, adopting a special law on the civil service to smash the unions’ power. That was a disappointment, a kind of traumatism, which explains the reluctance in the social movements to join a political party. Which now explains the difficulties Québec solidaire is having. And unlike France, there is no strong tradition of a left-wing party in Quebec. The UFP was the first experience, in the 1990s!
EM: And the reason is that in the 1970s and 1980s, there was an experience with a very dogmatic, Maoist communist party which ended up very badly for everyone, and it liquidated itself, at the time of the 1980 referendum. So independence and Marxism died at the same time in Quebec.
As to the labour movement, it is stuck to the PQ because it has some difficulties in seeing concretely any other real force. Not in terms of principles: Québec solidaire, in terms of principles, values, has that. But from a pragmatic standpoint, the labour movement cannot support a party that has no chance of being elected. It’s a deadlock.
‘Radicalization is a process that occurs in struggle’
Has the international climate been a factor? Occupy Wall Street, the Arab revolutions, etc.?
EM: Yes, there was Occupy Montréal, just before the student strike, an occupation of the Place de la Bourse [in front of the stock exchange]. That was a sort of prelude, with its limitations: Occupy Wall Street was a sort of expression, a cri de coeur, that had some difficulty in translating itself into actions.
GND: Even more than that. Yes, the international climate of challenging neoliberalism had an impact, people in Quebec felt they were part of a kind of international wave; lots of people said that. A major influence in the terms, but not an organizational influence. The question of the 99% / 1%, a new way of talking about social classes…an imaginary that was taken up by the student movement.
But organizationally, I don’t think we should see a continuity. Those movements organized themselves through social networks, in a decentralized way, without formal structures. A horizontal organization that has its strengths, but which is not the mode of organization of the Québécois movement, which on the contrary functions like a trade union….
EM: … direct democracy but with a highly organized action structure.
GND: With a majority, not consensual, process. It is often written that the CLASSE was a horizontal network without an executive. Yes, there was an executive, which is an organ for execution of mandates, but not policy representation. There are delegates, but it is indeed an organizational structure. The movement wouldn’t have had that force if we did not have this organization.
But then how do you explain this radicalization as the movement developed?
EM: It’s the government’s contempt, 45 layers over and above what is permissible. It pisses in your face, and you end up saying “Shit, that’s impermissible”!
GND: There is also the duration of the movement, people experienced the system in their flesh and blood. One lesson that I draw from it is that radicalization is a process that occurs in the struggle, not through beautiful speeches. We are right. But it is not because we are right, that’s not enough to convince people. It’s not by sticking some ideas on the reality that we are going to convince people that things are not going well in the world. In the general assemblies [AGs], in some places, the strike votes were stronger and stronger! Which is contrary to logic; generally, the strike vote starts strong and then people steadily disembark. But in the CEGEPs it was the reverse! There were people who were changing their minds! I remember leaving AGs that were full of green squares strewn on the ground. The green square was the sign of people who were for the fee hike. And people were taking them off during the AG. And when everyone got up, there would be 50 green squares on the ground because people had changed their mind. That shows a process of politicization through struggle. Some people who initially began the struggle with some (let’s say) social-democratic principles, or Judeo-Christian, of sharing, etc. Some good reasons, but not politically spelled out. And well, many of those people, having been on strike for six months, being beaten by the police every day, scorned by the mass media, living in oppression, radicalized a lot.
Also, there was the loss of legitimacy of the government, riddled by corruption scandals, which had backed down on the issue of shale gas, etc. And there was a sort of latent dissatisfaction, which the student movement was able to put into words. We gave a lot of people a cause, not on the campuses but to all those people who were dissatisfied and who joined in the casseroles protests. That’s always the challenge for the left: to put words on a dissatisfaction that is already there. People are well aware that things are not going as they should. The ecological crisis, the financial crisis…. People see in their everyday experience that there are problems, and the student movement was able to say, outside the campuses, “one of those injustices, which is part of the general logic, we can defeat it, come join us in the struggle.” It is this capacity to coalesce the frustrations, to channel, that enabled us to have, all at once, without any organization calling for it, a movement of the casseroles. It really was born on the social networks, and suddenly there were thousands of people in the street every night, throughout Quebec. Suddenly, some people who were there, who agreed with us, went through the door they had opened.
‘They realized that we were on to something, and they no longer knew how to react’
Is that where the social networks play their role?
GND: Exactly. Once the social movement had done its job, the foundations, as we say in Quebec, “partir la patente” [to get things going], the social networks helped to add some dynamism, some self-organization. That allowed all kinds of citizen initiatives, neighbourhood assemblies, to emerge….
EM: It freed up the potential for people to be creative. And there was no longer any control, it was no longer the student unions that were making the decisions. An organizational platform on which the spontaneity was built. People think spontaneity is at the beginning, but it’s the result.
GND: Yes, the student organizations were there to lay the foundations for the actions, but at some point the CLASSE was carrying out a national action each week, some regional mobilizations, coordinating the strike votes, intervening in the media, in a negotiating stance with the government… But all the rest, 90% of what was happening, was autonomous, decentralized and spontaneous. This was a novelty in Quebec; in 2005 the social networks had barely got going. It was a novelty, for us but also for the establishment and the media. They were unable to understand what was happening. They have an analytical framework that says politics is the state, the parties, the unions. And it’s all machines, it works “top-down.” And this time it was completely different. They even criticized us for it! “But you are not controlling your members!” A total lack of comprehension. I said, “But we have 100,000 members, what do you expect… But what are you talking about?” The funniest thing was the student federations, which were saying “We are controlling our members!” Well, there were not that many any more, but it was also not true, their members were coming to us!
That movement was outside the usual framework. In fact, I saw an interview with a Quebec reporter by a French TV network, which asked him to describe Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. And this Quebec reporter, from a left-wing newspaper, who has a master’s degree in philosophy, replied: “He’s a young man, very articulate, blah blah, but his defect is that he has found a new form of langue de bois [wooden rhetoric], to avoid answering questions. He always claims he needs a mandate to speak! This is a new discursive strategy: he always says he has no mandate. He relies on this to refuse his responsibilities.”
EM: It’s the langue Dubois [laughter].
GND: And it’s not bad faith, it’s a failure to comprehend. For him, this could not exist. It could only be a discursive mystification. Another example: The minister asked me to order a truce to allow negotiations in peace and quiet. I replied: “First, I don’t have that power. Second, I don’t want to do it. Third, I will take your request, we will consult in our 80 AGs, give us a week and we’ll get back to you.” At that point, they hung up on me, on the state television [Radio Canada]. On the news program. One of the talking heads cut me off because, he says, I am refusing to answer the question. He was asking me repeatedly: “Do you agree to the truce?”
Another example. When the casseroles began, it was candy for the continuous news channels; they had helicopters flying over the city of Montréal, and everywhere, in all the streets, there were people banging their pots. And they called on one of the political commentators, a former federal minister. He says: “It’s very hard to describe, the student associations did not call these actions, it’s hard to see who is behind them.” Because obviously, there had to be someone behind them. “It may be a new form of … uprising.” He was having trouble articulating those words. “Popular uprising.” He was lost, wide-eyed. He did not understand. And they were afraid. They realized that we were on to something, and they no longer knew how to react.
EM: This door that was opened, the PQ is working to close it again. But things will continue to burrow from below, and the question is when will this energy that the people, or the youth, discovered for themselves is going to be used to do more than go beyond the bounds.
Endnotes compiled by Richard Fidler
 CAP – Collectif d’analyse politique.
 No. 9, to appear in mid-February 2013.
 See “Charest wants to transform Quebec into a “Right-to-Study State,” in this blog post.
 The reference is to Léo Bureau-Blouin, a leader of the FECQ, the federation of college students, who was elected to the National Assembly on September 4 as a PQ candidate.
 Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) – Broad coalition of the Association for student union solidarity.
 Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the university students federation.
 Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, the permanent core body of the CLASSE.
 Coalition de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante Élargie (CASSÉÉ) – Expanded coalition of the ASSÉ.
 Parti de la Démocratie Sociale (PDS), the name adopted by the Quebec NDP in the early 1990s when it separated from the federal New Democratic Party.
 Actually, both of the major Maoist parties, the Workers Communist Party (PCO in French) and En Lutte/In Struggle, collapsed quite suddenly soon after the referendum, around 1983.
 Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel, midway between high school and university.