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y colleague and I were both undergraduate students in the geography department at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to which we both came from other provinces as anglophones. On the last day of February of this year, our student association voted in an unlimited strike mandate to oppose the new provincial budget for post-secondary education.
“I don’t care. This is the only place I can afford to go to school. I just want to finish my degree and get out of here. The rest is their problem.”
That can’t be exactly what he said. I am certain there was cursing. He was being civil this time, but in the past when our paths had crossed– generally myself standing between him and the entrance to our classroom– he shook with anger and shouted insults. My colleague and I were both undergraduate students in the geography department at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to which we both came from other provinces as anglophones. On the last day of February of this year, our student association voted in an unlimited strike mandate to oppose the new provincial budget for post-secondary education. Along with other departments from our university, we were the first anglophone student associations to do so in the last 50 years. Since 1968, there had been nine previous general student strikes in Quebec, but no anglophone institution had ever joined the movement until this year.
It was our first time on strike, and there was a significant learning curve. We had no ‘strike culture’, like the French schools were rumored to have. We tried to borrow from their experiences and strategies, but at the same time we were still collectively defining what a picket line was or should be. Not only were we learning on the fly, we were facing significant opposition from our peers. Though we voted to renew our strike each week, many people disregarded this collective decision on their own terms. There seemed to be no taboo about crossing pickets; being considered a ‘scab’ did not seem to concern many students.
Our strike was an expression of much debate, more energy, and as much struggle and endurance as we could muster. Our department gained notoriety for being the most organized at our institution and successfully blocked the majority of classes for the six weeks that remained in the semester, but we fell short of many of our objectives. All the while the refrain was, “How do the French schools do it?”
How did the francophone schools do it? We share the island of Montreal with some of the most militant of them. How were students with whom we are in such close geographic proximity so willing and so able to disrupt the status quo, while at my own school we had to struggle to cut through capitalist ideology, individualist protectionism and indifference before we could even hope to become motivated to take action and take risks? The history of the francophone student movement is wrapped up in their national identity, which cannot be explained without reference to the Quiet Revolution, social Catholicism and union activism, to the legacy of class struggle along the French-English divide, to the rise of secularism; all things about which I had been largely ignorant until the conflict began.
Seen from the perspective of generations of activism, the success of the francophone schools is less mysterious. Jean Charest, the provincial political leader and primary adversary of the current student movement was himself an active strike organizer in his student years. But it is interesting to me now to consider why anglophone schools joined the movement.
Most of the student mobilization campaigns rallied around the tuition user-fee increase. As the basic tuition fee for a Quebec resident was the lowest in Canada, the proposed increase of 75% over 5 years would still only amount to $1625, to a grand total of $3,793 per year in 2016-17. Anglophone schools have many students from outside the province, and even after the increase it would still be more affordable to study here than back home. The tuition here is affordable, and we count ourselves lucky although perhaps a bit puzzled. How can this be? Why here? Who knows? Then the government says it is time to pay more. The dream is over, time to wake up. When the francophones refuse to pay, we think how ungrateful they are. Don’t they know that everyone else pays more, everywhere else? Isn’t it better to pay ‘our fair share’ to ensure a better quality education? Anyway, we are upstanding citizens, not freeloaders. We pay our dues.
But the francophone students point to the wasted spending. To the severance packages for dismissed presidents (at Concordia we have had two in 5 years), and the bulging budgets for the salaries senior administration. They point to the provincial tax cuts for the wealthy and on investments. To the commodification of research, the dubious indicators that would evaluate the ‘quality of education’. This is a political decision, they said, and we reject it.
It was as though some veil had been pushed back. Tuition is low because francophone students defended it! Slowly the universe seemed to invert, and the obligation to pay became an obligation to dissent. All those generations of Quebecois students who had protested in the past, to them we owed an unquantifiable debt. The amount unpaid in tuition that had not been raised was a result of their actions. They may have done it thinking of their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, but even anglophones had benefited from their sacrifice. Now some of us were ready to join with them.
Every respectable anglophone personality, our media, our parents, our politicians, had let us believe this was a foolish endeavor. Too idealistic, too unrealistic. Better to be happy with what we are given, which is not that bad, after all. But the successes of the francophone schools also gave us some daring. The francophones had ideals. Then they mobilized, they fought and they won. They made it reality. Who could tell us it could not be done, when it already had been?
Was it not our duty to defend it? I become more and more troubled by my colleague’s words, quoted above, that he would take what he could without any responsibility to those who made it possible. He owed his degree to student strikes, but when a strike came to him he made every attempt to destroy it.
After fifty years of geographic proximity, we have learnt a strange and revolutionary lesson. Not only did we realize that we have a choice, but together we have power. The anglo-Quebec student movement is still in its infancy, and growing with our experiences, the successes, the failures and the regrets. Even as we fumble for our footing in this movement, students in our home provinces are asking, How did they do that? Why can’t we do it too?
*Note: In response to the Concordia students’ mobilization, faculty at that institution drafted a letter to the Quebec government that can be found here.