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Quebec students set to strike

Concordia to hold anti-austerity teach-in week

“This strike is not only possible, it is also necessary precisely in this moment,” proclaimed sociology student Valentin Bellec. “If there is no one to offer a response commensurate with these attacks […] the government will remember it for a long time.”

Bellec, a student at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), is one of many activists working to mobilize campuses across the province to strike in protest against the Quebec government’s austerity policies. Since its election in April 2014, the Liberal government has enacted a series of severe cuts to public services, with the education sector strongly affected.

In September, UQAM social science students voted to create a Comité Printemps 2015, or “Spring Committee,” with the goal of actively mobilizing students independently of student union federations such as the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), as well as to liaise with workers and community members affected by the cuts. Since then, a number of similar chapters of Comité Printemps have taken shape throughout the province.

“For the October 31 [anti-austerity] demonstration, there were about 82,000 students on strike on that day,” Bellec told The Daily in French. “The last time we saw anything comparable was in 2012 [during the student strike], and there’s an enormous amount of work that was done by the Comité Printemps to get there – in Montreal and also in the regions, in Quebec City, in Rimouski.”

The Comité Printemps has recently released a set of mobilization materials aiming to launch a strike on March 21 in the most active campuses, with others joining in later as the movement takes off. According to Bellec, a date toward the end of the school year was chosen to diminish the risk of missing too much school during the strikes, as missed classes could prevent participants from completing their semesters – an issue that arose during the strike of 2012. The choice of date was also made to inspire Quebec’s public sector workers – whose collective agreements are set to expire on March 31 – to join the strike.

“The last time we saw anything comparable was in 2012 [during the student strike].”

Although he recognized that mobilizing enough students in a such short period of time will be challenging, Bellec said that organizing is a lot easier than it was during the 2012 student strike, as the lessons of the strike are still fresh in students’ minds.

“There’s a wealth of logistical knowledge that we’ve already acquired, and that we’re now putting into application, and that’s really a legacy from 2012,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do – we have to go mobilize all the campuses in Quebec – but the difference is that in 2012 we were working with mobilization committees of six to ten people, whereas today we’re thirty or forty.”

Bellec pointed to the ASSÉ Congress, to take place on February 21 and 22, as a “key moment” to bring ASSÉ’s effective structures into the movement toward the strike. So far, ASSÉ has focused on demonstrations and other protest actions. Some member unions also plan to bring forward propositions to include non-member unions in ASSÉ’s mobilization campaigns, as was the case during the 2012 strike.

“The ASSÉ Congress will also serve to put ASSÉ back on track and to dismiss people [who have not been effective],” said Bellec.

In an interview with The Daily, ASSÉ spokesperson Camille Godbout indicated that the direction of ASSÉ’s future actions is uncertain. “It’s really up the local student unions to decide what’s going to happen with the organization in the next few months,” she said.

Local mobilization on campuses

“The most important thing […] is to go into the local student unions and mobilize students directly on their campuses,” noted Godbout.

This would allow them to not only participate in province-wide actions, but also resist the budget cuts to their own CEGEPs and universities.

At McGill, where the administration has repeatedly refused to take a stance against cuts to universities, student mobilization nonetheless remains a challenge, according to Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barrette.

“That culture [of student unions as sites of political action] is not present at McGill yet, and that’s the problem – people see the student unions as being more for events and for clubs,” she said. “That’s what I think needs to be changed, it’s the culture and the political awareness that needs to be reformed.”

To remedy this problem, Moustaqim-Barrette has hired an austerity student researcher, who will create informational materials tailored to McGill undergraduates, and also act as a mobilization officer working to get students to participate in demonstrations and workshops.

Moustaqim-Barrette said she also aims to reform the External Affairs Committee to make it more focused on mobilization. “The External Affairs Committee […] did not really have a purpose, but this way it will have a purpose: it will be acting as that support group to mobilize people,” she said.

Moustaqim-Barrette noted that McGill’s Mob Squad, which was a coordination point for campus activists during the 2012 strike, also remains active. “I think SSMU can play a complementary role to Mob Squad. I think Mob Squad is often not perceived to be as accessible to the general population,” she said. “Side by side, it’ll be really good to have those people on the ground being more aggressive at Mob Squad, and SSMU pushing that along as well.”

At Concordia, meanwhile, a campaign called Solidarity Concordia has formed to organize against austerity measures and in support of a general strike, and will be holding a teach-in week from February 2 to 7.

“Solidarity Concordia is a movement that was started last October by people who felt concerned about austerity measures,” said Aloyse Muller, Concordia student and Solidarity Concordia organizer, in an interview with The Daily. “We already organized a town hall on austerity in November, and this week of teach-ins [fits into] trying to spread awareness in the universities about austerity measures and social concerns in general.”

Presentation and workshop topics for the week include the history of student movements in Quebec, direct democracy, resistance to capitalism, as well as the relationship between austerity and environment.

“After this week, we will probably regroup and see how we can assist different student groups on campus, who’s become interested in austerity since our teach-in, and where the next step will be,” added Marion Miller, also one of the organizers. “We’ll probably reassess, but we’ll definitely try to keep this momentum going.”

—With files from Peter Zhi