The student strike wave that swept through the Canadian province of Quebec the past several months, now beginning to spark in other Canadian provinces and campuses, is a watershed moment in the struggle against neoliberal austerity in Canada. What began as a revolt against proposed tuition fee increases by the provincial government is now a broadbased, popular movement against the criminalization of dissent, environmental destruction and the increasing precarity of work and livelihoods.
In March 2011 Quebec’s provincial government announced plans to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent over a five year period. Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in all of Canada, a direct outcome of unrelenting student militancy–this student strike being the ninth in the province’s history–and a deep sense of solidarity and social security rooted in Quebec’s `Quiet Revolution’ of the 1960s. Students responded by immediately, occupying the finance minister’s offices and organizing on campuses through large general membership meetings–the democratic and collective current that underpinned much student organizing. What followed has been described as an `unlimited general strike’: an ongoing series of marches, occupations, work stoppages and other forms of civil disobedience aimed at forcing the province back to the bargaining table.
These remarkable displays of popular democracy were given further impetus by the concrete proposals developed by Quebec’s student unions in the bargaining process: ceasing tax cuts to the rich and diverting funding from private and corporate research would eliminate tuition fees entirely. Politicians and the media have, not surprisingly, rejected these economically feasible and socially equitable proposals as utopian illusions foisted on students by a handful of radicals. And yet, students’ dismissal of piecemeal reforms, including spreading the increases over 7 years, point to the fundamental lessons of the unlimited general strike: students have learned the meaning of popular power and radical democracy. They know they can win.
The hundredth day of the strike was marked by a massive rally and march of over 400,000 students and workers. It was the largest protest in Canadian history and a direct display of contempt for the draconian Law 78. The law itself is a brutal attack on the right to organize collectively and imposes strict rules on gatherings of larger than 50 protestors, including inflated fines and prison sentences. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for the CLASSE (The Broader Coalition of the Association for Student-Union Solidarity), one of the largest student federations, told reporters that, “If the minister wants to be true to his law, he will have to levy fines on tens of thousands of people.” The crackdown on dissent has only added fuel to the fire as thousands of Quebecois now take to the streets every night in a cacophonous display known as manif de casseroles in which pots and pans are banged together as symbols of the right to assemble. It is in these moments of repression, as one student activist noted, “That the politics of austerity and the increased policing of everyday life reveal themselves to be inseparably linked.”
Those unfamiliar with the Canadian political landscape may be surprised that a nation, often considered a politically polite backwater, would witness massive popular mobilizations. Yet the strikes are a logical outcome of decades of neoliberal policies at the federal and provincial level that have increased inequalities, demonized immigrants and refugees, and eroded welfare protections. The myopic adherence to reduced deficits and balanced budgets has crippled many sectors of Canada’s public service resulting in wide-scale lay offs. In addition, its sadistic assault on organized labour, including legislating some of Canada’s largest unions back to work, has severely compromised the collective bargaining process and the power of unions. The world over it is the working class and students who are asked to bear the brunt of so-called `fiscal responsibility’.
The strike also occupies a unique historic conjuncture as the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, the struggles against austerity in the EU, and the U.S. occupy movement make clear. The spectre of mass politics is, once again, a real challenge to the hollow bombast of liberalism. The success of the Quebec student strikes will not only be determined by what happens at the bargaining table, but how students, workers and their unions in the rest of Canada respond to the example that has been set for them.
Chris Webbis a graduate student at York University in Toronto and the Editorial Assistant of Canadian Dimension Magazine.