A student strike in Quebec has entered its third month with no sign of stopping. At its height, 300,000 students were on strike, refusing to go to class until the fee hike was dropped. Currently the campaign remains strong with 180,000 out from 100 different student unions.
Students are fighting the Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years.
Police have used rubber bullets and tear gas, and one student lost the use of an eye thanks to police violence. The media, too, has lined up to attack the students. But they have remained steadfast. The strike has created a massive crisis for the Liberal government and its leader Jean Charest.
Students recognise that their power lies in strike activity and direct action. They have used mass direct action to shut down bridges, ports and sections of the city, compounding the economic pressure on the government to drop the fee hike.
They have rejected an attempt by the government to sell them a rotten deal in a bid to end the strike. Charest proposed to extend the fee hike over a longer period. But in mass meetings students voted the deal down and have stuck to their demands which include a tuition freeze at 2007 levels and a five-year timeframe for the government to introduce free education, funded by taxing financial institutions.
The education restructure students are challenging in Quebec is driven by the same neo-liberal logic that all students face, and will be familiar to student activists in Australia.
Government funding has been consistently cut back and replaced by commercial research contributions and student fees, which have risen 30 per cent since 2006.
Students in Quebec have been criticised for their protest because they have some of the lowest tuition fees in North America. But the movement has consistently responded by arguing that this only shows how bad the situation has become globally. The student union CLASSE, which represents half of the striking students, has argued, “The right to education cannot be reduced to a debate over numbers in which $1625 is too much, but $700 is fine.”
The fees themselves are part of an austerity program. In 2011, the government introduced around $800 million worth of cuts, most of them targeting the health and social services sector. But while students and public services suffer, the latest budget included $1.3 billion in handouts to business. That is more than enough to fund free education, which activists estimate would cost $700 million.
The students’ focus has extended from the fee hike to neo-liberalism and the future of Quebec.
During a protest outside a Liberal Party convention, students stormed several different conference rooms—some disrupted a meeting where the government was negotiating the sell-off of a huge swathe of Indigenous land to a mining company, while others went to confront the Immigration Minister over his anti-immigrant and anti-gay politics.
Importantly, students have linked up with the unions. The two main public sector unions have mobilised to support the student demonstrations. In March, 30,000 striking workers joined 200,000 striking students. Airline and auto workers have made donations and marched with the students.
Inspired by the student fightback, airline, train, library and daycare workers have taken industrial action, showing that they won’t pay for the government’s crisis either.
In response to environmental destruction, 300,000 marched in Montreal on Earth Day, the biggest march in Canadian history. Locked out workers from Rio Tinto were present and have been supported by the student movement.
Student leader Gabriel Nadeau Dubious explains, “The tuition fee hikes have quickly channeled a great deal of dissatisfaction towards the government, about accessibility to a higher education and other social issues…. Quebec’s youth may be showing the way of what can be done. Everywhere in the world we see austerity measures implemented and everywhere people are mobilising against them. Here in Quebec we are showing that we can succeed—and what better proof to show that it is worth putting up a fight in order to change the way things are done?”
The Quebec student movement has been built from the ground up. Nadeau Dubious explained that “The key to our success was that it is a democratic movement. When people feel they have a say in a movement, they are more willing to get out in the streets and mobilise and support the strike.”
The Quebec students are showing us all how to fight.