Canada’s Maple Spring: From the Quebec Student Strike to the Movement Against Neoliberalism

January 1st, 2013

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin – No. 752, by Ingar Solty, December 31, 2012.

… In the latest attempt, the government argued universities were underfinanced and that Quebec’s global competitiveness required increased funding through a tuition increase. This argument set the students against the government. The fact that the government justified the increase by referring to a budget shortfall added a new quality to the matter. This made it clear that the government’s actual aim was to shift the costs of the economic crisis onto the students. 

Resistance emerged mainly out of two groups. The first group consists of the students who saw a long-term neoliberal agenda at work in the tuition increase. This agenda’s aim is the lasting transformation of education into a commodified service and the reorientation of universities and colleges toward the interests of the private capitalist economy.[1] However, these students argued that education is a social right and that democracy requires free access to education. They counterposed a “humanistic education” to a “commercialized” one.[2] In doing so, the students could point out that Canada had ratified the 1976 United Nations “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” in which the right to tuition-free education is anchored.

This first group does not accept that future wage earners should indebt themselves to cover the costs of qualifying their labour power as a commodity. They represent an anti-neoliberal, indeed, an anti-capitalist perspective.

Yet even for the students from the second group, who are not fundamentally opposed to neoliberalism, the government’s argument was not valid. For if education, as neoliberals gladly emphasize, is the key to social mobility in the “knowledge society,” then it should not be dependent on the pocketbooks of parents, and even under the logic of the neoliberals, investment by “labour power entrepreneurs” in their education is no longer worthwhile. Years of stagnation in the incomes of post-secondary graduates has contributed significantly to the emergence of an academic precariat. In the face of declining opportunities for well-paying jobs, even these students see no point in paying more for an education just to indebt themselves.

The Relationship Between Student Debt and Precarisation: … //

… The Organizations Behind the Student Strike: … //

… The Failure of the Peace Talks: … //

… From Student Strike to Anti-Neoliberalism Movement:

Emergency Law 78 boomeranged on the government. Many citizens who originally did not approve of the strikes now supported the protests. The demonstration against the increase in tuition fees, planned for the 100th day of the student strike on May 22 in Montreal, turned into a massive protest against the government. CSN, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), as well as the left-wing Québec solidaire (QS) and Option National all supported the protest. The demonstration was by far the largest in Canadian history. Over 400,000 people – more than five per cent of Quebec’s population – marched through the streets of Montreal. Quebec became the symbol for student and anti-austerity protests worldwide. Prominent artists such as Michael Moore and the rock band Arcade Fire expressed their support publicly; demonstrations in solidarity took place across Canada and in New York, London, and Paris.

However, according to opinion polls, a majority still supported the law and the tuition increases. Ultimately it was the repressive impacts of the emergency law that tipped public opinion. On the night of May 23 alone, police arrested 513 demonstrators in Montreal, 150 in Quebec City, and 36 in Sherbrooke. In total between February and September, 3387 people were taken into custody. The government, which had been struggling for a long time with several corruption scandals, now appeared to many Québecois as repressive and illegitimate.[13] The number of participants in the nightly mass protests, which occurred simultaneously in several locations across Quebec, multiplied by the thousands.

With this, the character of the movement changed fundamentally. Out of the student strike emerged a mass popular movement. Correspondingly, the demands also broadened; the increase in power of the financial elite, social inequality, and the dismantling of the public sector became issues. The political science professor Anna Kruzynski aptly noted after May 22:

The tuition hike is part and parcel of a neoliberal agenda [...]. It’s not isolated from other measures that aim to privatize public services [...]. What the student movement has managed to do is to bring this debate into the forefront beyond the question of tuition fees.[14]

The “hardest-fought student strike in Quebec (and Canadian) history”[15] resulted in the “most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent.”[16] The movement was now increasingly referred to as the “Printemps érable”, the Maple Spring (a simultaneous reference to the national symbol of Canada, the maple leaf, and to the Arab Spring).

In the weeks after the massive demonstration of May 22, the protest expanded to almost all districts of Montreal. Institutions of self-governance emerged in several city districts in the form of the Assemblées populaires autonomes de quartier. On May 31, with the student strike itself still 150,000 strong, the government finally withdrew from negotiations.

Early elections held on September 4 resulted in the increasingly unpopular PLQ’s expected defeat. Premier Jean Charest was defeated in his own electoral district and stepped down as party leader as a result. With 32 per cent of the vote and 54 out of 125 seats (an increase of seven), the PQ became the largest party in the National Assembly of Quebec. Student leader Leo Bureau-Blouin was also elected on this party’s ticket. Québec Solidaire also profited from the Maple Spring. In contrast to 2008, the left-wing party increased its share of the vote from 3.8 to 6 per cent, thus becoming the fourth strongest force. In three (separatist orientated) working-class districts of Montreal, they achieved a vote share of over 20 per cent. In the wake of the Maple Spring, the party doubled its membership to 13,000.

Yet a big landslide failed to materialize. Though the PLQ clearly lost, the CAQ made gains, with the result that the new PQ minority government will depend on the right-wing opposition for votes. On September 20, the new government froze tuition fees. In addition, it announced the abrogation of “Loi 78” (which, however, was only possible with the PLQ’s and CAQ’s cooperation).[17]

Lessons From the Movement:

First off, it can be stated that the student movement achieved a victory in the “Maple Spring.” The dramatic increase in tuition fees sought by the government is off the table. Even more so, the protests share responsibility for ultimately chasing the government out of office. Because of this, it seems unlikely in the short-term that a renewed attempt at a drastic tuition increase will be attempted. Even if the success was undoubtedly based on specific circumstances, some conclusions can nevertheless be drawn that are also relevant for movements outside of Quebec.

First, the Maple Spring makes clear that resistance to austerity policies can be quite successful when it is based on the protection of essential social-welfare achievements from which a large majority of the population benefits. This applies particularly when the population considers these achievements to be part of their “identity” and the identity of the country, and the movement defends them as such.[18]

Second, in the context of increasing labour market competition and individual strategies for survival, the knowledge that solidarity and collective struggle are worthwhile is of immense importance. Every success shows that the prevailing policies are by no means without alternatives. Because these protests make the state budget a political issue, they prove that alternatives always exist – as long as one fights for them. The best evidence for all this are the (in total) nine student strikes that have taken place since 1968, which have resulted in tuition fees in Quebec being the lowest in North America. At the same time, the successful struggle for free education is a refutation of the theory of immiseration. The successes of the Quebec student movement over the decades show that it is not the “maximum misery” of high tuition fees that led to the movement but rather – at least in this case – the open spaces created by low fees which encouraged the movement. Additionally, those with high levels of educational (or other) debt – and facing increasing fears of job loss – are also less likely to mount a defense against deteriorating working conditions.

Third, the chances for successful protests are considerably greater if they are not based solely on spontaneity but rather on long-term organization. “This strike did not spring from some spontaneous wave of revolutionary romanticism. It was organized over a long period of time by activists who mobilized support among their local CÉGEP and university student associations.”[19] Furthermore, the Quebec student strike would not have proceeded so successfully without the Red-Hand-Coalition’s networking of social struggles. Here again: a spontaneous protest only becomes fully effective if a strong organization and a broad alliance of social forces have prepared the ground for its emergence.

Lastly, the reference by the “Printemps érable“ to the “Printemps arabe” was an important factor in the success of the movement. Before the Arab Spring, political conditions seemed to be fossilized – and not only in the Arab world. Since then, mutual references to movements and the internationalization of symbols and forms of political action have invigorated social struggles. Petrified relations have started to move – it’s time to make them dance. •

Ingar Solty is at York University in Toronto, an editor of Das Argument, and co-founding member of the North-Atlantic Left Dialogue. Since 2004, Solty has been publishing on the political economy of the United States in journals such as Prokla, Das Argument, Capital & Class, Socialism & Democracy, as well as daily newspapers such as Neues Deutschland and Junge Welt.

Translated from the German by Sam Putinja. This article first appeared on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung website.
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