by Aaron Donny-Clark / May 2005 issue of Socialist Action
University and college students in Quebec, after more than a month of intense struggle, including demonstrations, occupation of buildings, and a lengthy
boycott of classes, agreed to an offer by the provincial government.
At stake was $103 million cut from the student financial aid program. The new agreement sees $73 million re-invested this fiscal year, and $103 million
each year for the next four years. This is a victory for the Quebec student movement, and an example to labour and other social movements that through direct mass action it is possible to resist and defeat aspects of the ruling-class agenda today.
There was no consensus on the agreement within the Quebec students’ movement. Of the three students’ associations, two endorsed the agreement (the two who negotiated it, the Federation des etudiants universitaires du Quebec (FEUQ) and the Federation des etudiants collegial du Quebec (FECQ). The third, which was kept out of negotiations because of its refusal to
renounce "violent" tactics, the Coalition de l'association d'une solidarite syndicale etudiante elargie (CASSEE), rejected the deal.
Even within the umbrella groups of the student associations there was no real agreement as to whether to accept the deal. Many associations went against the advice of their umbrella associations. For instance, the Students’ Association of the University of Quebec at Rimouski (AGEUQAR), members of FEUQ, rejected the offer, while the Students’ Association of Sherbrooke
College (AECS), members of CASSEE, accepted it.
The division corresponds to a difference of opinion from association to association as to what the demands of the strike movement were. While some schools were concentrating only on the $103 million, most others were demanding other things, including promises to keep the college (CEGEP) system courses from being tailored to the needs of the private sector, and
changes to the way loans are paid out (demanding a return to one-time pay-outs).
Some associations even demanded broader social change, including free abortion and contraception services, more social housing, and the conversion of military expenditures to social funding.
While in some areas the negotiators of the deal have been portrayed as sell-outs, and some have even been harassed on the streets, it is not clear that the
student movement could have sustained its strike long enough for the labour movement and other popular sectors to join them. Nor is it clear that the Quebec government could have politically afforded to provide a better deal without making its position untenable and precipitating an early election in which the Jean Charest Liberals would likely be decimated (at less than 25% in the latest opinion polls).
Since the first associations started striking in late February, their weakness was starting to show by the time the government offer was made in early April. At the weekly student assemblies held in many of the struck schools, the number of students voting to continue the strike was declining. So, the result was as good as could be expected at the time, given the circumstances.
Quebec public sector unions have picked up where the students left off. Without a collective agreement for two years now, unions have started taking strike votes. There is a real possibility of job actions this autumn. The Charest government will get no sleep until it gives in to the constant and growing social
pressure that demands a different social model for Quebec.
*Aaron Donny Clark is vice president (External Affairs) of the Student Society of McGill University and a member of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste in Montreal.