Québec is in the midst of a social crisis of rare intensity, both in terms of the duration of the confrontation between the student movement and the Québec government and the extent to which citizens have rallied behind students in the last weeks. After more than four months, a total of 161 student unions bringing together more than 150,000 members are still carrying out the struggle single-handedly. Montréal’s tourist season is in sight and there is no indication that the movement is nearing exhaustion.
The first two months of the conflict come down to the Charest government’s willful ignorance of student demands. What has been striking (no pun intended) in the last two months is both the strong sense of panic and improvisation emanating from the government and the mobilization’s stunning persistence on campuses. I think it’s important to mention a few highlights. On March 22, April 22, and May 22, more than 200,000 people reclaimed the streets of Montréal, each time. In addition, picket lines were held daily in colleges and universities to enforce strike mandates, thousands of people march together every evening in Montréal in so-called “night-time demonstrations” and, lately, a great uproar —the sound of clanging pots and pans— has been rousing neighbourhoods every evening.
How did we get there? How could a conflict centred on a 75% hike in tuition fees give birth to the strongest social protest movement since the 60s Quiet Revolution? Obviously, there is no simple answer, and we lack the necessary detachment to evaluate history unfolding literally before our eyes. Yet, four fundamental elements already cannot be ignored, it seems, to analyze the recent events: the close-mindedness of the government in all negotiations, the police repression’s violence, the resolve of student unions to continue the struggle, and the government’s clubbing response, imposing an emergency law to force the end of the conflict.
The first serious negotiation session between the government and the different student unions was held on May 5, after students had been striking for more than two months. The government’s attitude until then was quite simple: to ignore student demands, to act as though there was no crisis, and even to lapse into cheap humour during a public event organized by the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal. Before finally meeting the student representatives, the government had been content simply to announce that the hike would be spread over 7 rather than 5 years, with an increase in financial aid for students and the creation of an interim committee to evaluate university management. By the end of a 22-hour marathon negotiation, the government agreed to form an interim council which would look into how universities allocate their funding. The council was meant to save money directly within universities as a means to decrease the administrative fees added on to the student bill, instead of decreasing tuition fees. This draft agreement was quickly rejected, firstly because the insufficiencies of the government’s offer, but also because of the dubious manoeuvres of the government’s negotiation team (the text of the government’s offer did not reflect the consensus which had been reached during the negotiations) and incendiary statements by the Premier and his Minister of Education.
The government’s declared bad faith regarding negotiations was complemented by the firmness it displayed regarding repression. By May 29, close to 3000 individuals had been arrested because of the strike. Each demonstration brings its lot of arrests, wounded demonstrators, and more or less savage uses of arbitrary and inconsiderate force on the part of policemen. Clashes between demonstrators and policemen, e.g. during the Liberal Party General Council meeting, are now common. By-laws passed in Québec City and in Montréal forbidding masks in demonstrations certainly did not help.
The students’ response was surprisingly energetic. Given the cross effect of police repression and the threat of term cancellation, everybody thought the strike would be over. However, mobilization carried on stronger than ever and, revealingly to say the least, strike mandates were renewed in most cases with a very strong majority. Though the government kept up appearances and remained firm, the tenacity of the strikers greatly destabilized the Premier’s agenda. In addition to costing him this spring’s electoral window, the student strike forced the Minister of Education and Deputy Premier Line Beauchamp to resign on 14 May.
The government was thus losing control when it introduced an emergency law, Bill 78, to force the end of the conflict. It’s an attack on free speech and on the right to organize: it requires, amongst other things, that academic institutions deliver courses despite strike mandates and that demonstrators hand in their itinerary to the police 8 hours in advance. Furthermore, the law provides for heavy penalties if one disobeys: fines ($1000 to $3000 for individuals, $7000 to $35,000 for union or student leaders, and $25,000 to $125,000 for organizations) as well as suspending automatic collection of the dues which fund student unions.
What had to happen happened. Once more, the government exposed that it by no means grasped the depth of the mobilization with which it was faced. The emergency law did not reach its true aim, i.e. to silence protest. On the contrary, the movement, which was foreseeing a potential summer demobilization with apprehension, has instead gathered new-found support. The student struggle morphed into a struggle to ensure that our democratic rights are protected. Every evening, the streets of cities throughout Québec echo with the sound of clanging pots and pans, contingents of several thousands of people pouring through various Montréal neighbourhoods in the most beautiful clamour.
Unfortunately, though mobilization has spread, that has not been enough to overcome the Charest government’s stubbornness. After four days of negotiations last week, the Premier and his new Minister of Education, Michelle Courchesne, put an end to discussions with representatives of student unions. Summer is here, and with it, the tourist season: it is impossible to predict the outcome of this historical conflict. In order for this unique demonstration of solidarity and determination to set into motion profound changes, let’s wish Québec students, and wish us all, a summer that will measure up to the spring we’ve just had.
Philippe Hurteau works with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.