Ten years since the 2012 Quebec student strike

This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Maple Spring”, which represents the largest mass movement in the history of Quebec. This student strike mobilized hundreds of thousands of students before becoming a broader movement, which brought down the hated government of Jean Charest. This picture stands in stark contrast to the sorry state of the student movement in recent years.

As strike votes unravel on various campuses in Quebec, it is important to return to the militant and revolutionary traditions of the Quebec student movement. In order to win future struggles, student activists must study the history of the Maple Spring, and learn from it.

The 2010s: Austerity and class struggle

To understand the 2012 student strike, we need to put it in context. The 2012 movement took place in a period of austerity. Already before 2012, the governments of Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and then Jean Charest had imposed severe cuts in public services. The Quebec capitalist class had seen the economy lag for years, and wanted to make Quebec more “competitive” on the world stage. This desire of the ruling class had been put down on paper in 2005 by Lucien Bouchard and other personalities in a veritable manifesto for austerity entitled Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec). In it, they called for a reduction in the public debt and a lifting of the freeze on tuition fees.

Then came the great global recession of 2008-2009, the worst crisis of capitalism since the 1929 crash. This crisis worsened the problems of Quebec capitalism. The Quebec government was in debt, and the economy was stagnating. The Quebec bosses were determined to pass on the bill for the crisis to the workers. Raymond Bachand, finance minister under the Liberal government of Jean Charest, called for a “cultural revolution” and said that people should get used to paying more for public services. Fees for a series of public services were raised. Quebec capitalism could no longer afford to provide so many public services to workers and poor people. 

In 2010, the Charest government had succeeded in shoving a rotten deal down the throats of the common front of public service unions. Its next target was students. Tuition fees in Quebec are the lowest in North America and this was even more the case at the time, when they were frozen at $2,519 a year. This was intolerable for the ruling class. Charest’s government had already tried to attack the student movement once in 2005, but the movement forced him to back off after a six-week strike. The legendary fighting spirit of the Quebec student movement was the reason for the low tuition fees, as it had also staged major strikes in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, and 1996.

Charest Image LetarteanIn 2010, the government of Charest (pictured) succeeded in shoving a rotten deal down the throats of the public sector workers. Next he came for the students, with an attempted tuition fee hike in 2011 / Image: Letartean

Then in 2011, the Charest government announced an increase in annual university tuition fees of $1,625 over five years, a 75 percent increase. Hypocritically, Charest called on students to pay their “juste part” (“fair share”). In doing so, he unleashed an anger that he did not expect. In the streets, students began shouting “Charest : juste… pars!” (“Charest: just… leave!”).

Already, the planet was being shaken by revolts and mass movements. There were the 2010 G20 riots in Toronto, Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados in Spain, the Chilean student movement of 2011, the Arab Spring (the revolutions in the Arab world in 2011), etc. The youth, who had entered adulthood in a period of capitalist crisis, saw that this system had nothing good to offer them. They were rising up against austerity, unemployment, and inequality, in one country after another. It is in this context of a global youth uprising that we must understand 2012.

This connection between the Quebec student movement and the broader youth struggle against the system was understood at the time. In L’Ultimatum, the newspaper of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, now an elected MNA for the left-wing Québec solidaire party, wrote in August 2011: “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 ASSÉ 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 (Grève Générale Illimitée)… Given the magnitude of this challenge, no hesitation can be permitted. We need to mobilize ourselves right now, in great numbers and with great determination. It is up to us.”

Capitalist governments around the world had been trying to pass on the bill for the economic crisis to workers, to the poor, to youth. The response of Quebec students was a resounding “No!”

The need for leadership

To understand how such a strong response was possible, we must look at the role of leadership. The student leadership at the time was bold in its ideas and rhetoric, and it was organized. It was clear that the struggle went beyond the issue of tuition and even free education, which was one of the central demands of the movement. In fact, it was clear that the movement was against the whole system, against the capitalists and their austerity plans. ASSÉ, the spearhead of the 2012 strike, claimed to want to “create a real counter-power to the capitalist state and the financial lobbies that use their privileged status to illegitimately control political decisions.”

Here is how Nadeau-Dubois, then spokesperson for ASSÉ, explained the stakes: 

“Because let’s not forget; the people who want to raise tuition fees, the people who want to cut public services, the people who want to privatize health care, the people who want to reduce, even abolish government regulations on the environment, the people who despise women’s rights, aboriginal rights, the rights of all minorities, the people who have been working hard for decades to suppress the right of workers to associate, all of these people are the same. 

“These people are few in number, these people control everything and 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 that which controls the political and economic institutions of a country, which shares common interests, not so long ago we called that a class, and we must stop being afraid of words. We have to call these people by their name; these people are the dominant class, these people are the bourgeoisie. The struggle against tuition hikes, the struggle of indignant people around the world, must be called by its name. It is a class struggle. A struggle of the […] possessing minority against the majority who have nothing. A gluttonous and vulgar minority, a minority that sees life only as a business opportunity, a tree only as raw material and a child only as a future employee. […] When we protest the tuition hike, we will also be protesting this.”

Young Gabriel would have a lot to teach his older self. 

This ability to link the immediate issues of the strike to a broader radical program of struggle against the capitalist system, its state, and its policies was a huge strength of the student movement at the time. While fighting a frontal attack with immediate consequences for hundreds of thousands of university students, students quickly saw that they were part of a much larger struggle, and this gave them the will to defy police violence, the risk of arrest, and media slander.

But student leaders also understood that they could not take for granted that students would automatically agree with their ideas. There is sometimes a disdain for leadership on the left—and particularly in the student movement. Leadership is inherently suspect, seen as authoritarian, to be banned. But every organization necessarily has leadership. Not everyone can and will speak up in a general assembly. Some people have initiatives and ideas, and others are looking for ideas. An organization that refuses to have elected official leadership will inevitably be led by unelected informal leaders. In 2011, a minority of people (often anarchists, by the way) came up with the idea of a strike and developed a plan to make it happen. So they rolled up their sleeves, and worked to convince a majority of students to join. They played an excellent leadership role.

In March 2011, the Charest government announced a $1,625 tuition increase. The leaders of ASSÉ, which at the time included about 40,000 students from dozens of student unions, responded by preparing for a strike. In late 2011, several student associations temporarily joined them, forming the 100,000-member Broad Coalition of ASSÉ (CLASSE). During 2011, these activists went from class to class in the universities and CEGEPs (public colleges) to explain the strike and its issues, distributed leaflets and flyers as well as their newspaper L’Ultimatum, spoke at student assemblies, organized demonstrations, etc. They denounced the tuition fee increases, as well as the general austerity, and patiently convinced their colleagues of the necessity of the strike. 

Throughout the months of February and March, strike votes were held in universities and CEGEPs. These were initially led by student unions affiliated with the more radical CLASSE, but they were joined by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ), as well as the smaller Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ). CLASSE represented the left wing of the movement, with direct democratic structures and traditions of fighting unionism and combative leadership. The more bureaucratic and “moderate” FECQ and FEUQ always lagged behind CLASSE. During 2011 and until the beginning of the strike, they were reluctant to strike, but the FEUQ/FECQ leaders were unable to contain the energy of the rank and file, who pushed them to strike under the impetus of the CLASSE. 

The movement quickly snowballed in 2012. On Feb. 27, 65,000 students were on strike. By March 5, they had reached 123,000. At its peak, on March 22, 300,000 out of 400,000 Quebec post-secondary students were on strike. Some high schools even joined the strike for a day to participate in the huge March 22 demonstration, which brought together between 100,000 and 200,000 people in downtown Montreal. This huge gathering showed everyone—and above all to the students themselves—the collective power of the students and the masses in general.  

However, it would be ridiculous to imagine that the CLASSE leaders managed to get 300,000 students to rise up by their work on the ground alone. Here, we must understand the relationship between leadership and spontaneity. It would be a mistake to deny the importance of spontaneity. It is impossible to simply decree a mass movement. The will to fight and wide-scale anger must already exist. In this sense, while it was the CLASSE that organized the 2012 strike, it was Jean Charest who started it. His brutal tuition hike was like a match thrown onto the pool of gasoline of a youth just waiting to be provoked into action.

While mass movements can arise spontaneously, for them to be more than a flash in the pan and lead to victory, they must be organized. The revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains it this way: “Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The 2012 strike witnessed a surge of creativity and initiative the likes of which we rarely see. Whether it was the picketing tactics, the artistic creations, the varied demonstrations (who doesn’t remember the naked demonstrations?), everything was seen and hundreds of thousands of people put their spin on the movement. But it took preparation and organization to get there. That’s the role that student leaders, and particularly CLASSE, played. Through their leadership, they created the space for a movement mobilizing thousands of politicized people overnight. Contrary to what some may believe, it is not either leadership or spontaneity. Rather, good leadership will create the conditions for the masses of people to take the movement directly into their own hands.

Rank-and-file democracy

At the beginning, the government put its head in the sand and tried to ignore the movement. They refused to meet with the student leaders to negotiate. But as the weeks went by, the strike held firm. In cases where an entire institution was on strike, student associations organized picket lines and blocked the doors of the university or college. In cases where only certain student associations voted for a strike, flying picket squads were mobilized to go “lift” a class, that is to say to go from one class to another and apply the democratic decision of the students by preventing the class from being held by blocking the door or by making noise. 

Week to week, the strike votes were renewed. Here, the role of student democracy is important to grasp. Students had democratic control over their strike, through their weekly general assemblies. Students debated the question of renewing the strike, but also all sorts of questions and issues related to the strike, took positions, granted mandates, elected committees, and so on. These general assemblies, often long and tedious, were also a strength for the movement, in that they allowed students to take ownership of their strike. 

It is true that some student associations were organized in a more or less democratic way. The CLASSE in particular prided itself on its “direct democracy” compared to the more bureaucratic structures of the FECQ and FEUQ. It is not our intention to discuss here the pros and cons of the different ways of organizing a student union. But what must be emphasized is that it is necessary to give students democratic control over their strike in order for them to take ownership and mobilize en masse. This democratic character also allowed the immense creativity of the students to be deployed.

The state

One of the important lessons students of 2012 was the nature of the state. From an early age, we are fed the myth that we live in a democracy and that the state is neutral, serves the people, etc. But for the generation of students who lived through 2012, these illusions were shattered by the batons of the police. The state, far from being neutral, is at the service of the rich and powerful.

“Those who do not move do not feel their chains,” Rosa Luxemburg said. When the student movement began, these chains became visible. The government, realizing that it could not simply ignore the movement, unleashed a wave of violent repression. Baton blows, stun grenades, pepper spray, and tear gas, and the firing of “non-lethal” bullets caused countless injuries, many of them serious. On March 7, the Montreal police attacked demonstrators and wounded a student, Francis Grenier, who lost an eye.

These eight months of the strike were a real outlet for the police, an orgy of police brutality and arrests. The courts rained down injunctions in an attempt to prevent the students from implementing their democratic decision to strike. During the summer, the Montreal police even began to randomly detain and search people wearing the red square, the symbol of the student movement.

patch Image ChicoutimiAbove all, the 2012 movement taught the students about the real role of the capitalist state. They were on the receiving end of brutal repression. Students could even be arrested for wearing the red square, the iconic symbol of the movement / Image: Chicoutimi

The arrests became so systematic that, for the sake of efficiency, the police began to arrest demonstrators by the dozens and even by the hundreds. Before each demonstration, dozens of buses were chartered to transport the students who were to be arrested. The police developed the kettling technique: a contingent of police armed with shields and batons, some of them on horseback, charged into the crowd, divided the demonstrators and surrounded a few dozen trapped students, who were handcuffed and put on buses. 

During the course of the protests, police officers would hand out thousands of fines and arrest 3,499 people, and paramedics would respond 174 times. This made it the largest mass arrest during a conflict in Canadian history. 

This brutal treatment of students seeking to protect the accessibility and quality of education stands in stark contrast to the complacency and cordiality with which the police treated the so-called “Freedom Convoy” this winter. It is incredible that a few hundred demonstrators were able to blockade the downtown core of Canada’s capital for weeks and even prevent Parliament from sitting, with little police response. But the demands of the convoy did not threaten the interests of the ruling class. On the contrary, the ruling class also wanted to put an end to health and safety measures, so that they could move on and restart the profit machine. This right-wing movement impatiently demanded what the ruling class cautiously sought to do. In addition, a large part of the police force sympathized with the movement. This explains the slow reaction of the government, and the complacency of the police. The students in 2012, on the other hand, were putting the whole capitalist system in danger. The capitalists had to make the workers and the youth pay for the crisis. A capitulation to the students would have shown the working class that it is possible to resist austerity.

CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was found in contempt of court for encouraging students to disobey injunctions against blocking access to classes. Union leaders today don’t have a tenth of the courage that student leaders had back then. Despite the risk of injury, arrest, and prosecution, students stood their ground and continued to take to the streets. They discovered courage not often seen on the left anymore. They became aware of their collective strength.

Plan Nord

On the weekend of April 20, the Plan Nord conference was being held at the Palais des Congrès in Montreal. This meeting aimed to attract investors, including mining companies, to exploit the territory of northern Quebec. Considering that Quebec is known for its ridiculously low mining royalties, this Plan Nord amounted to selling the natural resources of Quebec’s northern regions at a discount. The Sûreté du Québec (provincial police force) were brought in to reinforce the SPVM (Montreal police), in order to contain the thousands of demonstrators outside, who were chanting “No to free mining! Yes to free education”. (« Non à la gratuité minière! Oui à la gratuité scolaire! »)

Outside the Palais des Congrès, the crowd pushed back the police, who struggled to prevent them from entering the building. Allies of the demonstrators, well dressed to look like bourgeois, managed to enter the building without arousing suspicion and opened side doors to let the crowd in. Soon, the police had to retreat inside the Palais des Congrès and re-establish a line of defense at the top of the stairs as the crowd tried to climb. 

Inside, Jean Charest, in front of an audience of respectable high society people, found the situation comical: “The Plan Nord conference, which we are going to open today, is already very popular; people are running from everywhere to get in […] To those who knocked on our door this morning, we could offer them a job—in the North if possible.” The slogan “Charest get out! We’ll find you a job in the North” (« Charest dehors! On va t’trouver une job dans l’nord! ») would become a favorite of the protesters.

These events marked a fundamental shift. The movement began to realize its strength. Normally, the capitalists and their governments make all real decisions about our fate, and the fate of the economy and the land, behind closed doors. But the masses had entered the scene of history and were disturbing the plans of the bourgeoisie. The demonstrators succeeded in pushing back the police on several occasions. A famous photo from that weekend shows a group of visibly terrified police officers running from the angry crowd.

The Plan Nord protests left several people injured, including 10 police officers. Stones were thrown and windows smashed. In reaction, the media and politicians serving the ruling class raised an outcry about the violence, which they obviously attributed entirely to the demonstrators.

But the violence of protesters throughout 2012 was very limited compared to the brazen and almost always unprovoked attacks by the police. Many students would lose an eye or have their skulls smashed by a baton, a “non-lethal” bullet, or a stun grenade thrown directly into the crowd. But the state cannot accept any challenge to its authority. It can injure and kill with impunity, but let the workers and the oppressed not dare to raise their fists in defense! 

The media used the events at the Salon Plan Nord to portray the students as dangerous thugs. The “violence” (of the demonstrators, never of the police) got all their attention. Every broken window was portrayed as an act of violence. Student leaders were invited to join the chorus of denunciations. The leaders of the FECQ and the FEUQ, always seeking to please the establishment, agreed to fall in line and “condemn the violence”. They thus played into the hands of the ruling class and implicitly gave credibility to the discourse that placed the responsibility for the “violence” on the students. Moreover, Charest never condemned the much more serious violence of state forces. But the CLASSE saw through the government’s game, and refused to “condemn the violence”.

Negotiations

On Sunday, April 22, a huge demonstration was held in Montreal on the occasion of Earth Day. According to the organizers, 250,000 people attended, including large contingents of students. In the context of the strike, everyone understood this demonstration as a big thumbs-down to the Liberal government, whose policies in favour of mining and oil companies were as hated as those on education.

On April 23, the government had to face the fact that it could not wear the students down and tried a new tactic. It agreed to negotiate, but excluded the CLASSE from the negotiations. Minister of Education Line Beauchamp made it a condition of the negotiations that the students respect a “truce” of a few days. 

The same evening, acts of vandalism were committed during a demonstration in Montreal. The government used this as a pretext to exclude the CLASSE from the negotiations, claiming that it was responsible for breaking the truce because the demonstration had been publicized on its website. The government said that they would not negotiate with a group that incites violence. Their game was clear and represented a classic negotiating tactic: divide and rule. Charest believed he could negotiate with the two moderate unions and force them to swallow a phony agreement, which would then leave the CLASSE isolated and weaker. 

The exclusion of the CLASSE from the negotiations triggered the anger of the students, who immediately launched the tradition of night demonstrations. The new slogan became “Demonstrate, every night, until victory”. (« Manif, chaque soir, jusqu’à la victoire! ».) These spontaneous night demonstrations gathered several thousand people in downtown Montreal every night for more than 100 days in a row.

Under the pressure of the movement, and seeing the immense popularity of the CLASSE among students, the leaders of the FECQ and the FEUQ did not fall into the trap set by the government and remained in solidarity with the rest of the movement. They refused to negotiate without the presence of the CLASSE. They understood that if they accepted an agreement without the CLASSE—which represented the heart and soul of the strike—this agreement would probably be rejected in the general assemblies and they would be discredited.

The government then tried to take the negotiations to the public arena and presented a ridiculous offer at a press conference: a meager improvement in bursaries and an increase of $1,785 over seven years, rather than the $1,625 over five years that had been planned. Needless to say, this offer was rejected.

The battle of Victoriaville

The picture presented so far may give the impression that the movement was limited to Montreal. In reality, it spread throughout Quebec, with campuses on strike in Quebec City, Gaspé, Rimouski, Matane, and even the Magdalen Islands. In Gatineau, the Université du Québec en Outaouais was the scene of three days of clashes as students barricaded themselves inside and police laid siege to the university.

And the most violent confrontation of the entire Maple Spring did not take place in Montreal. The Quebec Liberal Party convention was scheduled to take place in Montreal from May 4 to 6. But fearing disruption by demonstrators, it was moved to the small town of Victoriaville. In response, student associations and other left-wing groups called for demonstrations in Victoriaville, and rented buses to transport demonstrators there. 

Victoriaville Image Simon VilleneuveOn 4 May 2012, the town of Victoriaville was turned into a battlefield / Image: Simon Villeneuve

On the evening of May 4, a demonstration of 3,000 people around the Victoriaville convention center quickly turned into a riot. The small town turned into a battlefield. Tear gas spread everywhere. The Sûreté du Québec fired dozens of rubber bullets into the crowd, seriously injuring three people, including one who lost an eye, one who lost six teeth and another who lost the hearing in one ear. Meanwhile, Jean Charest, safely inside the building, promised that he would maintain his tuition increase.

The same evening, in Quebec City, a second round of negotiations took place, but this time the government did not succeed in excluding the CLASSE representatives. To soften up the CLASSE leaders, Jean Charest invited the presidents of the major labour organizations to the negotiating table. He was well aware that these regulars of labour-management negotiations had lost their teeth a long time ago. Capitulation and conciliation is their modus operandi. They were going to teach the young and inexperienced how negotiations are conducted. Michel Arsenault, president of the FTQ (Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec) at the time, later recounted: “I explained to them that negotiating is conceding. It takes a balance of power that you draw from mobilization. I call it perching the cat on the pole. But at some point, you have to bring the cat down.”

The concessions were indeed major. On May 5, after 22 hours of negotiations, all parties reached an agreement in principle. Charest presented it as a victory for the government. The agreement provided for the increase to be maintained, but with a reduction in ancillary fees to compensate for the increase, which would be financed by cuts in university spending. These cuts would be determined by a committee made up of representatives of the rectors, student federations, the business community, and unions, among others. Already, the agreement in this form represented a capitulation. 

But it quickly became clear that the government had deceived the student negotiators. The government claimed that the increase in tuition fees would not necessarily be offset by a decrease in ancillary fees, contrary to what the student side had understood. The students had agreed that the text would not mention “tuition fees”, but that there would be a verbal agreement to discuss this issue later. The very next day, the government broke this verbal agreement. Furthermore, according to the CLASSE negotiating team, the government changed the document at the last minute without the students’ knowledge, so that the CLASSE negotiator signed a different document than what had been agreed upon. 

Here we clearly see the kind of dishonesty that always characterizes negotiations with the bosses and their representatives in government. Union leaders, accustomed to conciliation, often appeal to the good faith of the bosses. However, in class conflicts, like collective bargaining and the 2012 student strike, the diametrically opposed interests of the parties mean that the bad faith of the bosses must be taken for granted. As in any war, the opponent never has good intentions, and his word cannot be trusted.

But the naive mistakes of the student negotiators were held in check by the masses themselves. The strength of a mass movement lies in the democratic control exercised by the masses which acts as a safeguard against the mistakes of the leadership. Under the present bourgeois parliamentary system, workers and students of modest origin simply have no say in the running of society. Decisions are made behind closed doors by the representatives of the bosses. Our only right is to choose which of the bosses’ representatives will laugh at us in parliaments. In a strike, those thousands of people who usually cannot participate in political life suddenly become active.

This bad and dishonest deal triggered the students’ anger. On May 6, the 13th nightly demonstration in a row took place under the theme “Against the government’s lousy offer: freeze or die!” Across Quebec, student associations met in general assemblies during the week to decide whether to accept the agreement. Thousands of students crammed into large halls in universities and colleges and debated for hours. Their verdict was overwhelming: rejection of the rotten agreement. The students voted to renew the strike. The students revealed the power of a broad-based democracy that allows for the active participation of people usually excluded from political life. This is the kind of democracy that socialists stand for, and the kind of democracy that the student movement needs today to win.

The government was completely humiliated. Education Minister Beauchamp resigned on May 14. In the student camp, there was jubilation. But, as we would later learn, Minister Beauchamp represented the moderate wing of the government. Her departure meant a hardening of the government’s line. After attempting conciliation, the government definitively turned to repression. This led to the adoption of Bill 78 and municipal bylaw P-6.

Bill 78

On May 18, the National Assembly passed Bill 78, a brutal anti-democratic special law designed to restrict the right to demonstrate and to ban student strikes. It provided for stiff fines for unions or individuals who continued to block access to schools with picket lines. It required protest organizers to submit their itinerary to the police in advance. It also forced teachers, many of whom were sympathetic to the strike, to hold classes or face stiff fines.

On the same day, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s administration passed a draconian municipal bylaw, P-6, which also required demonstrators to hand in their itineraries and prohibited them from… wearing masks! At least 2,000 people were ticketed under this bylaw, which was later declared illegal by the Quebec Superior Court.

Rather than back down, faced with the power of the state, the CLASSE leaders called for defiance of the anti-democratic, repressive law. “Inaction is synonymous with complicity. To submit to this law is to accept it. To accept this law is to sanction its content,” said spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds. 

The public response was absolutely massive. More than 400,000 people demonstrated on May 22. It was the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of the province and even the country. The police were paralyzed by the power of the masses. 

Once again, the role of leadership must be underlined. In the face of this repressive law, or any immediate attack by the government or the bosses, everything can be decided in 24 hours or less. If the leaders capitulate, it is very difficult for the mass to overcome the conservatism of their leadership. At this point, it becomes crucial for the leadership to give the signal of defiance to save the movement. This is a lesson that should be learned by all union leaders in an era when capitalist governments are constantly taking away the right to strike with back-to-work legislation. One day a union will have to challenge these anti-democratic laws, if the right to strike is to mean anything.

A common argument for not defying these types of laws is that there is no guarantee that there would be a strong enough movement to successfully challenge such a law. Then afterwards, apathy following defeat is taken as evidence that it would not have been possible to challenge. 

Indeed, nothing is ever guaranteed. A guarantee of victory for a movement will never exist anywhere. But what these people don’t understand is that dialectically, the fact that leaders call for defiance creates a confident movement, which would not have been possible without this call. Moreover, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois himself believed that the law would kill the strike. “I was convinced at this point that this was the end of the mobilization,” he said in a recent interview. But to his credit, he and CLASSE leaders called to defy Bill 78. As he says today: “The adoption of this law was really the official tipping point from a movement led by youth to a much broader movement of protest against the Liberal regime. I was underestimating my generation a bit.”

The monstrously anti-democratic nature of the law revealed to the public the true nature of the Charest government. The law had the opposite effect of what was intended. The repression gave new life to the movement. New layers of the population were drawn into the struggle. To quote Marx, “revolution sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution.”

This took the form of the casserole movement, which began on May 24. One person on Facebook called on people to go out at 8 p.m. on their balconies and make noise by banging on pots and pans. This tactic was inspired by similar movements, notably in Chile. This movement spread like wildfire, and lasted for weeks. All over Quebec, all kinds of people—young, old, students, parents, workers, etc.—came out onto balconies and sidewalks, armed with wooden spoons, pots, pans, and other instruments to make noise. Then the neighbors, recognizing each other, gathered on street corners. The small gatherings on street corners coalesced into larger gatherings, and soon countless small demonstrations—with no itinerary—crisscrossed all neighborhoods, all over Quebec. All of Quebec defied the law. Everywhere in the streets the slogan could be heard: “The special law! We don’t give a fuck!” (« La loi spéciale! On s’en câlisse! »)

From this point on, workers began to join the movement on an individual basis. Unfortunately, the student leadership did not seize this opportunity, and the immense potential of the movement was eventually lost.

Workers and students: Same fight!

After four months on strike and countless demonstrations, blockades, occupations, and stunts, the government remained inflexible. They still refused to freeze tuition fees, which was the minimum demand of the movement. As we explained in our interventions in the movement at the time, it was necessary to spread the movement to the working class. 

The issue of the strike was no longer simply a question of money. Minister of Public Safety Robert Dutil summed up the question before the National Assembly: “Should the law of the street dominate, or should Parliament?” He was right. The strike raised the question of power. The students were challenging the power of the ruling class and its state. The government could not back down.

But students, by themselves, don’t have much power. A student strike can put some pressure on the government, but this is nothing compared to the power that workers have. Workers, when they stop working, directly attack the profits of the capitalist class. They can block transport, communications, trade, production, etc. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines without the permission of the working class. If the workers decide to do so, they can immobilize the whole society by the means of a general strike.

The strength of the students lies rather in their numbers, their energy, and their time. Quebec students have led successful strikes, but ultimately they could not face the entire state apparatus alone, mobilized and determined to break them. In this kind of situation, the students must serve as a spark for a mass movement of the working class, which alone can defeat the capitalists and their state. This is for example what happened during the May 1968 movement in France.

However, this need to link the student movement with the working class movement was misunderstood or not understood at all. There were indeed calls for a “social strike”. But these attempts were limited to abstract appeals or trying, often in private, to convince the leaders of the unions to join the struggle. 

The latter, if they supported the students in words, did not wish to take the slightest risk, and were above all concerned with putting an end to the conflict as quickly as possible and avoiding a general strike. This was evident in an absolutely outrageous exchange of letters between FTQ president Michel Arsenault and Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress. In essence, Arsenault asked the unions in English Canada to mind their own business and not to support the student strike, so as not to “add fuel to the fire.” In response, Georgetti intervened with his Quebec affiliates in response to rumours that some locals were preparing to take illegal action, and asked them to stop and listen to the FTQ’s instructions. The FTQ, like the other major labour federations, shamefully refused to call on its members to disobey Bill 78—in other words, they were calling on teachers to act as scabs against students. A solidarity strike was out of the question for them, since the collective agreements had not yet expired. Major union leaders were deathly afraid of illegality, and would rather betray the students than take the risk of defying the law. 

Faced with the immobility, even sabotage, of the union leaders, student activists needed to go directly to the rank-and-file workers. It was necessary to create teams of students to go to workplaces one by one to speak directly to rank-and-file workers, to convince them of the students’ demands and to show them that this struggle was part of the more general struggle of the workers against capitalist austerity. Unfortunately, while there were some attempts to establish links with the workers—with the creation, notably under the impulse of activists of La Riposte socialiste, of a few student-worker solidarity committees—little effort was invested in them as the CLASSE leaders did not see the need for this, and these committees fell into oblivion quite quickly. 

While the CLASSE leaders did call for “economic disturbances,” these were understood in an anarchist sense, without mobilizing the masses of workers. These disturbances took the form of numerous “action demonstrations” consisting of blocking workplaces… without trying to win over the workers or even warn them in advance. Some even threw smoke bombs in the Montreal subway. These ultra-left actions were generally met with hostility from workers, who should have been convinced and won over to the student cause.  

This failure to mobilize broad layers of workers on an organized basis and in a general strike represents one of the main mistakes of the student leadership in 2012. We must learn this lesson.

Elections

Without a plan to extend the movement to workers, the student leadership was at a loss as to what to do other than continue with the same methods. Nightly demonstrations, “economic disturbances”, and various artistic stunts continued, but with little effect. Students continued to be arrested and brutalized en masse. Stagnation set in. The movement began to run out of steam.

To resolve the impasse, Charest pulled a new card from his sleeve. On Aug. 1, he called a provincial election. He made “law and order” against the “reign of the streets” the issue of the campaign. Everyone understood the election as a referendum on tuition fee increases and the student strike.

Disastrously, the CLASSE chose to boycott the elections. “Elections are not a solution” was the slogan. They tried to maintain the strike and demonstrations as the terrain of the struggle, ignoring the fact that the ground had shifted. While it was correct to maintain the strike during the elections, it had to be recognized that Charest had succeeded in diverting the struggle to the electoral plane. One by one, student associations voted to put an end to the strike or respect a “truce” for the time of the elections.   

The CLASSE, and particularly its anarchist wing, insisted on the need to maintain “total independence from political parties”. This position is not new to the Quebec left, and has its roots in the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. It can still be seen today even in the main union federations, which have long held an “anyone but the Liberals” position which in practice led them to be supporters of the PQ. In the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, this stems from a rejection of state power as a dangerous object, the forbidden fruit that should not be touched. In practice, this position amounts to a capitulation and to leaving the power of the state in the hands of capitalists. In student circles, the argument essentially took the form of saying that the CLASSE must remain independent of the political parties so as not to be manipulated by them or dependent on them. In practice, with this position, it was not the CLASSE that stayed independent of the political parties, but politics that were done independently of the CLASSE.

It is fair to say that elections cannot change the fundamental nature of the capitalist system, and that they essentially serve to elect representatives of the bourgeoisie to a parliament that serves as a legislative body for the bourgeoisie. However, not all students, let alone all workers in Quebec, understood this truth. The CLASSE leaders unfortunately completely misjudged the change in the situation, and due to their anti-electoralist prejudices allowed the FEUQ/FECQ leaders, who were in alliance with the PQ, to capitalize on the situation. 

Everyone knew that a Liberal victory would have meant a huge defeat for the student movement. In this context, the Parti Québécois seized the opportunity and opportunistically and hypocritically presented itself as the party of the red squares. The leader of the PQ, Pauline Marois, participated in demonstrations and wore the red square. Yet the PQ was far from being an anti-austerity party. In the late 1990s, the PQ under Lucien Bouchard had a “zero deficit” motto and implemented deep austerity cuts, particularly in the health-care system, which has never recovered.

In this situation, Québec solidaire was the only party whose election would have represented a clear victory against capitalist austerity. Born of a merger of community and feminist organizations with various small anti-capitalist parties, QS represented the most left-wing party on the Quebec political spectrum, and held a clear anti-austerity message. Therefore, there was clearly an option that would have strengthened the student movement and transformed the Quebec political scene. The CLASSE should have offered its support to QS on the condition that the party make supporting the strike and free education the central theme of its campaign. This would have transformed the party itself and made it the voice of radicalized youth and workers in Quebec. Only this could have cut across the maneuvers of the FECQ/FEUQ leaders and their support for the PQ. Unfortunately, the anti-election anarchist wing of the CLASSE won the debate, which played into the hands of the moderate student leaders and the PQ. 

The leaders of Québec solidaire had their share of responsibility for this failure. They did not capitalize on the movement and failed to clearly present themselves as the party of free education and the student movement. They refused to call for civil disobedience against Bill 78. Showing their mistaken priorities, the only major rally organized by the party during the campaign, on August 25, when Quebec was going through a mass movement against austerity and for free education, was on the theme of… Quebec independence.

As mentioned above, the FECQ/FEUQ leaders were involved in the election campaign. Officially, they did not support a particular party, but called for a strategic vote against the Liberals and the CAQ. Since Québec solidaire was a fairly marginal party at the time, with only one MP, the pro-PQ message was very clear. This became particularly clear when FECQ leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, one of the best-known faces of the strike, became a candidate for the PQ after his term as president ended. The president of the FEUQ, Martine Desjardins, also took advantage of her celebrity status acquired in 2012 to run as a candidate for the PQ in the 2014 elections.

On the evening of Sept. 4, the Liberals were defeated. Jean Charest, humiliated, lost in his own riding. In the days following her election as head of a minority government, Pauline Marois announced the withdrawal of Bill 78 and the tuition fee increase. After eight historic months, the students’ main demand was met!

But as students would soon discover, this victory against Jean Charest’s Liberals was truly a Pyrrhic victory. The PQ government replaced the increase with an indexation of tuition fees, according to the disposable income of households per capita, which amounted to an average increase of three per cent per year. Marois thus succeeded in doing what Jean Charest could not: unfreeze tuition fees. And while Charest’s increase would have lasted for five years, Marois’s lasts forever. The Marois government continued to impose austerity measures. The student movement attempted to rebound, but failed, exhausted and demoralized after eight months on strike. Two years later, the Liberals returned to power and continued their ransacking of public services.

The legacy of 2012 and the future of the left in Quebec

In the wake of 2012, two clearly definable trends have emerged. On the one hand, the anarchist wing of the movement learned the wrong lessons. With the renewal of the student movement in 2015, activists organized in the “Printemps 2015” group adopted an impatient ultra-left position that would lead the movement to failure. As a new “hot spring” was shaping up, with strike votes in universities and CEGEPs in parallel with negotiations in the public sector, the idea of a “social strike” uniting students and workers came back on the table. 

But the common front of public sector unions postponed its strike until the fall. The ASSÉ executive then proposed postponing the student strike, which it described as a “strategic retreat”. In response, the anarchist wing raised an outcry and denounced the “maneuvering” and “paternalism” of the ASSÉ executive. The slogan of the anarchist wing, which would make Sun Tzu cringe, was “Retreat can never be strategic”. Under pressure, the entire ASSÉ executive resigned. Not satisfied with this resignation, the convention adopted a motion to dismiss the executive! 

The student strike went ahead without the workers. It was permeated with a nihilistic mood, captured by the most iconic slogan of the 2015 movement, “Fuck everything!” While this appealed to a small layer of student activists, the rest of the movement and the vast majority of students and workers understood that the movement was isolated and had no desire to walk out to give the rest of society the middle finger. So the strike did not spread very far outside the walls of UQAM and went nowhere. In the fall, when the public sector unions went on the largest strike since the 1970s, the student movement was nowhere to be found. This strike led to the adoption of a completely rotten collective agreement. In the years following this failure, the ASSÉ entered a period of paralysis and decline. The revolutionary student union that led the heroic struggle of 2012 eventually dissolved in 2019.

On the other side, former ASSÉ leaders like Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois joined Québec solidaire and have adopted a fully conciliatory approach with the capitalist parties. When GND talks about 2012, he says that he has now “matured” and that the image people have of him because of 2012 “bothers me, because it’s an image that is profoundly different from the person I am.” Now GND and his clique are in complete control of QS and have taken the party in a more moderate and reformist, pro-establishment direction. They have abandoned any pretense of fighting the capitalist system and reject the combative tactics of ASSÉ, and give priority to passing nicely worded motions in parliament.

These two paths, anarchist ultra-leftism and parliamentary reformist opportunism, are in fact two sides of the same coin which lead to a dead end: on the one hand impotence, on the other acceptance of the status quo. The student movement must learn the right lessons from 2012. 

Students, alone, cannot overthrow the capitalists, their state and their austerity policies. But they can serve as a spark for a mass workers’ movement. That possibility was hanging over our heads in 2012. To get there, a student strike is not enough. We must actively build links with the labor movement and show solidarity with workers, join their struggles and adopt a radical program to defend workers’ interests, i.e. a socialist program. To implement such a strategy, students cannot remain isolated in their local associations, but must unite on a national scale. We must rebuild a national union organization that is both democratic and capable of playing a leadership role, like ASSÉ was. 

As capitalism is hit with economic, health, and climate crises, and imperialist conflicts threaten to drag us into barbarism, youth feel the urgency to fight the system. As in 2012, youth-led mass movements are becoming more and more frequent, from the United States to Colombia, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Myanmar, Chile, Algeria, and Lebanon. Inevitably, such a movement will return here too. If we are to lead it to victory, we must revive the revolutionary traditions of 2012.

Originally published on 22 March at marxist.ca |