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“In opposition to the corporatizing of public schools, progressive educators need to define public and higher education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of a nation…” (Giroux, 2003: 9)
he student strike in Québec is over. While many student associations opted to return to class before the Québec elections on September 4th, the election of a minority Parti Québécois government brought a definitive resolution to the social crisis. In one of her first pronouncements, Prime Minister Pauline Marois announced that she would cancel the tuition raise scheduled to go into effect this fall. At the same time, she promised to repeal the odious “Special Law 12”, which had been designed to force college and university students to return to class while at the same time restricting the nature of all public demonstrations throughout Québec. The passage of this special law in May had the effect of turning the student movement into a veritable citizen uprising, which was particularly acute in the streets of Montréal. In the complex terrain created by the intersection of social movements with electoral politics, the student movement can claim a tentative sort of victory.
The Geography Department at the Université de Montréal was deeply affected by the strike. Courses in the department were completely shut down for over six months. However, contrary to whipped-up images of violence, the atmosphere in the Department was always pacific, if at times tense. Indeed, I would argue that a real anguish of uncertainty was the sentiment that most clearly prevailed. As the strike wore on, in fact, students were most notable by their complete absence.
The strike, which so thoroughly influenced our lives for over six months, produced a moment of intense learning, continuous debate, and forced reflection about the meaning and value of post-secondary education. At a time when critical scholars and progressive journalists throughout North America decry the rampant neoliberalization of education (for example, Washburn, 2005; Aronowitz and Giroux, 2000; Giroux, 2003) students in Québec forcibly constructed a robust and multifaceted public debate in the streets, in the media, within universities, within families, among friends, neighbors and strangers. The student movement put into play a mix of political mobilization and debate in a way that demonstrates that ideas are not just theoretical but have, can have, political force.
An important minority of students in the Geography department was quite active in the strike, not only in organizing activities directly related to strike actions involving the department (such as maintaining picket lines and conducting student assemblies), but also in the broader mobilization.
In late August, I had the opportunity to sit down with three students from our department to discuss the strike. I knew that all three students had been quite committed to and involved in the strike, albeit in differing ways. It was a lengthy conversation, and inevitably I am able to share only a few fragments here.
Antoine Findeli is in the process of finishing his undergraduate degree, Guillaume Arnoux is entering his third year as an undergraduate student in our department, and Rodolphe Gonzales is a Ph.D. student. They started by explaining the paths that brought them into the strike:
Antoine: I participated in demonstrations against the War in Iraq, for the Kyoto Protocol. But I believe, in my existence, 21 years, I have never seen anything like this. For me it was all year long, because in the fall there was Occupons Montréal (Occupy Montreal). I stayed in the same dynamic since the month of September. It was the same logic, the habit of being indignant. You spend six weeks camped downtown, and then you go on strike, and all of your arguments are already there. You are already advanced in the process…the link with politics is already there.
Rodolphe: I was part of the small group in the graduate student association that tried to push for a vote on the strike in order to follow the example of the undergraduate association. Contrary to what we anticipated the vote passed by a large margin, and the mandate continued, easily. We really tried to encourage those who had a differing opinion to speak, but the votes in favor of the strike passed easily. We also voted in favor of adhering to the CLASSE, which was a big step for us, because before we were represented by the FAÉCUM. Politically speaking, making that jump made a lot of sense. With the CLASSE we attempt to organize votes in the local student assemblies and take those votes and democratic expressions up (through the CLASSE), ideally all the way to the table of negotiation with the government. I served as a delegate to the CLASSE. So I can summarize my implication in the strike in that way, as well as participating in the street demonstrations. Being hit, gassed. Six months of fear, of running in the streets, almost paranoia, it was really intense.
Guillaume: My political implication started in 2005 when I was at the CÉGEP of Drummondville. At that time, the CÉGEP of Drummondville was in the ASSÉ. Later, I transferred to the CÉGEP in Trois-Rivières, which was part of the FECQ. I realized that the way the FECQ worked was top-down, and I didn’t like that. So, you could say that I am an old militant in the ASSÉ and everything that is around the ASSÉ. It is there that I began in the struggle against the increase in tuition. When 2012 arrived, it was normal for me to become involved; it was a logical extension of my past involvement. It was pretty much me who had to take care of the picket lines, everyday. As a result, I missed a number of demonstrations. But I went to others; I was arrested once. I was pepper-sprayed and beaten, but in the continuity of the struggle, you know that you have to sacrifice for the struggle, to continue the momentum.
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Guillaume reflected at length on the evolution of the movement:
L’ASSÉ started organizing for this strike in 2006 – 2007; they prepared the terrain well in advance. I remember two or three years ago, we were already talking about this tuition increase. We started mobilizing and building awareness in the CÉGEPs. When those students arrived at university, they already knew the issues – what was at stake – and that they were against the tuition hike. That facilitated mobilization in both francophone and anglophone institutions.
I never thought that the strike would hold for six months. At the beginning we thought, me, and some of the “old militants,” that the votes would not pass. We affiliated with the CLASSE first, than we voted to strike. At first the association was against the tuition hike, but then we took a more radical position in favor of free tuition. All of those positions, the political evolution and the mobilization in Geography, I didn’t think it would go that far, that they would become conscious, militant.
At the beginning of the strike, we felt a strong division between the Federation of Students and the CLASSE. The Federation put forward actions that were more symbolic – festive demonstrations, actions like writing letters, the red square as a symbol, all of those kinds of actions. And slowly, as the strike continued and developed, and the government did not listen to us, and the police confronted us at each demonstration, people started to turn more and more towards the CLASSE. Our power is in the street. It is through demonstrating that we will be listened to. That makes you think that when the government is intransigent, that encourages more radical action because more moderate actions are less effective.
Rodolphe adds: And the intransigence of the government demonstrates the flagrant, marked limits of representative democracy; a strong contrast with participatory democracy. People realized these limits, and they realized that it is with the base that things can change. We lived that experience with Occupons Montréal in a punctual manner, while here it was continual. All of the local student assemblies that were on strike: participatory, local democracy.
Guillaume continues: One aspect that we have not talked about is the incomprehension on the part of the media regarding our bottom-up vision. The media could not understand that Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was not our leader. They could not understand that Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois could not respond to certain questions because the CLASSE had not yet made a decision.
Rodolphe adds: Yes, the government was always stating, “we want to negotiate with your leader.” The government could not understand that, this change of paradigm.
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Antoine spoke at length regarding the diversity of tactics in the street:
What I also found interesting in terms of the forms of expression in the street was that there was an incredible diversity of tactics, which was difficult for some to accept. Those who were more radical would say, peaceful mobilization doesn’t serve anything; on the other side, others would say, it doesn’t help to break everything. These were things that we discussed continually at Occupons Montréal, because people had very different opinions regarding how to express ideas, and I realize that, in the end, it went pretty well. Despite the escalating violence, there were demonstrations that were incredible. It’s a detail, but I participated in the “All Naked March,” and for me, officially, that was a key moment. It was extraordinary, creative, 100%. Silent marches, with candles: amazing. The fact that that was respected… I spoke with some “casseurs,” people who went to some marches with their own ideology, who would break certain things. They told me, for example, the silent march with candles, we respect that.
Guillaume adds: Early on, even the most radical understood the need to respect a diversity of tactics.
Antoine continues: But I don’t think it was always that easy for both sides. For the big demonstrations, family demonstrations, okay. But for the nightly marches, when everyone went, there was often violence, and not everyone agreed with that. Some people would say, “Okay, tonight we are going to stop anyone who breaks windows,” which also seemed completely irrational. So there was a constant cleavage, but at the same time we all want to be in the street at the same time and we have different tactics.
All three discussed participatory, direct democracy and elections:
Antoine: It’s hard to make the transition, to have lived and to have fundamentally believed in direct democracy, whether with Occupons Montréal or in the general assemblies. I have a hard time imagining that we can have a system that is not a direct and participatory democracy. And from there, to say, “forget that,” go and vote, it’s hard, it’s really hard. Regardless, I will vote, because it is crucial at this moment.
I would like for us to work not only on these issues, whether it be accessibility of education, or other economic and political questions in Québec, but at the same time, restructure our way of doing politics, our way of living democracy, because we have seen that it works. Just to start rethinking it, you know, we talked about that frequently during the strike. People said to me a million times in the street, “why don’t you just go and vote?” But, why do you think that because I am in the street, I don’t vote? Why do you think democracy is once every four years? That’s it? Is that our democratic political power? Is to put a piece of paper in a slot, and that’s it?
Guillaume joins in: I think that has been one of the big legacies of Occupons Montréal towards the student strike: participatory democracy and the idea of always debating in general assemblies. Our generation, we see what is going on all over the world and we realize that our system – vote every four years, no citizen debate for four years – doesn’t make sense. Participatory democracy has been able to take off, triumph.
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Rodolphe finishes on the goal of tuition-free education:
The idea of free education was not a part of the ideological landscape of Québec, that idea was a complete aberration. Now it is a political demand with solid, well-founded arguments. We have been able to make that understood to the Québécois society, and throughout the world, because there are student struggles throughout the world at this moment. It’s not just here that we think this doesn’t make sense. It has really been a struggle to bring back the idea of free education.
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The conversation that we held lasted for over an hour and it left me with much food for thought regarding the diversity of paths and experiences articulated through this student movement, the role the strike has played in the process of citizenship formation and, more personally, the complex relationship between students and professors regarding “learning” and “education.” In reality, our conversation marks a beginning of what could be, and should be, a much longer process of reflection and dialogue. In that sense, this posting stands as an implicit invitation to enter into dialogue with Geography students at the Université de Montréal regarding their experiences with the strike.
Post-script: It should be noted that the undergraduate student association in Geography recently voted in favor of two days of strike actions (November 14th and November 22nd) in support of the week of international solidarity for the accessibility of education. The student movement continues.