Students march through the streets of Montreal against tuition increases. (Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)
Students march through the streets of Montreal against tuition increases. (Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)

The march of history: students on the move

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2012 was a tumultuous year for Quebec students. Over the course of the year, hundreds of thousands mobilized in opposition to the former Liberal government’s proposed tuition increases of $1,625 over five years. Following an election almost four months ago, the newly-elected Parti Québécois (PQ) government announced a tuition freeze. As the province prepares for the education summits, planned by the PQ for February, the Tribune looks back on the student movement and its impacts.

Themes of the student movement

The student movement first made headlines following a national protest on Nov. 10, 2011 that brought over 30,000 people to the streets. In February, student associations from Cégeps and universities across Quebec voted to go on an ‘unlimited student strike’—renewable through weekly votes in general assemblies—in which students did not attend classes to protest fee increases. A national protest on March 22 drew an estimated 200,000 people to march through the streets of Montreal. According to Radio-Canada, by March 22, over 300,000 students were estimated to have been on strike. In the ensuing weeks, students organized nearly daily demonstrations, which often resulted in violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police.

At a panel reflecting on the student movement, organized by the Commission des Affaires Francophones (CAF) on Nov. 23, McGill Assistant Professor of Sociology Marcos Ancelovici noted that the student movement emerged out of the context of other recent social movements around the world—from Occupy to calls for democracy in the Arab Spring.

“Something we can see in particular is that, generally, these movements—in Quebec, Chile, Spain, Greece, and even in Egypt and Tunisia—are movements by the middle class,” Ancelovici said in French. “They are not workers’ movements. They are middle class movements, which mobilize a wide range of people with the common point being the debt of the middle class, and the downgrading of the economic situation.”

(Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)
(Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)

In May, as a result of the ongoing violent encounters between riot police and demonstrators, the National Assembly of Quebec passed an emergency law, Bill 78, which restricted protests near university grounds, and required organizers of protests comprising of more than 50 people to submit a proposal of their route to the Montreal police. Bill 78 was broadly criticized and triggered widespread nightly protests, during which citizens banged pots and pans to show their disapproval.

“The movement was very fluid, and we saw with the passage of Bill 78 and the Casseroles [pots and pans] movement that it went from being a student movement, to a citizen movement,” Angelovici said. “The morphology of the mobilization changed. There was much dynamism. Notably, a lot of people who are not associated with a student federation, and were part of smaller collectives, or were not affiliated, still organized to participate in the protests. They were part of the movement.”

A decentralized movement

Notably, the student movement was not led by a single organization, but rather by a coalition of different student associations.

“The student movement is interesting because it is not monolithic, but rather, it’s composed [of] the Federation Étudiante Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), the Féderation Étudiante Collegiale du Québec (FECQ), and the Coalition Large de l’Association pour un Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE),” Angelovici said. “These are different organizations with different ideologies, different preferences in terms of techniques, and different political support.”

Martine Desjardins, president of the FEUQ, noted that a decentralized movement posed challenges, particularly at the negotiation table with the provincial government.

“It was a challenge every day to keep up this united front, because of course, there’s a lot of ideology when you’re talking with student associations, and we don’t [all] have the same ideology,” Desjardins said. “When you’re fighting for something, you need to have a common objective, and this is probably the most difficult part.”

Assessing the student movement

According to the leaders of the main student associations, the movement was a success.

(Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)
(Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)

“The aim of the strike was achieved,” said Jérémie Bédard-Wien, spokesperson for the Association pour un Solidarité Syndicale (ASSÉ).  “We managed to bring down tuition hikes, we managed to bring down Bill 78, we forced an election, and we forced a minister to resign—all because of the historic mobilization of hundreds of thousands. For the first time for our generation, we realized that we had political power, and we applied it during this movement.”

However, Desjardins said that student federations must continue to lobby the government.

“We made many gains last year, but we still are looking at other things,” she said. “We’re still working to represent [international students] because we want … [to make sure] that they won’t be paying for the tuition fee hikes cancellation. We’re also looking into the governance and the financing of universities”

At the CAF event, Germain Belzile, research director at the Montreal Economic Institute, noted that the paralysis of the downtown area was an important effect of the movement. According to Belzile, the Université de Québec à Montréal spent over 20 million dollars in security measures and the city spent over 20 million dollars on police fees.

“We haven’t included private costs, like that of restaurant owners who have lost money, or maids who lost their job because downtown hotels were empty,” he said in French. “I’m under the impression that we’re approaching 100 million dollars in costs.”

McGill and the student movement

Despite the widespread student mobilization in the province, the majority of McGill students were not involved in the student movement. Although McGill’s Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) held a vote to strike last March, students voted against the motion. However, some of the smaller student associations at McGill voted in favour of an unlimited strike, such as the faculty of social work and departmental associations such as the English and philosophy associations.

(Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)
(Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)

“It’s difficult to say why McGill students were [less involved], although some possible reasons include the socioeconomic origin of most students [and] the geographic origin, as there are many foreign students,” Angelovici said in French. “Many professors at McGill, even in sociology, political science, and history, declared themselves in favour of the increase. The administration was quite repressive when it came to the student mobilizations, most of which were related to McGill issues, but this limited the space for students to organize.”

Mary Anne Poutanen, a Quebec history professor at both McGill and Concordia, commented on how the university administrations approached the movement.

“[At Concordia] we got messages from the administration that showed empathy [and] understanding for those who were not going to class,” she said. “[At McGill], there was certainly no solidarity from administrators. Concordia changed the date…and waved the fee for late submissions. That’s a very different approach.”

Éliane Laberge, president of the FECQ, suggested that anglophone and francophone students’ differing perceptions of the strike may explain the disinterest of the majority of McGill students.

“For the movement to be effective, it’s important that the cause touch one personally,” she said in French. “For students in francophone universities, the cause is more personal—it directly affects what they are living through.”

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), first passed a mandate to promote accessible education in a GA in 2007, and renewed the mandate last Fall. SSMU provided information and promoted participation in the marches.

“SSMU’s efforts did an important job of providing information to students from outside of Quebec who didn’t know much about student strikes, and also were a source of information in English,” SSMU VP External Robin Reid-Fraser said.

The election of the PQ and the student movement

For Laberge, the election of the PQ minority government was a positive step in achieving the movement’s aims to keep education accessible.

“The fact that the PQ has been so fast in its decisions to cancel the tuition hike and organize the summit is because of our presence last spring,” Laberge said.

Bédard-Wien expressed more uncertainty regarding the PQ’s interest in pursuing policies in the future that promote accessible education.

“Currently, the PQ seems to be a little afraid of us,” he said. “It wants to solve this question as soon as possible, and is organizing an education summit. … And I’d say, quite frankly, ASSÉ is quite skeptical of this process, and will not hesitate to resort to more effective tactics in order to make its points and make its demands translate into policy.”

Laberge noted that the education summit is an exciting opportunity for students to play a role in policy-making.

“The fact that the PQ members are more open to discussion, and that they are organizing this summit, has changed the way that we are going to continue … working towards better accessibility of studies [and a] better education system,” Laberge said. “For [once], we’re not going to be against something; we are going to be a part of the construction of something.”

Effects on Quebec society at large

Laberge said she was impressed by how the movement grew to involve people outside the scope of student federations.

“People started to organize themselves to protest, not only in Montreal, but in other cities,” she said. “Of course it’s good to have a national platform which is more concrete [and] led by a big organization, but it’s a really good thing… to know that people can change something by themselves and [by] working with people around them. They don’t need a leader for that.”

Belzile noted that the student movement may have long-term repercussions on Quebec’s economy.

“The government has to make decisions [about funding], but the door is closed on the issue of raising tuition fees as a result of the societal pressure,” he said in French. “What we’ll have to do now is probably increase taxes, with the consequence that people will leave Quebec.”

Bédard-Wien pointed to how the student strike politically engaged Quebec youth.

“The strike had the effect of radicalizing and politicizing an entire generation of students, and providing a space for the population to organize politically outside of the tired structures of parliamentary democracy,” he said. “These are incredibly important victories, whose effects we will see in the coming few months and years.”