Canada: Quebec’s youth in revolt: 73 days, 178,390 students on strike

This week has been a crucial one in Quebec’s historic student strike. In their struggle against the $1,625 tuition increase, the students have held strong since February 13th —  for 73 days straight. 178,390 students remain on unlimited strike despite the government’s gamble they could wait this movement out, that it would tire and collapse.

In the past two weeks, we have witnessed a violent crackdown by the government, with more than 600 arrested in the span of three days alone last week — more than the 457 arrested during the entire October Crisis in 1970, when tanks roamed the streets of Montreal. This heroic movement is showing an amazing will to fight, and the government has been playing games. They have been swinging back and forth from pretending to negotiate to attempting to put down this rising of a generation by force. The coming days will be crucial in deciding the struggle.

(Click here for a list of schools where a strike mandate has been given.)

Two weeks ago, in the first salvo of the government’s attack, Quebec’s minister of education Line Beauchamp came out calling on campus administrations to hold classes, with or without the students. The situation, in her view, had become critical, as classes technically were supposed to end on 25th April. The summer semester is already being cancelled at some schools, as the need to hold winter classes in the summer becomes evident. Following her directive, administrations across the province began to seek court injunctions against student picket lines, and to send out their own directive, this time aimed at the teachers — teach, even if the classroom is empty, or be disciplined for missing work.

Campus by campus, the strike is declared illegal

Injunctions were granted, in some places due to the initiative of “green square” strike-breaking students suing to be granted the “right” to break picket-lines. In others, it was the initiative of the administrations themselves, following the directive of Line. Valleyfield CEGEP, Line’s old campus and one of the first to go out on strike back in February, ordered a return to classes. Université de Montréal (UdeM) received an injunction, and filed for a second one banning all demonstrations on campus, not simply those which block access to the classes, which was denied. Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) was another to announce the return to class, and gained an injunction banning striking students from protesting within 25 metres of both UQO campuses. What unfolded was an open, coordinated attack against the movement at all levels.

But an injunction remains nothing but a piece of paper if the students do not return to class, or if the teachers refuse to cross the picket lines. At Valleyfield, UQO, UdeM, and across Quebec, teachers categorically rejected this attack on the students. Union after union of the professors declared they will not allow their members to be used to carry out the government’s dirty work. FNEEQ issued a statement against injunctions, against the attack on the democratic votes students have held deciding to strike. The teachers’ union at CÉGEP de Trois-Rivières issued a statement, “Negotiations or elections!”, calling for Jean Charest to suspend the tuition increase, resign, and hold an election this spring.

Ensuring teachers’ cooperation in holding classes of ones and twos and punishing striking students for not attending would have been essential in putting down the student strike. But as the above examples show, this was clearly not simple.

Entering on the scene is a whole wave of new security guards hired on campuses across the province in the past weeks.

Police and private security forces terrorize teachers and students

“Since the beginning of the week, security agents from the private firm Best were hired by the university to lend a hand to the agents of the peace already on campus. Some of these agents are wearing expandable batons which are used to push back crowds. Several professors and students have denounced their behaviour.

Certain professors claim to have been intimidated, forced to enter their rooms to give classes.

The director of the Urban Planning Institute was witness to a scene involving two professors who had noted that no student was present at their class.

‘An agent told them to go into their classrooms in a way that was sufficiently firm that I can speak of intimidation’, explained the director, Franck Sherrer. He wrote a letter to the dean of the faculty, which he circulated Tuesday.

‘A deleterious climate reigns at the Université de Montréal right now and the professors are angry’, confirmed the president of the Syndicat général des professeurs de l'Université de Montréal (SGPUM), Jean Portugais.” (La Presse, 17 Apr. 2012)

This is not the only example. To get the students back to class, the teachers had to be forced into line first, and new security guards were increasingly being used to do it.

On Thursday, April 20th, a philosophy teacher at CEGEP Limoilou planned on holding class outdoors. She even had obtained written permission from the administration to do so. Only, she had made a Facebook event of it, inviting people to meet her there and stating that she would “willingly carry out an act of extreme civil disobedience”. The aim was to teach her class about freedom of expression and liberty, and she was basically organizing a demonstration to do it. This CEGEP was one where students had voted to oppose the increase, but not to strike, so the fact that a teacher was mobilizing students is significant.

At 1:00 PM, someone came out and read a statement on her behalf to a group of about 300. It was a defiant message, about the trampling of democratic rights. She remained inside the campus, holding a sign in her window that read, “Freedom”. A student in her course witnessed a security officer lock her in her office to prevent her from going outside to give her class. The administration also threatened to fire her. While she was locked inside, her students were beaten outside, 30 were arrested, and one bled from his skull and was taken by ambulance.

>Police brutality reaches its limits

Elsewhere, at UQO, after the courts declared the return to class, police were deployed to the campus to enforce the injunction. Students arrived from across Quebec to support the strike and oppose the attack on democracy. After 66 days of students being beaten and brutalized by police officers, the arrival of riot police and their shoving of students pushed the crowd over the limit. While the riot police watched, around 600 held an open-air assembly and voted on the course of action to follow. The decision was made. Lines were formed and, joined by some teachers, the students forced their way en masse through the police lines and into their university where they set up barricades. They occupied the university for two hours before being forced out, and several teachers were arrested along with 300 students over two days of protest. [Video]

Later, the situation on campus was such that a permanent police presence was required within the walls of the university, and students were checked at the entrance, not only for IDs, but to ensure they were not wearing the red square which symbolizes support for the strike. [Video]

And this permanent police force was also turning on the teachers to break their solidarity with the students. The video below shows a teacher, who claims no one came to her class, being expelled from the campus by the police because she refused to go to her class. [Video]

Here is expressed clearly the ferocity of the crackdown. This also signifies that the students are not the only ones being targeted — the teachers were now being targeted, too. In the past weeks, several have already been arrested. A group of teachers against the hikes is gathering adherents to their manifesto, and now counts the support of 2,300 as of the 4th of April.

Teacher solidarity can neutralize the offensive

The teachers cannot be forced to break the student strike, and the desperate actions of police and private security forces are only enraging them and bringing them into the struggle. The UQO union has petitioned in court against the injunction, and on other campuses many teachers are simply refusing to teach. Incidentally, the administration at UQO has suspended classes again, for “safety” reasons.

On the same day as the demonstration at Limoilou, teachers held a demonstration in Montreal of a more ironic character. Seeing as the injunctions are against anyone disrupting classes, they arrived at the police station and attempted to hand themselves over to police preemptively.

Below is a statement posted to the group of anti-hike CEGEP teachers’ Facebook page:

“We are professors of the universities and colleges of Quebec. While our colleagues at UQO are arrested, while our institutions undergo a police occupation, while professors at l’UdeM are told how to do their work by security agents, they dare to ask us, in between expulsions, fines and baton strikes, to condemn the so-called violence of the student movement. You should know that if injunctions are imposed as well in our institutions, we will refuse to obey them, disobeying the law in the process. This is why, in the spirit of saving gas and work, we ask you to immediately arrest us!”

At CEGEP St-Laurent, 180 teachers at the college held a demonstration on campus rejecting the court order. They read a statement en masse against the criminalization of the strike, declaring that only a democratic decision taken in a general assembly can lead to a return to class and demanding the resignation of the education minister before walking out.

Batons, pepper spray, CS gas, flash bombs, rubber bullets: Line Beauchamp denounces the violence of the students.

At the same time as she launched the attack on the movement, Line played games with the student leaders. Her position, at first, was she is willing to negotiate, but not on the tuition increase — which is to say she was not willing to negotiate at all. Last week she invited the FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec) and the FEUQ (La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) to the negotiating table. She did not invite CLASSE (Coalition large de l’ASSÉ), which represents 50% of the striking students and is recognized as the real leadership of the strike, until they condemn acts of violence in the movement. The answer from CLASSE was, that their congress must decide, while pointing out the bloody violence of the police is far more important than the “violence” of vandalism. This is absolutely correct; no decision can be taken without consulting the membership. We must also reject any attempt to equate the frustrated acts of a few students with the organized and bloody repression of the police!

As a teacher who attempted to hand herself in to the police said, “She demands that we condemn violence against objects, while violence against people ... they demand that students, that everyone condemn this violence only on objects, while you continue violence against persons, against disarmed people.”

FECQ’s president, Léo Bureau-Blouin, initially accepted the invitation. FEUQ however, refused to discuss without CLASSE, citing a mandate from their members requiring them to demand CLASSE be present. FECQ back-tracked within an hour, its president explaining that it will not sit at a table of one.

This manoeuvre by the government was calculated, based on the experience of the 2005 student strike. At the end of that struggle, FEUQ and FECQ negotiated alone with the government, citing CASSE’s refusal to condemn “violence”. This betrayal has set its tone on the student movement since, and many FEUQ member unions have signed on to a “minimum agreement” that is intended to force a common front for any negotiation, though they do not represent a majority of the federation. (Click here for our analysis on the 2005 Quebec student strike.)

Still, the instinct for unity is strong, and the split between FECQ and FEUQ over this question at the moment when the government was reaching for partners that would “play ball” demonstrates the pressure from below.

Jean Charest’s Marie Antoinette moment: “Let them have jobs in the North”

On April 20, Quebec premier Jean Charest held a job fair and conference with hundreds of representatives of big businesses, particularly the mining industry. The site was the Palais des Congrés convention centre, and the downtown burned while Jean Charest spoke to the bourgeoisie about his “Plan Nord”.

CLASSE organized a demonstration titled "Shut Down Plan Nord". The main slogan was “No to free mining, yes to free education”. The demonstrators attempted to get into the building through the open parking garage, and succeeded in flooding into the lobby of the building and coming within one flight of stairs of the room where the premier was speaking before being pushed back and forced out. [Video]

But in another sign that overuse and preemptive use of riot police brutality had desensitized students, hundreds later turned around and began to march towards the police. In several different corners of downtown where students faced police, the crowds began to chant “BOUGE! BOUGE! BOUGE!” in rhythm while stepping towards the police lines. This chant (MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!) has been heard hundreds of times by the protesters since the beginning of the strike. Along with the events at UQO, April 20th marks a significant breaking point for the Quebec student movement.

In the meantime, Jean Charest was indoors speaking to the mining bosses and joking around with them. “Our salon Plan Nord is so popular, people are running all around trying to get in,” he joked, to approving laughter from the audience. “To those knocking on our door this morning, we can offer them a job, as far north as possible,” he said. This caused laughter in the hall, but an outrage in Quebec society.

Two days later, on 22nd April, Quebecor financed an Earth Day gathering — meant to be a “greenwashing” event. It was supposed to be tame enough for Charest’s environment minister to attend. He changed plans when CLASSE attended. Instead, red squares were everywhere. The outrage from Charest’s comments was visible, and the gathering, 150,000 strong according to the organizers, became one against Plan Nord. Though the organizers did not intend for there to be slogans, the crowds could be heard demanding that Charest resign, and chanting, “Workers and students, same fight.” One speaker on the platform chanted “Degage!”, and picket signs for a “Quebec Spring” were widely present. The link was made between the enormous cost of Plan Nord and the supposed lack of funds that makes the tuition hike a necessity.

This may have sharpened a few minds in Charest’s government as to the danger of allowing the student crisis to continue too much longer.

Line’s game unravels

Line spent the last week attempting to get as much political capital from the question of violence as possible. Meanwhile, the events of Plan Nord and the mass gathering that became a mass demonstration on Sunday underlined the dangers of a widening social crisis. CLASSE’s congress was being held at the same time as the demonstration, and it went into the night. The same morning, FECQ’s Bureau-Bloin came out calling on CLASSE to condemn violence, and declared his federation ready to negotiate without CLASSE if they didn’t.

In another sign of radicalization and pressure from the ranks of FEUQ, that federation completely contradicted him. A letter was sent to the congress offering them two of FEUQ’s own seats at the negotiating table, whether they declared against violence or not. One critical piece in Line’s game had failed to materialize as expected.

The other piece, the hope that the headlines in Monday’s newspapers that read that CLASSE would not condemn violence, also fell apart.

The congress unanimously adopted the following resolution:

“1) That the CLASSE actively defends the principles of civil disobedience and the actions that come from it, without dissociating from it;

2) That the CLASSE reminds everyone that civil disobedience is neither violence nor intimidation;

3) That the CLASSE condemns deliberate physical violence against people except in cases of legitimate self-defence;

4) That the CLASSE condemns the police and institutional violence by which students are systematically victimized, notably discrimination in accessibility of education according to socio-economic criteria, injunctions breaking the right to strike and freedom of association, humiliation, intimidation, violent repression on the part of the forces of order and administrations;

5) That the CLASSE underlines that the actions are the consequence of the intransigence of the Charest government, that is to say, the government cannot but be conscious of the necessity of this causal link, and that the CLASSE reiterates the positive contributions of the actions of economic disruption and blockades which have greatly contributed to the strength of the movement;

6) That in this way the CLASSE demands to be included in any process of negotiation in this current strike, at equal standing to the other student organizations;

7) That the CLASSE considers the public debate on this question closed;

8) That in the case that, despite this declaration, the government of Quebec still refuses to include the CLASSE in the discussion, the CLASSE acknowledges the incapacity of the government to resolve the current crisis;

9) That the media committee of the CLASSE is mandated to announce this decision as soon as possible;

10) That the CLASSE underline the legitimacy of direct democracy, which is exercised notably through general assembly;

That the CLASSE note that votes taken by show of hand in a general assembly are not due to intimidation, but are rather the affirmation of the will of the members to proceed in this way.”

The next day, Line was forced to invite CLASSE into the negotiations. The only complaint she was able to latch onto in the media was that the position was “ambiguous”, and “unfortunately supports civil disobedience, that is to say, disregarding of our laws, which is an irresponsible position”.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, students from two Montreal high schools went out on a three-day strike after 90% support in general assemblies. Students at a third high school staged a partial wild-cat walkout. High school students have been present at protests but have not been on strike during the struggle. The school board sent letters to all parents informing them that high schools may experience some disruptions in the coming days. Charest came out imploring secondary students to go back to class. Seeing as these are the students who will have to pay the full increase of $1,625 in five years’ time, Charest’s concern that they not get involved is understandable.

The CLASSE is expelled

The negotiations between the government and the student unions were short-lived. A demonstration was held on Tuesday night, which became a demonstration against CLASSE's supposed betrayed of the movement for their resolution on violence. The protest was added to the online calendar on the CLASSE website where demonstrations from different local unions are put up, whether they are officially organized by CLASSE or not. After some smashed windows they were dispersed by police. Regardless of their intentions they became a tool in the hands of Line Beauchamp the next morning.

Using this demonstration, which had been held to denounce CLASSE, she turned around and said the coalition was unwilling to end violence, and expelled them from the negotiations.

FEUQ and FECQ left in response, with the FECQ president having a moment of clarity when he accused the minister of playing childish games.

That night at 8:30, a demonstration called under the title, “Ostie de Grosse Manif” (Goddamn Huge Demo) began gathering at park Emilie-Gamelin outside Berri-UQAM metro station. The crowd grew and continued to grow. Finally, a massive sea of people began to move up Berri Street. From the other side of the overpass, on the corner of Sherbrooke, a huge crowd the same size appeared to the surprise and delight of the participants and came to join it. By the end of the night, the crowd was between 10,000 and 20,000 strong, organized on just three-hours’ notice!

The main slogan of the night was, “Jean Charest, get out, we’ll find you a job in the north!”  Others that were widespread were, “Capital makes war on us, war on capital!”

This was the reaction of the mass of students to Line’s provocation.

Police on horses, riot police in full gear — all were present. Throughout the demonstration, when an isolated individual would throw something, tip a garbage can over, hit a window, the crowd around them would go up in boos and the individual would back down.

But no matter, the entire demonstration was declared illegal after some windows were broken by a minority representing no one but themselves. Their actions were only a pretext, the police simply wanted to teach the students a lesson. The students were CS gassed, flash bombed, and beaten up. 85 arrests were made.

This riot by the police — against a crowd of unarmed youth, many with their hands flashed with a V in the air as they were hit — was referred to in the media as a violent student protest. (For a view of the full demo, here is the live footage from CUTV, Concordia University’s student television network. The repression begins at 2 hours into the video : http://www.cutvmontreal.ca/videos/1064)

Defend our youth! A victory for the students is a victory for the working class!

The government refuses to negotiate, let alone reverse the tuition increase, and is instead banking on repression to smash the strike. The student movement and its leaders must plan where to go from here. Mass mobilization has gotten the movement this far. One can not ask for more determination, more self-sacrifice, or more heroism from the masses. The students are all this and more. But, even this has its limits. Despite the walkouts by high school students Tuesday and the possibilities that brings, there are not really many more fresh layers of students to bring into the movement. The masses in struggle will not be fuelled by heroism forever. The movement needs to be reinforced and needs to grow.

Every mass struggle is comparable to a revolution on a small scale. The students have learned under baton strikes the nature of the state as a tool in the hands of the ruling class. The students have learned resistance, solidarity, the power of democracy in the movement, and the dangers of betrayal. But outside of the student movement, workers are at work. Life continues, though everyone is watching and a big sector of the working class is sympathetic to, and inspired by, the youth. These are the layers of support that remain in reserve, which the students must seek to speak to and reach.

The key to victory lies in the teachers who began to join the movement in the past two weeks.  It also lies in the link made between rising tuition fees and the hundreds of millions in corporate welfare for the mining industry, made clear in the mass demonstration on Earth Day. The teachers’ unions, the firefighters’ union, the Canadian Autoworkers’ Union, and unions across Quebec have all come out on the side of the students. This support must be turned into action.

The intransigence demonstrated by the Quebec government is because the attack on students is just one more front of the ruling class’ attack on the whole of the working class.  The government needs to carry out capitalist austerity.

If Line refuses to back down, and the police return to beating our youth, the unions must come into the struggle to save this generation in revolt. The intransigence of the government for the first comes from the fact that the attack on the students is one part of a larger attack on the working class, their parents. The attacks on the Aveos workers, the Laval blue collars, the postal workers, the Air Canada workers, the Rio Tinto Alcan workers, are just some of the examples of the generalized attack in the context of the capitalist crisis. Jean Charest’s proposals to implement a flat healthcare tax, as well as $25 user-fees, are part of this general austerity program. Together with the hikes in rents and hydro rates, these are all attempts to make the working class pay for the capitalist crisis.

If the students can force the government to back down, it would set an example for the rest of Quebec society.

Prepare the 24-hour general strike!

If the government will not back down, then the time has come to begin serious negotiations, not with the government, but with the CSN, the FTQ, the CSQ, and the CSD, on how to prepare for a 24-hour general strike — against the tuition increases, against Plan Nord, against austerity, and for what was on everyone’s lips at the demonstration on Earth Day — the resignation of Jean Charest.

Widen the movement! Go to the workers! If the leadership of the workers’ unions has not begun the discussion about a 24-hour general strike, then the students can begin the debate themselves. At home, with their parents, they can bring up the need for the unions to come out in order to protect this generation that is being brutalized in the streets. They can speak to the teachers and ask them to walk out of work; let them help the students in making this a total strike on the campuses. They can organize demos and walk to the Canada Post sorting centres, and talk with the workers there. They can march out to the factories and refineries in the east end of town. Or, they can head west and bring crowds of students to discuss the strike with Bombardier workers.  They can ask workers to bring it up at their general assemblies, or ask them to hold emergency meetings to discuss the strike. We need to get the debate moving!

The government, through the media, is attempting to speak the language of fear to the working class. The students, by going out directly to the workers, can speak the language of solidarity and common struggle. The fight is not over, but it must be expanded to win! They greet us with tear gas and stun grenades, we should reply with a 24-hour general strike for the resignation of Jean Charest, against the tuition increases, and against the entire program of austerity!

Step up the struggle!  If the government will not back down, let’s show them who really has to start paying their fair share. Let’s show them that we pay more than our fair share every day; through our hard work, we make Quebec run! Without us, nothing moves!