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Contemporary Currents of Quebec’s Student Movement

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Issue: 53 Section: Features Geography: Canada, Quebec Topics: social movements, education

May 31, 2008

Contemporary Currents of Quebec’s Student Movement

An interview with Sophie Schoen of L'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ)

by Stefan Christoff

From campaigns combating poverty, to fights for labour rights, in recent years Quebec students have woven connections between campus based struggles for equity and broader social movements. Photo: Jasmine Cormiers

Waves of student protest have swept Quebec in recent years. In 2005 a major strike galvanized students across Quebec, with over one hundred student unions participating at the height of a strike organized around the demand for free post-secondary education in Quebec.

Major currents within Quebec’s student movement draw parallels between the struggle for accessible and free education in Quebec and larger movements for social justice in the Americas. From campaigns combating poverty, to fights for labor rights, Quebec students have woven profound connections between campus-based struggles and broader social movements.

The 2005 centered on a confrontation with the Liberal government of Jean Charest. Upon taking power in Quebec, Charest’s Liberals attempted to slash $103 million from bursaries granted to students, and the students fought back. Eventually, Charest was forced to back down on the cuts, and the funding was restored.

Quebec's Liberal government announced a protracted hike in tuition fees across Quebec for the first time since the late 1990s. In response, L'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) -- one of Quebec’s strongest student unions, boasting 42,000 members -- held a series of protests. Thousands took the streets in Montreal in mid-November while multiple student associations held strikes at CÉGEP* and university campuses.

Sophie Schoen is a community organizer and activist with ASSÉ. In this interview Schoen discusses the history of Quebec’s powerful student movement and the recent mobilization against rising tuition fees.

* CÉGEP is the French acronym for a "College of General and Vocational Education." In Quebec, High School ends in grade 11, after which students can attend one or two years of technical training or "pre-university" classes at a CÉGEP.

Stefan Christoff: Can you paint a picture of the current state for Quebec students? What are the central issues and political demands that are being pushed by students today?

Sophie Schoen: Last June, Quebec’s education minister, Michelle Courchesne, announced that tuition fees in Quebec would rise. A fifty-dollar hike in tuition fees is planned for each semester over the next five years, which means that by 2012 it will cost five hundred dollars more each year to go to school. Taking into account additional fees that universities continue to mount -- without government regulation -- every year, students will pay thousands more in tuition fees.

Two years ago, there was a major student strike in Quebec due to cuts to the loans and bursaries program, a strike that was historic. At the peak of the strike, over one hundred students unions were participating across Quebec. Demonstrations mobilized tens of thousands of people on the streets of Montreal, on the streets of Quebec City, across Quebec. At seven weeks, it was the longest student strike in the history of Quebec.

Today, two years later, people within students unions and activists within the student movement are working to mobilize for a response to tuition hikes on the same scale as in 2005. Students remember a massive strike that cost seven weeks of lost classes, such as at CÉGEP St. Laurent; students remember a massive strike that didn’t win concrete gains, which makes mass mobilization more difficult.

For readers outside Quebec could you explain the role of CÉGEPs in Quebec society today and also the historical context in which the CÉGEP system was created in the late 1960s?

CÉGEPs exist only in Quebec, and were officially created in 1967. Quebec’s government at the time aimed to bring people planning on attending vocational schools and people moving onto university into the same educational institutions, studying together and having a common curriculum of classes.

In 1967, the year CÉGEPs were created, was a time of huge reforms within Quebec society, reforms that led to things such as free healthcare, the will to have free education in Quebec and also the creation of CÉGEPs.

What is often forgotten is that these major changes to Quebec society took place due to social struggles during that period, led by unions, led by students, led by social movements.

In 1968 there was a massive student strike, leading to the creation of UQÀM, the Université du Québec à Montréal. UQÀM was a second francophone university, created because there wasn’t enough room in the existing francophone university in Montreal. At the time UQÀM was created there was an ambition to have free post-secondary education in Quebec; mainstream political parties such as the Parti Québécois supported the idea at the time. Now UQÀM has obviously changed; it has become another tool of neo-liberalism, while at the time of its creation the goal was to have a university for the people. [...]

At the time that CÉGEPs were created, at the time that UQÀM was created, many radical student unions were also created. Student unions that function with direct democracy, through general assemblies, which from the onset took on radical positions in terms of free education, in terms of a critique of capitalism, in terms of solidarity with other social movements.

Those structures, those radical institutions have changed with time, but [they] still exist today. In Quebec we still have many, many student unions that function through direct democracy and that demand free education while viewing the student movement as a part of larger social movements.

Today, Quebec is known throughout Canada as having the most inexpensive education or affordable tuition in the country. Could you talk about the context of the student movement in the past ten years?

There is clearly only one reason why in Quebec we have low tuition. Low tuition in Quebec is a direct result of the major student strikes.

A large student strike happened in 1996 in response to the Parti Québécois saying they intended to raise tuition fees in the province. It wasn’t as massive as the strike in 2005, but it did force the government to step down from their decision to raise tuition.

An organized student movement is the only barrier to the state’s intentions to raise tuition fees -- a move that would be detrimental to the majority of students in Quebec society. It’s really important that people understand this point, that an organized student movement is the only barrier to having a situation in Quebec in which inaccessible education is the norm.

A student strike is the only way to halt government efforts to raise tuition fees in Quebec. A strike is extremely difficult to organize; it takes a lot out of the people -- the students who participate -- but a strike is what is takes.

Concerning accessibility to education in 2008, can you talk about the current economic conditions surrounding education in Quebec?

There are more and more barriers to education, mostly financial or economic barriers for the majority of people accessing quality education. Today many of these barriers to education exist because the student movement hasn’t been able to adequately defend students or the right to education.

Today, fewer and fewer poor people are attending school; fewer and fewer poor people are attending CÉGEP or university. Those in CÉGEP or in university who aren’t struggling to get by financially often don’t realize that there are major economic barriers to going to school for many in society.

Also, for students who have kids or who aren’t well-off, there are very few measures in Quebec that assist students with children, leading to many student parents leaving CÉGEP or university due to financial pressures.

People attending CÉGEP from families with parents who can’t help out financially could be working 20 to 30 hours per week over and above school work to cover the expenses of life or expenses related to studying, which is extremely difficult. Often people in this financial reality never finish CÉGEP or even start CÉGEP simply due to financial barriers.

Let’s jump back to the strike of 2005. Mainstream media coverage presented the strike as revolving around the cuts to the loans and bursaries program. Could you talk about the 2005 strike in detail and the importance of the strike for Quebec society in the face of neo-liberal economic reforms being pushed by Jean Charest’s Liberals?

Cuts to the loans and bursaries program, as proposed by the Liberals, meant that people would receive the majority of their funds from the government in loans and a small amount in bursaries, loans that students would have to pay back to the government soon after graduating or stopping their studies. Now in Quebec students would face a similar situation to the rest of Canada, where students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the government.

Now also it must be understood that those who are accepted into the loans and bursaries program are those deemed by the government to be the most in need financially, or the poorest students. Generally, to be accepted for bursaries, the student has to be without major financial backing from their family; so these students, the poorest students, were directly targeted by Jean Charest’s Liberals' proposed cuts to the loans and bursaries program.

Can you talk about the proposed cuts to the loans and bursaries program within the context of larger neo-liberal economic reforms pushed by the same provincial government?

Certainly the cuts to financing for students are directly connected to all the other policies that the Jean Charest Liberals put forward, including raising daycare fees, opening up space for the privatization of social services, and the implementation of repressive labour laws in Quebec.

It’s clear that the success of the student strike in Quebec in 2005, in terms of political momentum or mobilization, was directly connected to the widespread opposition to Charest’s neo-liberal economic policies in Quebec in general.

Could you highlight a couple important actions that took place within the context of the student strike or broader social struggle against Jean Charest’s Liberals?

Starting from two weeks into the strike many small actions started to take place in Montreal and also throughout Quebec. The office of the Minister of Education was occupied; there was also an occupation at the Quebec office of the Ministry of Education for Quebec and there was also a blockade at the entrance to the port of Montreal.

In Quebec there were many actions that aimed to economically disrupt the government and corporations in Quebec -- the institutions behind the massive cuts to social services and to education. Targets for actions within the student movement were those individuals who promoted privatization, promoted a free-market vision for Quebec, promoted tuition fee increases.

At one point during the strike the bridge that leads to the Montreal casino was blocked for one evening. Many actions of this nature took place in Quebec. It was an important message of economic disruption. Of course there were large demonstrations across Quebec, however it’s important to understand that economic disruption was an important part of the student strike.

Talk about who was behind the strike; there were a number of student unions, federations and organizations involved in the strike.

The strike was first initiated by student unions that are members of ASSÉ, a student union in Quebec that right now has about 42,000 members -- a student union based on the fight for free education, on principals of social justice; basically a student union fighting for larger social change through the student movement.

ASSÉ has existed since 2001 and it didn’t come from nowhere: it exists within the historical context of other student organizations in Quebec prior to ASSÉ, including L’Association nationale des étudiants et étudiantes du Quebec (ANEEQ). ANEEQ was a large student union that existed in the 1970s and 1980s and was a large student organization with a large number of members. Basically, ANEEQ had similar principals to those that ASSÉ has today on free education and broader social change.

In 2005, student unions that were members of ASSÉ were behind the strike; they formed a coalition called Coalition Élargie de l’Association de Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, or CASSÉE. This coalition included unions from ASSÉ and other independent unions that mobilized for the strike.

A couple of weeks after the strike had started, the more mainstream student unions in Quebec, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) joined the Quebec-wide strike.

It was excellent that they joined the strike; we can never say no to having a bigger movement. The important point concerning these two mainstream student federations is that their executives were continually negotiating a deal with the government throughout the strike, maintaining channels of communication with the government while not seeking to build a mass movement, not seeking to mobilize their membership or fight for genuine social justice in society.

[In 2005] ASSÉ and CASSÉE were shut-out of all negotiations with the government and with the education minister. It was FECQ and FEUQ that put an end to the strike. It was a deal that was flawed because we didn’t really win that much. It even fell short of reinstating the status quo.

There are major elements of the student movement that until today are thinking about broader social change. The Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001; the massive protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and then again solidarity protests with the mobilization against the Summit of the Americas in Quito, Ecuador in 2002 -- each saw a major demonstration in Montreal. Can you comment on the larger international movement the Quebec student movement operates within?

The year ASSÉ was created was also the year of the protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001. There is a direct connection there, as one of the first major plans of action that ASSÉ had was continental days of action against the FTAA and neo-liberalism, in collaboration with allies in Latin America.

In 2002, there was an important demonstration against the FTAA in Montreal. Around five-thousand people participated in the protest, which was a very important mobilization for ASSÉ. In 2001 and 2002, people in ASSÉ openly talked about a five year plan of action, which would end with a continental strike against neo-liberal economics. Not even five years after ASSÉ was created there was a major general student strike in Quebec, which is an achievement.

It’s essential for a social movement to make those broader links and it’s excellent that ASSÉ was created in this context. Personally I always push to have ASSÉ focus more on the broader analysis, beyond Quebec, looking at neo-liberalism and broader issues, while trying to build links with other social struggles in our society such as indigenous struggles at home, and with social struggles internationally in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Europe and beyond. Many around the globe are struggling against on a daily basis in a much more profound way than the student movement in Quebec.

Today we are experiencing a strange political moment in Quebec: we have the extreme-right Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which has become the official opposition in Quebec. Can you talk about the recent actions or mobilizations organized by ASSÉ within this context?

Following the government's announcement of tuition hikes in June 2007, it was decided that ASSÉ would undertake a campaign of an unlimited general strike to fight back against those tuition raises. A strike effort commenced in a political context where a growing right-wing ideology is present in the province: for the first time in recent history people aren’t really scared anymore to state that they are openly right-wing.

Before in Quebec, one would always have to be watchful when stating you were hard right or right wing, as there was a sense of social shame involved with right wing ideology, which today doesn’t exist in the same way.

Despite this context, many student unions in 2007 had mandates from general assemblies to undertake a strike campaign this year, with the central demand for free education and other demands also, including reinvesting in the education system, and having more support structures for parents going to school, in terms of daycare but also more generally.

In the end, the strike was massively rejected this year in the CÉGEPs. In the universities, people were more open to the strike; at least this was the reality at UQÀM and at Laval University in Quebec City. Many student unions at UQÀM, as there isn’t one big student union at UQÀM but many smaller faculty unions, decided that they would go on a general strike this year.

Association facultaire étudiante des sciences humaines de l’UQÀM, (AFESH-UQÀM), the social sciences union at UQÀM, went on strike for two weeks. In mid-November there was a week of action; at the high point almost 60,000 students were on strike, an important achievement regardless of other things that happened during the campaign.

In Montreal, this week of action was punctuated by the attitudes of administration at UQÀM and also at CÉGEP du Vieux Montreal. Administrations reacted very violently against the striking students.

At UQÀM, students attempted to sleep at the university overnight in order to welcome people from other parts in Quebec who were coming to Montreal for a major demonstration. Students wanted to stay late at UQÀM and also at CÉGEP du Vieux Montreal to make banners for the demonstrations, and to make props for the protests, however both administrations refused to allows the student access to their own campus.

At UQÀM, students were violently evicted by the riot police. The next day at CÉGEP du Vieux Montreal, the CÉGEP was barricaded very well; the way it’s constructed allows for this. Students held on to the space for at least part of the night; however, finally the police evicted the students from their campus very violently.

Over one hundred students were arrested. Students were hit with serious charges such as assault on police and assault with a weapon, charges which will eventually come up in court. Protests for a strike this fall were marked by a refusal by university or CÉGEP administrations to even negotiate with students around the strike.

Also there was a large demonstration the same week organized by ASSÉ, which brought three or four thousand people onto the streets of Montreal to demand free education, more investment in the current educational system and more services for parents.

Can you discuss the central points that continue to drive the Quebec student movement?

Today it’s essential for people involved in the student movement to talk to people in Quebec, to students in Quebec, to highlight the fact that it’s necessary to act now. There are emergencies happening socially in terms of set-backs that many sectors within society are facing - not only students: direct attacks on people such as increasingly unaffordable housing, increasingly repressive immigration laws, and direct attacks on the education and healthcare systems. All such attacks we have the power to fight.

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