Québec’s Student Movement: People Power on Campus

By Joël Pedneault

For decades, Montréal has had a strong tradition of street protests. Unions, communities, feminist groups, and leftist groups have contributed to this tradition, the student movement being no exception. Since at least the 1960s, student associations in Québec have fought battle after battle with the provincial government to make sure post-secondary education is accessible for people with limited resources. They also fought the privatization and corporatization of education. Tuition fees for Québecers are among the lowest in North America because of this strong movement. Every time the government announces that it is thinking of increasing university fees, student unions have organized protests and strikes. In the past five decades, eight “general” student strikes (i.e. where multiple campuses and hundreds of thousands of people are on strike, sometimes for weeks at a time) have taken place.

The most recent general student strike took place in 2012, and was easily the largest student strike in Québec’s history. Although the initial goal was to prevent a 75% tuition fee increase, it developed into a movement that made the province almost impossible to govern for months on end. Over time, the government, courts, and police cracked down hard on the protests – which generated even more outrage. The 2012 strike was a partial success in the sense that the governing Liberal Party called an election much earlier than it would have otherwise, as a final resort to get the strike to end, and to take the steam out of a movement that was beginning to threaten the State itself. This strategy worked (the strike didn’t last very long past the elections), and the Liberal Party was defeated. However, the Parti Québecois government that came into power as a result still decided to raise tuition fees after the dust had settled.

Over the past decade, McGill and Concordia University students have been participating more and more in Québec’s student movement. During the 2012 strike, students organized some of the first ever strikes in these universities, in spite of a tendency for both campuses to be less active in the student movement. These students also held directly democratic general assemblies where any student could participate, breaking with a tradition of careerist student councils making decisions on behalf of the student body. An organizing strategy that worked very well on both campuses was to organize at a very grassroots level: for instance, the Geography department would vote to go on strike, instead of everyone in the Arts and Science faculty.

To continue challenging a power structure that directs education to focus on the needs of the rich, this type of grassroots organizing is a promising strategy for Montréal’s English-language universities. But our work doesn’t stop as soon as we leave school. Get involved with networks like those centred around the QPIRGs at McGill and Concordia, which connect campus-based movements with the many struggles going on around us–whether they be anti-racist, anti- colonial, anti-capitalist, feminist, or for queer and trans liberation, among many others.

For more information in English about the 2012 student strike, visit thisisclasswar.info.