by Aaron Donny-Clark / April 2005 issue of Socialist Action
MONTREAL, March 19—Over 170,000 college and university students in Quebec are on strike. Over 111,000 of them, at the time of writing, are engaged in unlimited general strikes.
The strikes involve not only those represented by the militant students’ associations, those affiliated with the Coalition de l’association d’une solidarité syndicale étudiante élargie (CASSEE), but also those
belonging to the more conservative Fédération des étudiants universitaires du Québec (FEUQ), and Fédération des étudiants collégial du Québec (FECQ).
Students are furious over the provincial government’s reforms to student financial aid. Since the first students’ organizations went on strike on Feb. 21,
over 100 more have joined the action.
Several demonstrations culminated in the one on March 16, in which 80,000 students marched from the Minister of Education’s office to that of the Quebec premier. There have also been countless occupations of offices and school buildings, some resulting in arrests.
Several colleges have been completely taken over by striking students, who remain around the clock. There is a divide in the leadership of the movement
over demands. FEUQ and FECQ demand only the return of $103 million to the Quebec budget, whereas CASSEE demands that all of the changes to financial aid be nullified (including the $103 million), that tuition fees be abolished, and that the government halt any plans it may have to privatize the college system (CEGEPs).
Many of the local student associations on strike have adopted demands more extensive than FEUQ’s, but less than CASSEE’s. Some demand that McGill University and Concordia University stop their current practice of charging international students a higher rate than is sanctioned by the government.
Recent polls show that some 70 percent of the population of Quebec thinks the cuts are bad, and about half of the population is in favor of the student strike. Several university administrations have also come out in favor of the students, including the head of l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). A group of 103 artists (for $103 million) has also denounced the cuts.
Sections of the labor movement have expressed support for the strike as well. The Quebec Federation of Labor (FTQ), and the Confédération des Syndicats Nationanaux (CSN), two of the major union centrals in Quebec, have voiced their solidarity with the students’ movement.
The labour-based New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) has placed part of the blame on the federal government for the conditions giving rise to the strike, and is urging the “students to keep up the fight”, said NDP education critic Alexa McDonough.
In Quebec, the leftist party l’Union des forces progressistes (UFP) has been the students’ champion. The UFP has joined the street demonstrations, where
support is most visible and appreciated. The Parti Québecois (PQ) demands reinvestment of the $103 in parliament, but historically has failed to bring about
real change in the education system when it has been in government.
History of the fight for $103 million
In its 2004 budget the Liberal government of Quebec transformed $103 million-worth of student bursaries into loans, raised the loan ceiling, and turned
all-at-once cheques into monthly pay-outs. The average debt of Quebec students on financial aid has risen from $13,500 to $21,500.
Whereas undergraduates once received on average $2460 a year in bursaries, they now receive only $400. Also, graduate students no longer receive bursaries. The unpopularity of this move is that it affects Quebec’s
poorest students in the worst way.
In fall 2004 the FEUQ initiated a campaign to get that money put back into the budget. FEUQ set up phone banks at its member campuses, staged demonstrations with from several hundred to tens of thousands of participants, and lobbied members of the Quebec National Assembly.
In the winter, it kept up the phone campaign, and escalated pressure tactics. Sets of 103 mice, representing the $103 million, were released into the offices of different minister’s (including the Prime Minister). Certain governmental offices were occupied. In a provocative move, members of FEUQ used a
battering ram to break into a cabinet retreat held at a Quebec resort at Montebello. Students were beaten by the police, and many were arrested. The break-in prompted harsh criticism from government officials and some of the more conservative leaders of the FEUQ.
In mid-February, then Minister of Finance Yves Séguin hinted that he was prepared to put the $103 million into the next budget. But days later, Premier Jean Charest removed the ministers of finance and education, replacing them with hard-liners who made it clear that cutting taxes is more important than public access to post-secondary education.
When it became clear that the new ministers were not going to budge, students started voting for strikes. History of Quebec students’ movement
In 1968 the students of Quebec, principally affiliated with l’Union général des étudiants du Québec (UGEC), went on strike, demanding the creation of a second francophone university (l’Université de Québec à Montréal) and improvements to the financial aid system. The strike culminated in a demonstration of some 18,000 students. The demands were met. Students went on strike again in 1973 and 1978 demanding that financial aid be improved. Around 100,000 students were on strike at those times.
In 1986 students again went on strike, opposing the government’s plan to un-freeze tuition. The success of this strike gave the students’ movement the courage to strike again, to force the government to fix financial aide. This strike failed.
Students lost another strike in 1990, resulting in a tripling of tuition fees. All of the strikes up to this point were led by l’Association national des étudiants et étudiantes du Québec (ANEEQ), which represented the more radical Quebec campuses.
By the time students again went on strike, in 1996, a new formation organizing students had been formed—the students’ federations. La Fédération des étudiants universitaires du Québec (FEUQ) and la fédération des étudiants collégial du Québec (FECQ) organized the more conservative Quebec campuses. The federations were more oriented toward lobbying than ANEEQ had been.
The strike of 1996 was in response to the threat of un-freezing tuition. It was organized by the Movement pour le droit à l’éducation (MDE) and quickly claimed victory after FECQ joined it.
This year’s strike is the largest in Quebec history. On March 16 over half of all Quebec students (230,000 out of 450,000) were on strike. Over 80,000 took to
the streets of Montreal in what was the largest student demonstration in the history of Quebec. Many of the most conservative students’ associations
have gone on strike, including McGill University’s undergraduate and graduate students, and the medical and law students of many of the province’s universities.
Student activists plan to keep up the fight until their demands are met. It is not clear whether a section of the movement will settle for less than the $103 million. A compromise on that number could cause a rift.
The best course is to keep the strike going at least until restoration of the $103 million and the nullification of the loan ceiling and monthly pay-outs. If the student movement lets the government get away with cutting taxes while not meeting the students’ demands it will be a win only for the government and big business.
The same government that has been so harsh to the poorest of the students has also attacked the labour movement. Unpopular changes to the labour code, among other things, incited many unions to protest activities last winter that culminated in one million workers marching in Montreal on May Day 2004.
Much of the public sector is in contract negotiations. The teachers’ union is coming close to calling a strike. If the labour movement were to come to see the common enemy in the Charest government and would start calling sympathy strikes with the students, Quebec could be shut down, forcing an early election call. This would be an even greater victory, not only for the students but for the working people of Quebec.
-Aaron Donny-Clark is vice president (External Affairs) of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and a member of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste in Montreal. At McGill he has helped build the movement that won an unexpected one-day strike mandate for the SSMU.