Massive Student Upsurge Fuels Major Debates in Quebec Society

April 28th, 2012

Published on Socialist Project, by Richard Fidler, April 25, 2012.

A crowd estimated at 250,000 people or more wound its way through Montréal April 22 in Quebec’s largest ever Earth Day march. They raised many demands: an end to tar sands and shale gas development, opposition to the Quebec government’s Plan Nord mining expansion, support for radical measures to protect ecosystems, and other causes. And many wore the red felt square symbolizing support to the province’s students fighting the Liberal government’s 75 per cent increase in post-secondary education fees over the next five years. The Earth Day march was the largest mobilization to date in a mounting wave of citizen protest throughout the province.  

In the vanguard have been the students, now in the eleventh week of a strike that has effectively shut down Quebec’s universities and junior colleges. In recent days they have battled court injunctions and mounting police repression. Their resilience has astonished many Québécois and inspired strong statements of support from broad layers of the population.[1] Equally surprising to many has been the government’s stubborn refusal to even discuss the fee hike with student representatives … //

… A Débat de Société:

The CLASSE began preparing for the strike early in 2011, publishing several issues during the year of an on-line tabloid journal, Ultimatum, containing detailed, well-argued articles on the issues and extensive reports on local activities. Each issue, up to 44 pages at one point, included reports on the popular upsurges in the Middle East and elsewhere internationally, with an emphasis on the leading role of students and youth. The Occupy movement was prominently covered. When the strike began in February of this year, Ultimatum switched to a two-page format issued almost weekly with updates on the strike’s progress.

Largely thanks to CLASSE’s intervention the strike has managed to move the public debate onto the students’ terrain, raising basic questions about the role of public education and its importance to the whole of Quebec society as a collective service that should be financed out of general government revenues, not on the backs of students as ‘consumers.’ Thus, while the strike movement’s immediate goal is to ‘block the increase’ in fees, the students have successfully placed the campaign in the context of an ongoing fight for la gratuité scolaire, free and universal access to post-secondary education. As the students argue, this remains a still unrealized objective of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s.

The students’ case has been endorsed by the eminent sociologist Guy Rocher, a member of the Quebec government-appointed Parent commission in the 1960s that laid the basis for a massive overhaul of the province’s educational system, proposing an end to church control of the schools and the creation of a vast network of post-secondary educational institutions. In an interview published in Le Devoir, Rocher described free education as a “societal choice” that would cost only 1% of the Quebec budget. And the Parent commission, he recalled, said free post-secondary education was “desirable in the long term” and even proposed that the neediest students be given a salary while they studied.

In fact, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Canada is a signatory, provides that “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” [Article 13(2)(c)].

Aware that even stopping the current hike in fees requires a popular mobilization larger than what the students themselves can achieve, the CLASSE has called for creation of a broad united front of protest against the neoliberal offensive and linked the fees increase to a string of recent regressive measures. A statement issued for the April 14 march, “For a Quebec Spring,” stated:

“Cuts in social programs, lower taxes for corporations, record military expenditures, setbacks to women’s rights, massive layoffs, inaction on factory closings, raising the retirement threshold to 67 years, increase in education fees, imposition of the healthcare tax, increased electricity rates… The list of Liberal and Conservative injustices is a long one.”

Where Are the Unions?

And indeed, the students’ appeals have been supported by a wide array of organizations in civil society. The full list, regularly updated, can be found at the web site 1625$ de hausse, ça ne passe pas. But while all three trade-union centrals support the students and favour free education, they have so far failed to back their rhetoric with economic action – not even the one-day general strike in solidarity with the students promised by the CSN. A petition urging such action by the unions is now gathering mounting support. It urges the union leaders to speak out forcefully, to organize a “national mobilization, beginning perhaps with a one-day symbolic general strike across Quebec” and, if that proves insufficient to defeat the fee hike, to follow it up with stronger solidarity actions.

Meanwhile, the right-wing voices in the mass media – especially in English Canada – are becoming increasingly shrill in their attacks on the students. A case in point was a diatribe by Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne, a regular member of CBC-TV’s “At Issue” panel, which the state television network presents as intelligent commentary on questions of the day. In an April 21 newspaper column, Coyne described the Quebec students as a “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing collection of idiots,” and went on to propose that instead of paying the present 17% of the total cost of their education the students should pay the full tab – through a graduated tax on subsequent income! Such is the logic of the neoliberal ‘user pays’ principle.

And the Funding? … (full text and Notes 1 – 5).

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