Canada: five years after the 2012 Maple Spring - The lessons for today

Five years have passed since the heroic struggle of the students during the “maple spring.” This magnificent movement shook the Canadian province of Quebec to the core and ended with the defeat of the Liberal Party and the cancelling of the tuition increase. However, five years later, austerity continues at a steady pace and the Liberals seem to be comfortably seated in power. The fifth anniversary of the maple spring is an occasion for us to revisit those historic events and to highlight the lessons of this fantastic movement.

2012, a turning point

The youth have always been a barometer of the state of any given society. In most most mass movements the youth are the first to move, igniting the spark of a revolutionary upsurge. In 2012, the students erupting onto the scene of history was the symptom of the crisis  developing in Quebec for many years. The repeated attacks of the Jean Charest Liberals provoked the reply of Quebecois youth, who answered loudly “enough is enough!”

One of the lessons from 2012 is that of leadership. The activists leading the ASSE gave a bold and fearless direction and defiantly threw down the gauntlet in a direct challenge to not just the government, but the entire capitalist class. In 2011, in a speech used to mobilize students for the strike, the now famous Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois finished the speech by stating:

“Never forget that the people who want to increase tuition fees, the people who want to cut public services, the people who want to privatize health-care, the people who want to weaken – in other words abolish - environmental regulations, the people who despise women's rights, indigenous rights and the rights of all minorities, the people who have worked tirelessly over decades to prevent workers from forming unions, all these people are the same.

“These people are few in number. These people control everything. They always want to control more. These people have common interests. These people have a common political project.

“There was a time, in Quebec, in Canada, not so long ago, that a minority like this, that controls the political and economic institutions of a country, that shares common interests, not so long ago we would call this a class.

“We need to stop being afraid of words. We must call these people by their name. These people are the ruling class. These people are the bourgeoisie.

“The struggle against the tuition increase, the struggle of those who are indignant all over the world must be called by its name. It is a class struggle. This is a struggle of the minority that owns everything against the majority that obviously owns nothing and vice versa. A gluttonous and vulgar minority. A minority that views life as a business opportunity, a tree as a natural resource and a child as a future employee ...When we are in the streets fighting against the tuition increase, it is also this that we are fighting against."

In August 2011 in their publication Ultimatum, in an editorial titled “We are at an end” written by Nadeau-Dubois, it made an appeal which amounted to a call for revolution. In a section of the article titled “we are not alone” it stated: “All over the world, in Spain, in Italy, in Greece, in Portugal, in Great Britain, in Syria, in Egypt or Tunisia, the people are revolting to claim what is theirs....After the Arab spring, will we witness a Quebecois spring?” It then went on to state “The response from ASSE is categorical : we must. This semester will begin with a massive mobilization on all campuses in Quebec.… More and more we hear, in the corridors of colleges and universities, a whisper, like a rumor, three letters, always the same three: GGI. This rumor, since last spring has become more and more insistent. GGI : Unlimited General Strike... Given the magnitude of this challenge, no hesitation can be permitted. We need to mobilize ourselves right now, in great number and with great determination. It is up to us.”

Given the firm and uncompromising leadership, the response from the student population was overwhelming. By March, 75% of all post secondary institutions were shut down by the strike and on March 22nd, over 200,000 people flooded the streets of Montreal. The confidence and elan was palpable.

In the weeks and months following the beginning of the strike, the government dug their heels in and refused to back down. The government demonized the CLASSE (The enlarged strike committee of ASSE) and insisted that they would not negotiate with them. This was incredibly insulting to students on strike of which a majority were represented by this coalition.

The media, owned and controlled by the capitalists, played their nasty game of ignoring the movement when they could and portrayed the students as “entitled,” “violent” and “enemies of the workers.” At this point the government had already started imposing injunctions against the picket lines and were making mass arrests of hundreds of students. The SPVM (Montreal police) as well as the SQ (Provincial police) became particularly hated due to their brutal tactics. One student (Francis Grenier) even lost his eye in early March due to the police firing a flash grenade in his face. This hypocritical demand that the student leaders must denounce the violence of a few student protesters when the police had been unleashing a systematic and violent crackdown on the right to protest, created a rage among not only the student population but also the working class.

What was the 2012 Student Strike?

Students in Quebec have a long tradition of militant strikes going all the way back to the 1960s. This is the main reason why post secondary education in the province is by far one of the cheapest in the country. In previous movements, the government was quicker to back down faced with such general outrage and such numbers on strike and on the streets. As recent as 2005, a student strike that lasted just 6-weeks forced the Liberal government to back off on their attempts to cancel hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bursaries.

But the strike in 2012 was unlike previous student strikes. Occurring just 4 years after the economic crisis of 2008, this strike was occurring in a new epoch of capitalist crisis and austerity. The economy of the province as well as the province's financial situation were in a sorry state. The capitalist class in Quebec and their lackey politicians sought to offload the cost of this crisis onto the backs workers and youth. There was a dire need, a constant pressure coming from the bourgeoisie to send a clear message to workers and youth in the province that resistance to their agenda would not be tolerated.

The bourgeoisie in Quebec, in 2012, knew very well what was at stake. The Montreal Gazette explained that “Any ‘social peace’ [the government] would buy from the students would not be permanent, because every other interest group opposed to future austerity measures would see that not only the present government but the society it represents can be intimidated.” Clearly there was a fear that the students would set an example for the broader working class. This was a justified fear and the Liberal government acted accordingly to attempt to crush the movement. This fundamentally changed the struggle from a simple student strike to a movement that questioned who ruled society.

The youth and the workers

In this context, students needed to spread the struggle to the wider working class in order to achieve victory. Students, in spite of all of their enthusiasm and their impressive ability to mobilize, are far from possessing the same economic leverage as the workers. A student strike, in spite of its importance, can not shut down production in the decisive sectors of the economy. It is the workers who have this power. It is therefore not surprising that the Liberals made no real concessions to the students during the 2012 crisis, despite the unprecedented scope of the movement. As long as the workers were not brought into the movement, the government would not bend, which is all the more true during a period in which the capitalist system is in a deep crisis, where the bosses are determined to pass the bill onto the workers and youth in the form of austerity measures.

Faced with this situation, the ASSE leadership, to their credit made an appeal for students to “go further than the unlimited general (student) strike,” and made an appeal for a “Grève sociale” - that is a general strike of the whole society. They correctly said that this government only listens to the language of money and therefore they would need to “occupy and disrupt the economy.” However, there was no collective organized expression given to this movement and there was no clear idea about how this would be done. Many times this manifested itself in isolated actions of students blocking or occupying public buildings, with little or no connection or communication with the workers who worked there. This played into the narrative coming from Jean Charest that the students were “enemies of the workers.”

Despite the fact that the polls showed that there was massive support for the students among the general population and there was a clear desire among students to bring the workers into the struggle, this never occurred in an organized fashion. What was needed was not just statements about the need for a general strike but for this to be organized on the ground. The leaders of the main trade unions had made it clear that they did not want a general strike so a grassroots movement of the members in favor of a 24-hour general strike needed to be organized to bring the pressure to bear. In order to do this, students needed to reach out to and engage in a dialogue with the workers. At every school, student-worker solidarity committees should have been struck with the task of identifying all of the major workplaces in the area that they could visit. These committees could mobilize the local student population to go to these work places and ask for some time to put their case to the workers. They could have explained the broader situation that a defeat for the students at the end of the day is a defeat for the workers and that after the government had finished with them, it would be coming down hard on them. Sympathetic workers' unions, sympathetic shop stewards could have been contacted and involved in the discussions. Unfortunately this did not happen, the workers were not brought into the movement and the deadlock continued.

The masses hold their leaders to account

In May, as the movement dragged on, the representatives from the traditionally conciliatory, FEUQ and FECQ stated that they would be prepared to negotiate with the government without the representatives from the CLASSE being involved. In order to be involved in the negotiations, the CLASSE denounced the violence of the demonstrators and the government was forced to include them in the negotiations. The FEUQ and the FECQ representatives quickly demonstrated that they were prepared to accept a sellout deal. Representing the core of striking students and mandated to accept absolutely no concessions, the CLASSE representatives were brought under immense pressure from all major institutions in society. The government brought in the leaders from the major workers' unions to try to convince the CLASSE negotiators to be 'reasonable' and 'do a service for the good of Quebec'. The result of this blitz of negotiations on May 4-5th was a complete sellout deal being agreed upon by the government and the student leaders. The representatives of the students touted it as a “partial victory” but this was quickly rebuked by Liberal ministers who insisted that the plan to raise tuition was still going ahead as planned. Even worse is the fact that the proposed entente would implicate the student leaders in a government committee to oversee cost cutting at universities. This committee would be dominated by elements from the state and big business and would simply use the authority of the student leaders to sell austerity to the rank-and-file.

To the dismay of the elites and the student and workers leaders alike, students gathered in general assemblies at campuses all over the province rejected this rotten deal. By Wednesday, May 9th, 14 colleges had rejected the deal and only 2 had voted to accept it. Votes at the universities similarly delivered a crushing rejection of this deal. This led to another breakdown in negotiations. In response to this, the education minister Line Beauchamp was forced to resign. The movement had its first concrete victory!

The whip of the counter revolution

By May, a questioning mood had developed among the student population. What are we going to do? We can't simply strike forever! What is going to happen? The Charest Liberals, having failed to kill the movement through subterfuge, lies and smears decided to try to crush the movement and put an end to this once and for all. On May 18th, the Liberal party, with support from the right-wing CAQ party passed Bill 78 – a brutal anti-democratic law seeking to curtail the right to protest in the province, levying heavy fines against individuals and unions if they continued to block the access to the schools with picket lines.

This led to the amusing situation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pilla warning of a worrying trend of governments violating fundamental human rights like the right to protest in places like Syria, Mali, Nepal, Mexico, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe, South Sudan and... Quebec! She stated that "In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly."

Marx famously said once that, “revolution advances under the whip of the counter-revolution.” The Liberals, angry and arrogant, had completely miscalculated with this law and it ended up producing the exact opposite result than they desired. The anger and rage spread throughout Quebecois society like wildfire. On May 21st, the CLASSE held a press conference and announced that they considered the law to be unjust and that they would not be respecting it. They started a website where anyone could upload a picture of themselves holding a sign that said « I defy law 78 .» This website exploded with thousands and thousands of people from all over the province uploading their photos in defiance of the law.

Up until this moment, the trade union leaders had been playing a dastardly role. While from time to time they denounced the government, they also continued to appeal to the CLASSE leaders to be reasonable and to accept a compromise. They refused categorically the idea of organizing a solidarity strike of the workers and generally tried to hold back their members so that the situation did not get out of control. The imposition of law 78 changed all of this. The pressure from the rank and file members of the unions became too much and the unions were forced to mobilize their members for a big demonstration on the 22nd of May. The result was incredible. The imposition of law 78 had given new life to the movement and started to spread the movement to the working class. Over 400,000 people demonstrated that day. The police could do absolutely nothing when faced with the unstoppable power of the masses. The masses were feeling their own power in the biggest demonstration and show of civil disobedience in the history of the province or even the country.

On top of this, the night of May 24th, with no official leadership, dozens of demonstrations spontaneously erupted in different neighborhoods in Montreal in defiance of the anti-demonstration law. Around 8pm, no matter which neighborhood you were in, you would start to hear the clinking of pots and pans, a tradition which has its roots in protests against the despotic premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis during the “Great Darkness” in the 1940s and 1950s. Hundreds of working class people would flood the streets banging pots and pans spontaneously. These “casseroles” continued for weeks and made law 78 inapplicable in practice.

This also posed a fantastic opportunity to spread the struggle to the working class. The casseroles were largely comprised of working class people, upset at their children being arrested and defiant in the face of a government that had become more and more authoritarian. One of the most notable things about this period is the near complete absence of leadership. The leaders of the CLASSE, who had heroically called on the masses to rise against the government and the capitalist class as a part of an international wave, clearly did not have a plan of action once the masses heeded the call. The government refused to back down and the student leaders made continued calls to “continue the struggle.” They officially stood for a “social strike” and called for it repeatedly but did very little to concretely help the rank and file workers overcome the conservative nature of the trade union bureaucracy. The situation could not have been riper for the students to go to the workers, engage in a dialogue with them and forge links of solidarity with them and put forward the case for a united general strike against the government. Quebec youth lacked not the enthusiasm or determination but the necessary leadership.

Even though the spring semester have been suspended until August, the movement continued throughout June andu July with almost daily demonstrations, during the day, at night and in almost every neighborhood of Montreal. The repression and political profiling unleashed by the state reached epic proportions. Between February and September 2012, over 3,500 people were arrested and the Montreal police force spent over $7.3 million just on paying overtime during the spring of 2012. Student caught wearing a red square were regularly stopped, harassed or arrested by police, even when they were not in a demonstration.

The Fall Elections

As the fall semester approached, the Charest government once again changed their tactics in an attempt to put an end to the movement. On August 1st, Lieutenant Governor Pierre Duchesne dissolved the national assembly at the request of premier Jean Charest and called an election for September 4th. Charest framed the election as a choice between “order and stability” or “lawlessness and violence” of the streets - an obvious reference to the protests that had been rocking the province. He said that “We have heard from those who have been hitting away at pots and pans. Now, is a time for the silent majority to speak.”

As soon as Charest called the election, the question of what to do became the key question in the student movement. The FEUQ/FECQ had the position that the students should end the strike and vote for “anyone but the Liberals.” This essentially amounted to a vote for the Parti Quebecois, which had been wearing red squares, banging pots and pans and hypocritically pandering to the movement. They even had FECQ leader, Léo Bureau-Blouin as a candidate in the riding of Laval-des-Rapides. The anarchists argued to boycott the election and continue the strike. People like Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois wanted to support Quebec Solidaire but lost out to the anarchists. Unfortunately, the CLASSE adopted the abstract position of “elections are not a solution.” Of course, it is true in an abstract sense that under capitalism, elections do not fundamentally change the system. However, we need to be able to exploit all opportunities to hand defeats to the capitalists and increase the confidence and fighting capacity of the masses.

This is why the Marxists argued that we shouldn’t draw a false dichotomy of “strike or election” but to continue the strike and use it as a mobilizing tool during the election to not only hand a defeat to the Liberals but to all of the capitalist parties that had been pushing for the tuition increase, including the PQ. This meant getting active in and supporting Quebec solidaire, the self described “party of the streets and the ballot box” and the only significant party that supports free education.

Unfortunately, due to the boycott tactic, the election played a significant role in spreading confusion and demobilizing the movement. The student population did not follow the position of the CLASSE, which had tremendous authority in the population at the time, but instead saw the election as an opportunity to overthrow Charest. By the end of August, only a few thousand students at UQAM and UdeM were still on strike. Was it inevitable for the strike to lose momentum during the election? We don’t believe so. We actually entirely agree with Jean Charest that this essentially was an election about who ruled Quebec. The fact of the matter is that everyone knew that a victory for the Liberals and Charest would be seen as a huge rebuke to the students and everyone who had been protesting. In the same logic, a victory, or a significant increase in support for Quebec solidaire would have sent exactly the opposite message.

In reality, the position that the CLASSE took managed to open up the field for the moderate FEUQ/FECQ leaders, Martine Desjardins and Léo Bureau-Blouin to play a role. Instead of explaining how students could use the election to continue the strike and hand a defeat to Charest at the ballot box, they allowed the Parti Quebecois and their supporters, which had largely been sidelined by the movement, to put forward the argument that if we wanted to defeat Charest, we had to end the strike and vote for the Parti Quebecois.

Charest Defeated!

The result of the election was a massive rejection of Jean Charest and the Liberal party. The Liberals lost the election and Charest lost his seat. He was forced to resign in embarrassment after 28 years of political life. The Liberals saw their share of the vote drop to its lowest level in 40 years. Interestingly enough, the vote share of the PQ also dropped a couple percentage points and they were only able to form an extremely weak minority government. This was in spite of the fact that voter turnout was up from 57% to 75%. In order to even manage this paltry victory, the PQ had to bend significantly left, opportunistically pandering to the student movement, pledging to cancel the tuition increase, law 78 and a few other unpopular measures pursued by the Liberals.

However, this victory didn't last very long. Within a few months after abolishing the tuition increase, the PQ went ahead with a new tuition increase under the guise of “indexation.” The PQ, after having opportunistically supporting the student movement was now at the helm and began championing austerity.

After 18 months of another austerity government, the PQ was relegated to the status of official opposition and the Liberal Party was returned to power, with a comfortable majority in the National Assembly. Since being elected three years ago, the PLQ, without attacking the students as they did in 2012, has been carrying out the worst austerity government in the history of Quebec.

For many people, it seems as though the movement has gone back to square one. Some would ask “All of this just to put the Liberals in power 2 years later?” Was the struggle of 2012 made in vain?

Prepare for future struggles!

An article recently publishing in the daily paper Metro posed a question about the heritage of 2012: “Who, in Quebec, is still inspired by the movement? Lets face it – very few people. Its as if the events of the spring of 2012 drained all of the energies that could be devoted to protest.”

Explaining that no major demonstrations took place in response to the austerity measures of Pauline Marois, the article states that the Couillard Liberals were able to cut massively everywhere “in almost complete apathy.” And he concludes that, “Quebec is not overflowing with young progressives with sincere and selfless ideas.”

The truth is that the masses can not be in a constant state of intense struggle. The class struggle contains ups and downs. It is normal that after 8 months of struggle, students did not initiate a new movement at the drop of a hat. The article is also mistaken when it states that the austerity measures have been accepted in “almost complete apathy.” Was the author even in Quebec between 2014 and 2016? During this period, public sector workers in particular mobilized in a struggle that was unprecedented in the last 40 years.

Unfortunately, this movement was sold-out by the trade union leaders who accepted a deal that was far below the demands of the workers while deliberately putting the breaks on the movement at every step. Unionized workers were demanding wage increases of 13.5% over three years but the union leaders accepted just 5.25% over five years! The workers, without an alternative, agreed to back this agreement with some unions trying to keep fighting in spite of the capitulation, but to no avail. Therefore it was not the “almost complete apathy” of the masses that caused the defeat of the movement against austerity but above all the conciliatory leadership of the movement.

Finally, the cynical conclusion of the article contains a superficial and erroneous assessment of the process developing within the youth. On the surface it may seem like the youth are apathetic but this is only because the radicalization has not found a way to express itself politically yet. Quebecois youth and workers are not immune to the process of increasing radicalization seen all over the world. Quebec, like other countries, is full of young people who sincerely wish to fight against austerity and even against capitalism, they just lack the political vehicle to do this. The workers and youth in Quebec have a rich history of struggle. As the crisis of capitalism continues, sooner or later, the class struggle will come thundering back.

But what does the experience of 2012 tell us? The leaders of the CLASSE were heads and shoulders above most of the leaders of movements we have seen as of late. Especially in the early days of the movement, they correctly raised the sights of the movement and inspired the masses. But for all of their heroism, at the end of the day, and in the heat of the struggle, they proved lacking in many regards. Not lacking in desire, passion or enthusiasm, but lacking in the correct ideas, methods and tactics.

As active participants in the movement of 2012, we have always believed that Marxism is that body of ideas that students and workers need to be able to lead struggles like this to decisive victory. Therefore we believe that it is of prime importance to build the Marxist tendency in Quebec that can assist workers, youth and all layers of the oppressed in adopting the best ideas that will help them to fight back and win. On this 5th year anniversary of the first big demonstration of this historic struggle, we believe that the current task for all student and worker militants must be to learn the lessons from 2012 in order to make sure that we do not make the same errors again, and build a revolutionary organization that can play a decisive role in the struggles to come.

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