September 15, 2014

Features | March 12, 2012
Students united usually aren't defeated
An annotated Quebec student strike scorecard
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Student associations representing over 130,000 students are now on strike across Quebec, calling on the Liberal government to stop a five-year, $1,625 tuition hike set to go into effect in September. McGill Arts students are voting Tuesday on whether to join them. As the AUS strike mobilization committee told the Daily’s editorial board recently, one of the main reasons for striking is that strikes have worked like gangbusters in the past. “Students united will never be defeated,” as the slogan goes. To see if this was true, I dug through the Daily archives and spoke to some of the leading scholars of the Quebec student movement. I learned that there have been successful strikes, failed strikes, and strikes whose victories were ambiguous or partial. Some accounts have ignored this fact: the news site OpenFile Montreal excluded two of the least successful examples – 1988 and 1990 – in their brief history of Quebec student strikes. A primer on the website of the Concordia Student Union makes the same omission. But, for the most part, student strikes have been successful, often wildly so, blocking tuition hikes and forcing governments to halt hundreds of millions in cuts to loans and bursaries. Below is a crib sheet to the past eight Quebec student strikes: their goals, their defining moments, and their achievements.

 

1968: WIN

GOALS

Following the opening of the first CEGEPs in the fall of 1967, Rendez-vous ’68, as the movement was called, was more ambitious than any strike since:

  • Abolition of tuition fees.
  • Expanded university facilities: 4000 students were denied admission to university in 1968 due to lack of space.
  • Greater student control of university and CEGEP governance.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • College Lionel Groulx was the first school to go on strike.
  • 15 of the 23 CEGEPs eventually joined them.
  • Soon after, students occupied the now-defunct Écoles des beaux arts, which became a major counter-cultural hub.
  • The strike lasted for a month.

RESULTS

  • The government didn’t formally concede it at the time, but UQAM opened in September 1969, marking the beginning of the Université de Québec system.
  • Mandatory class attendance was abolished at CEGEPs, establishing students’ right to strike.

Although in retrospect the strike may look like an enormous success, at the time more radical students were disappointed that tuition wasn’t made free, and that wholesale governance reform wasn’t undertaken. “Paradoxically, members of the student movement saw it as a defeat,” said Benôit Lacoursière, author of Le mouvement étudiant au Québec de 1983 à 2006, in an interview.

 

1974: LOSS

GOALS

  • More investment in loans and bursaries.
  • Elimination of the “independence” clause, which tied the amount a student could receive in aid to their parents’ income, unless the student had completed a first degree, had worked for two years, or was married. (In the early eighties, student groups even mounted a campaign to get their members to marry so they could qualify for greater student aid.)

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • Widespread discontent with the student aid regime, spurred in part by a 30 per cent jump in the number of rejected applicants, brought students back to the picket lines for the second time in a semester.
  • 55,000 CEGEP students went on strike for about two weeks.
  • Minister of Education Francois Cloutier “threatened striking students with [the] loss of their first term credits,” according to a Daily report on December 12.

RESULTS

  • The government promised to abolish the parental contribution provision for loans and reduce it for bursaries. However, it didn’t follow on its promise – there remains a version of the “independence” clause to this day.
  • In February of the following year, the Daily’s Larry Black wrote “it appears today that despite that demonstration’s pledge of solidarity, Cloutier’s move to quell student unrest by dividing the CEGEPs has been successful.
  • The province-wide student union L’association des étudiants du Québec (ANEQ) was created following the strike. “During the strike itself, there was an ad hoc organization of the student unions, and a decision was made to make it permanent,” said Benoit Renaud, a former student organizer now working for Québec Solidaire, a leftist provincial party.
  • ANEQ continued to dominate the student movement for the next decade and a half.

 

1978: TIE

GOALS

  • Abolition of the “independence” clause (again)
  • Free tuition
  • Greater investment in loans and bursaries

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • Rural and small-town CEGEPs like Rimouski, Alma, and Ahuntsic began the charge, going on strike in early November.
  • SSMU VP External Ted Claxton called the CEGEP movements “unrealistic” and “Marxist.” McGill didn’t go on strike.
  • ANEQ’s strategy included getting teachers and unions involved, to neutralize the criticism of students as a “privileged minority.” The Quebec Teachers Union and the Union of Quebec Government Workers jumped on board.
  • At the strike’s peak, schools representing 100,000 students were on strike.
  • ANEQ finally called off the strike in early February

RESULTS

  • Though it was an election promise in 1976, Morin balked at free tuition, saying it would cost $200 million to implement.
  • The parental income requirements for getting student aid were altered to make it easier for students to get loans and bursaries.
  • The government promised to gradually increase the amount of money available for loans and bursaries.

 

1986: WIN

GOALS

  • Despite being elected with a promise to keep tuition frozen, the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa began making noises about reversing course. Students were determined to keep tuition levels frozen.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • On day one, 19 CEGEPs and the main student union at UQAM were on strike.
  • Thirty student associations, mostly from CEGEPs, eventually joined.
  • For students, it was a cakewalk. Renaud, who helped organize the strike at Collège Lionel Groulx, said, “It was a bit of a boring strike. For most students it was just blocking the door to your CEGEPs.”

RESULTS

  • After just two weeks, the government caved, and promised to keep tuition frozen. “There were some students who thought we should have continued, because the government gave in so fast,” said Renaud.
  • According to Benôit Lacoursière, the government’s acquiescence was a “tactical retreat,” in order to save up political capital for the eventual tuition hikes of 1990.
1988: TIE

GOALS

  • A broader definition of what constitutes an “independent” student, to allow more widespread access to loans and bursaries (the third time this had been a strike demand).
  • Access to financial aid for part-time students
  • Maintaining the tuition freeze

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • ANEQ called a three-day strike in late September, frustrated by the slow progress of student aid negotiations with the government.
  • SSMU held a GA on joining the strike. Sixty people showed up, missing quorum by 140 students.
  • By late October, 100,000 students from 32 CEGEPs were on strike.

RESULTS

  • In early 1989, Education minister Claude Ryan announced reforms to loans and bursaries:
  • $40 million extra was invested in student aid
  • 17,000 part-time students became eligible for limited loans and bursaries: an average of $490 each.
  • 25,000 “independent” students became eligible for more student aid money
  • However, when the Liberal government was reelected in September 1989, they announced they would be raising tuition, a slap in the face to the student movement.

 

1990: LOSS

GOAL

  • To stop the government’s two-year, $700 tuition hike, which would increase tuition from $500 to $1200, a 140 per cent increase.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • The student movement was demoralized from the beginning: this was the third strike in five years, and students were fatigued.
  • Many thought 1988 had been a bigger failure than it appears today, and thought that ANEQ dishonestly spun it as a victory, sewing fissures in the student movement.
  • Still, there were flourishes of promise from the strike, which straddled February and March: Université de Montréal (U de M) students occupied the floor of the stock exchange, and, separately, shut down their university for three days, while some UQAM students refused to pay tuition.

RESULTS

  • The strike was a failure: the tuition hikes were implemented.
  • The Bourassa government had issued “a challenge to the student movement,” said Renaud, who took part in the strike as a U de M student. “And, basically, the movement was unable to meet that challenge.”

 

1996: TIE

GOAL

  • Maintaining the tuition freeze

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • In October 1996, the Parti Québecois government of Lucien Bouchard proposed a 30 per cent tuition hike.
  • Thirty CEGEPs went on strike in response.
  • The moderate Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) began negotiating with the government to keep tuition frozen.
  • At its peak, the strike counted 100,000 students.

RESULTS

  • Students won on tuition: the PQ backed off their proposed hikes. Tuition would stay frozen until 2007.
  • However, Education Minister Pauline Marois introduced differential fees for out-of-province Canadian students. Until 1996, a student from Ontario or B.C. paid the same tuition as one from Quebec. Now, they would pay more.
  • During the strike, Marois announced that the government would introduce a “failure tax” the following year, which charged CEGEP students a fee for failing a certain number of classes.

 

2005: WIN

GOALS

  • The reimbursement of the $103 million that Jean Charest’s Liberal government had cut from loans and bursaries the previous year.
  • The more radical Coalition de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante élargie (CASSÉÉ) also wanted to scrap changes to the student aid system that sent money out every month instead of every semester – they thought the system was “paternalistic.”
  • CEGEP students also opposed a government policy giving colleges the right to choose which classes to offer.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

  • At its peak, 230,000 students were on strike.
  • McGill grads and undergrads each staged a 24-hour strike in March (though undergrads voted online to reject a second day of striking).
  • The government put forward several offers to partially reimburse loans and bursaries, which negotiators for FEUQ, and its CEGEP counterpart FECQ, rejected outright.
  • In late March, 103 students sent locks of hair to Jean Charest: one haircut for every million cut from student aid.
  • Education Minister Jean-Marc Fournier threatened students with an extended, or cancelled, semester.

RESULTS

  • By April, the government had caved and agreed to put back all $103 million into the loans and bursaries system. FEUQ and FECQ called this a victory and told their members to go back to class.
  • Still, 70,000 students remained on strike, holding out for the elimination of tuition fees, root and branch reform of student aid, and free contraception and abortion.
  • “It was pretty much as much as the movement could possibly expect to win,” said Renaud.
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