| Collective means, collective futures

A history of student strikes in Quebec

This semester will see tens of thousands of Quebec students participate in a general strike in response to the Quebec government’s attempt to unilaterally raise tuition. The coming increase of $1,625 over five years represents the largest in the history of Quebec. The effects of tuition increases are clear. In the UK, the recent tripling of fees is expected to keep 23, 000 students from going to university. In Quebec, students in minimum-wage positions will be forced to work more hours, endure more stress, and go further into debt to pay for their education. Moreover, there is a racialized component to tuition increases. A CFS (Canadian Federation of Students) study found that communities of colour  – especially West Asian, Korean, and Latin American communities  – spend a higher proportion of income on tuition, and are therefore more likely to be limited by fee increases than others.

Lastly, and crucially, this increase is not an isolated event, but rather an acceleration of the process of privatization – shifting the funding burden to students, donors, and private companies – that has been ongoing for the past twenty years. Since 1988, the proportion of public financing of Quebec universities has decreased by 22 per cent, while the proportion of private sector contributions has almost tripled, leaving student tuition fees to pay more than double the proportion.

Since the advent of the modern Quebec student movement in the 1960s, Quebec students have repeatedly expressed – through petitions, demonstrations, and occupations – the demand for quality, accessible post-secondary education. The movement has only been consistently successful when it attaches this demand to general strike action. Strikes are powerful because of their unique ability to exert economic pressure on the government. For that reason, Quebec students have made use of this tactic eight times in the past forty years and achieved significant victories.

In the autumn of 1968, following the creation of the CEGEP system, 15 of the 23 CEGEPs embarked on a general strike. Students demanded improved financial accessibility to post-secondary institutions, pedagogical and institutional reform, and the creation of a second francophone university in Montreal. Though the CEGEPs provided the strike’s initial impetus, several universities soon followed suit and joined a strike that lasted for two months. The strike is now acknowledged as the driving force behind the creation of the UQ  (Universite du Quebec) network – that includes Universite du Quebec a Montreal and Universite du Quebec a Trois Rivieres – and the tuition freeze in effect until 1990.

In the 1970s, students built on the mobilization of the previous decade. After an initial period of political quietism, students embarked on a succession of strikes in the fall of 1974. CEGEP students began boycotting classes in response to the introduction of aptitude tests for those wishing to continue on to university. The tests were seen as discriminatory as they were required only of francophone students. The government soon backtracked and withdrew the tests, but the mobilization and solidarity that had been created provided the momentum for students to push even harder.

Soon after the end of the first strike, a second general strike was declared in protest of an inadequate financial aid system that had lead many students to abandon their studies for a lack of means. By the end of November, over 100, 000 students from over forty high schools, CEGEPs, and universities were on strike. This pressure forced the government to negotiate changes to the loans and bursaries system, serving as ongoing evidence of what is possible when students act with unified force.

In the following years, students continued to resist together when their collective futures were at stake. In November 1978, following a massive strike, the government was forced to make improvements to the financial aid system. Strikes in 1986 and 1996 forced the government to pursue alternatives to the tuition hikes it had planned. Most recently, in the winter of 2005, the government threatened to cut $103 million in financial aid. The ensuing response saw over 230, 000 students in the largest strike in Quebec history. The overwhelming pressure inflicted on the government forced it to restore all $103 million in cuts by March 2005.

Yet not all general strikes have seen such success. Following the 1989 decision to unfreeze tuition, some students endeavored to organize a response. The general strike that followed saw a lack of coordination among post-secondary institutions and low levels of participation. This meant the government encountered no effective resistance and was easily able to push its plans through.

Much has been said about the progressive nature of Quebec’s social programs. Nowhere is this truer than in the sector of post-secondary education, where tuition rates are currently the lowest in Canada. What is less often stated is that this is the case despite rather than because of the government. Students demanded the creation of a public university network; students fought for improvements to financial aid programs; and it is above all because of students that Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country.

The upcoming strike, viewed as a specific event, is the culmination of students’ rejection of the Charest government’s neoliberal policies. Since tuition was unfrozen in 2007, a general oppositional movement has gradually grown. Following the March 17, 2011 decision to increase tuition by $325 a year, mobilization efforts have intensified. Through lobbying (petitions and negotiations) and direct channels (demonstrations and occupations), students have expressed their rejection of the government’s austerity policies.

Yet, these feelings are nothing new. In fact, they have defined the Quebec student movement for the past forty years. In this light, the upcoming strike is but the most present instance of a rich history of oppositional movements in Quebec. But it would be a mistake to view these movements as a solely local occurrence. Just as the privatization of the university is an international phenomenon, so are the resistance movements it has generated. In the UK, Chile, the US, and Colombia, students have said NO to reduced accessibility, NO to increased debt loads, and NO to an educational system that operates for profit and corporate interests rather than for people.

A general strike affords certain transformative possibilities. It is a time of both action and imagination. Classes are cancelled, but students continue to come together on campus, which is restructured around new daily activities  – demonstrations, informal gatherings, general assemblies. During the 1968-1969 San Francisco State strike, students gathered daily at the center of campus for a rally and then marched towards their administration building. Strikes provide a unique opportunity to both conceive of and implement alternatives to existing educational paradigms. Through the carving out of autonomous spaces, students empower themselves and create opportunities to learn, share, create, and act together.

Daniel Wolfe is a U3 Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies student. You can reach him at daniel.wolfe@mail.mcgill.ca.


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