Quebec’s student strike against tuition fees began in March this year. It has faced down state repression to mobilise thousands across Quebec and inspire students in Canada and around the world. Adam Adelpour spoke to Guilluame Legault, the general co-ordinator of Quebec’s radical student union, CLASSE, on a recent visit to Australia.
Can you tell about the background of the student strike? What is the government doing and what is their austerity agenda at the moment?
The government has being moving forward to slowly change the structure of education, the mission of education, in Quebec in the last 6 or 7 years. They’ve [recently] decided to introduce a tuition fee increase of 75 per cent. The tuition fees aren’t that high in Quebec, since we’ve been able to mobilise ourselves for a couple of decades now. We’re now at our ninth student general strike, so I guess this is pretty much why these tuition fees are that low. They wanted to … increase them from to $1625 on a five year scale. People were really pissed off.
How did the strike start from that? What was done to convince students to take action?
The government has been pretty stupid. They [made] public announcements of the tuition fee increase. In fact, they called up a round table meeting with all the banks, private investment, companies, with all the administrations of universities and all the student unions and the labor unions to tell them they wanted to introduce a tuition fee increase. That was in December 2010. So that really gave us lots of time to be able to build a movement and to get people to know what was going on. It was really massive campaigns of information on the campus and people going all across Quebec making huge tours everywhere trying to explain what was going on. As soon as the government introduced [it] into their budget in 2011 then it was just [really] clear [what was going to happen]. The thing that really helped us was that lots of people gave us a great hand, [trying] to mobilise people one-on-one.
What about the massive demos and the spread of the movement to the neighbourhoods as well? Especially around Bill 78?
At first we never expected that many people to show up at these. On March 22nd there were between 200,000 and 300,000 people on the street. We first thought we were going to be able to have, tops, between 50,000 and 100,000 people.
The introduction of Bill 78 and what happened in the neighbourhoods surprised us. CLASSE organised the first conference to say we were not going to respect that law and that we were going to keep acting like as if that Bill didn’t exist because we thought it was an illegitimate law. We have been able to expose every single technicality of this law on the social networks [and] in the media as well. So people got really pissed off, [they were thinking] “when is this government gonna stop being arrogant?” Because it just had no end. They tried every single thing they could to smash us but they just failed. I think the introduction of that Bill really gave new energy to the student movement. We were thinking the May 22nd demonstration was going to be a failure. Then there were about 300,000 people in the streets. After that the casserole movement started.
The people with the pans?
Yeah, just people expressing they had had more than enough of this corrupt government. Because they have been involved in all of these political and economic scandals since for about five years. Every week there is something new popping up about the government, people have really had enough of that. It was crazy to see these people spontaneously just getting outside on their balconies, their porches and just hitting pots and pans. In my neighbourhood on one night there was about 10,000 people spontaneously making a demonstration on the street. No-one had made a callout or had organised this. It was just happening.
Could you just briefly say what Bill 78 is specifically?
We now have to give the itinerary for our demonstrations. We have to warn them 24 hours or 8 hours before a rally. If the cops don’t like the place your organising the demonstration or your itinerary they can change it and call the start of the march somewhere else. Besides that, it just prevents the right for people to make picket lines. We don’t have the right anymore to have a demonstration of more than 50 people. It also gives bigger powers to the cops to arbitrarily make arrests and searches. It also forces the teachers to teach. Even though there might be only one student in their class they will have to be escorted by cops to get inside the school. They are forced. If they don’t go to the class they can be fired. It also forces the students to go back to school. It suspends the Winter semester and it also pretty much cancels the Summer semester. It can mean huge fines against all the people that are involved in demonstrations. The student organisers can be fined up to $35,000 for organising what they would call an illegal demonstration or picket line. For student unions it would be about $125,000.
In the face of that was the strike able to spread to the union movement or make any links with the union movement?
We have been able to have good contact with the labour unions … we have been receiving help from the the big labor unions but they’re closer to the other national student organisations. When Bill 78 was introduced we had a press conference saying we not going to respect his and they didn’t back us. This was pretty sad. But besides that they helped us, they gave us money, they sent people to all of our demonstrations. Certain teacher unions and university staff and campus staff unions have been giving us great help. Some of them were getting organised into political action commitees, just travelling across to other campus’ where they were not working so then they had the right to participate. There was also a teachers’ collective that was created, just making public demonstrations, handing over leaflets, writing letters in the newspapers all the time.
How did the Arab Spring effect the struggle in Quebec?
People within the struggles recognise the links between all the different political things that happen in all parts of the world. It had a big influence, and also Occupy all around the world. I mean it pretty much changed the way people were seeing the possibility of getting organised internationally. Quebec’s politics has been organised around social justice and equality principles for a long time and people really believe in this even though the media and government all attack this. People really think it could be a good thing to have accessible education.