The roots of the red square movement

how the Québec student struggle gave rise to a mass social movement across the province – Published on Socialist Worker, by David Camfield, August 9, 2012.

IN 2012, Québec has been shaken by the most important social movement in the Canadian state[1] since the 1970s. What began as a strike by students in Québec’s universities and Collèges d’Enseignement Général et Professionnel (CEGEPs, which most young people attend after high school) against a major increase in university tuition fees – part of capital’s international austerity drive – has become a broader popular movement against the government of the Québec Liberal Party (PLQ), headed by Premier Jean Charest, and against neoliberalism. 

Universities in Québec Society: … //

… The Student Movement:

Québec university and CEGEP students are organized into associations, facilitated by a legal framework with no equivalent elsewhere in the Canadian state. In Québec, there is a strong, decades-long tradition of students organizing in very democratic and participatory ways through the general assemblies of their associations. Local associations may choose to affiliate to a Québec-wide organization, of which there are four. The Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSE), founded in 2001, promotes militant and democratic left-wing student unionism, in contrast to the others.

In December 2011, ASSE formed the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), which student associations not affiliated to ASSE could join if they accepted its platform and highly democratic way of functioning. CLASSE was intentionally designed to coordinate a student strike and has been a tremendous success. It is currently made up of 65 associations with a combined membership of 100,000.

Student associations began to hold general assemblies to discuss the call for a strike. The strike began on February 13 and soon spread through universities and CEGEPs across Québec. Participation was strongest in Montreal (Québec’s largest city) and weaker in Québec City (the capital city).

The most common form of action was not attending classes and organizing picket lines to prevent people from entering buildings or classrooms. In March, CLASSE passed a motion in favor of actions to disrupt the economy and the state, leading to “manif-actions,” in which students took their struggle off campus and carried out blockades of government offices, courthouses, bank buildings, bridges and other targets. Students also marched in support of locked-out Rio Tinto aluminum smelter workers in the town of Alma, joined with other groups protesting austerity measures and protested the government’s plan to “develop” Northern Québec, which is opposed by indigenous people and environmentalists. Art interventions and other cultural expressions of the movement gave the strike a growing public presence.

The movement’s symbol, a red square (first used in 2005, because higher tuition would put students “squarely in the red”), was soon being worn by tens of thousands of people and made visible in other ways on the streets and online.

On March 22, the number of strikers peaked, with around 300,000 of Québec’s 400,000 university and CEGEP students on strike that day. That same day–chosen consciously to refer to the May 22nd Movement, which played a role in France’s massive student and working-class revolt of 1968–saw a demonstration of some 200,000 people in Montreal (to put this in perspective, Québec’s population is about 8 million). This took the movement to a higher level, with more students voting to take ongoing strike action.

Students usually met weekly in general assemblies to decide whether or not to continue to strike, though some associations voted for unlimited strike action. Support for the strike remained much stronger among francophones than anglophones. People who experience racism have been underrepresented, highlighting the need to strengthen anti-racist education and action in the movement.

On April 14, CLASSE’s demonstration against both the Charest government and the right-wing Conservative Party federal government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, called under the slogan “For a Québec Spring,” was a real success. This was followed on April 22 with a huge Earth Day demonstration, where anger at the ecologically destructive actions of the Québec and federal governments and major corporations was notably combined with support for the students’ cause and their anti-neoliberal militancy.

In an attempt to divide a movement that showed no signs of faltering, the Québec government excluded CLASSE from its talks with student organizations. However, unlike in 2005, when they had agreed to a settlement rejected by the militant wing of the strike movement, the leaders of the other federations responded by maintaining a common front and withdrawing from negotiations.

Charest then offered to spread the tuition increase over seven years rather than five. This was widely seen as an insult, and marches began to take place in Montreal every evening. Violent police repression at a demonstration outside a PLQ meeting in the small city of Victoriaville on May 4 was followed the next day by the announcement of a tentative deal to end the strike, brokered with the aid of the top officials of Québec’s three trade union federations. When put to a vote, the deal was massively rejected by students.

Having failed to demobilize the movement by depicting students as spoiled brats and offering insubstantial concessions, Charest turned to repression. The government rushed a special law, Law 78 (now Law 12), through the legislature in full knowledge that some of its provisions contravene the Québec and Canadian charters of rights. This law bans demonstrations near universities and CEGEPs, declares demonstrations illegal if they are not registered in advance with the police, orders a resumption of classes in mid-August and imposes heavy fines for individuals or organizations that transgress the new rules. Municipal government followed up with restrictive bylaws of their own.

The Movement Broadens: … //

… Into a New Phase:

The movement is entering a new phase. Law 78 orders classes to resume at a number of CEGEPs during the week of August 13-17, but some activists are organizing a Block the Return to Class campaign independently of the official student organization structures, to minimize the weight of legal sanctions on the movement.

Charest has called an election for September 4. His gamble is that low voter turnout and the division of the anti-PLQ vote will maximize his chances of reelection. The PLQ faces its largest rival, the Parti Québecois (PQ, a nationalist party that coats its neoliberalism with talk of fighting poverty and defending students’ and workers’ rights), the Coalition Avenir Québec (a new aggressively neoliberal party) and Québec Solidaire (QS, which unites much of the Québec Left on the basis of anti-neoliberal reformism and support for Québec independence). In the Canadian state, the candidate that wins the most votes wins in a constituency and the party that wins the most constituencies forms the government).

The election presents a challenge for the “Red Square” movement. Ruling-class strategists are undoubtedly hoping that the election will finally succeed in quelling the movement, allowing a PLQ or PQ government to claim that the disputed issues have been legitimately resolved and to decisively marginalize CLASSE and its allies.

The PQ is calling for a truce in the student struggle and, in keeping with its tradition of consulting with the leaders of unions and community organizations while it implements neoliberal policies, is promising a summit on university funding if it wins the election. Despite the PQ’s record in government, there is real pressure on students and others opposed to the PLQ to vote for the PQ as the “lesser evil” most likely to get Charest out of office.

While two of the other student federations (aligned informally with the PQ) are calling on students to vote, CLASSE is steaming ahead with its efforts to build the movement and prepare for the forced return to classes. CLASSE-affiliated student associations are holding general assemblies beginning on August 7, with a CLASSE congress scheduled for August 11-12.

A few words about the Québec Left are in order. Its main political components are QS (which gathers together a range of forces, from social democrats to revolutionary socialists), anarchists, and social democrats who still haven’t quit the PQ. Many anarchists have done much to build the movement, both as students and community activists. Although QS proclaims itself a party “of the streets and the ballot boxes,” it is oriented and organized primarily for parliamentary politics.

QS has supported the student strike in a number of ways and many of its members have built the movement as activists. However, QS itself has not acted as an organized force to advance the struggle among students, in neighborhoods and in workplaces. The movement has created a new opportunity to strengthen support within QS for anti-capitalist politics that treat mass direct action on the streets and in workplaces as the key to beating back attacks, winning reforms and ultimately transforming society. However, it’s not yet clear if people on the left wing of QS will be able to come together to do this.

Whatever happens in the next phase of the struggle, a number of things are clear. This remarkable movement has politicized Québec society around the question of neoliberalism in a way that is without precedent in the Canadian state. It has radicalized many people, especially youth, many of whom have gained very valuable experience in mass mobilization and democratic self-organization.

Activists formed by the “Maple Spring,” as some have called the movement, will be critical for the future of the Left. The movement has also given Canadian activists both inspiration and ideas about how to struggle more effectively. (full long text).


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