What The Québec Student Strike Means For All Of Us
This September, the world should look to Québec for two reasons, which are entangled. First, the provincial elections; second, the resuming of the school year, so the active period of the grève générale étudiante (general student strike).
A brief timeline
The student strike began in February of 2012, in response to a proposed 75% tuition hike over the next five years by the Québec provincial government. Québec residents pay some of the lowest tuition in Canada, in part because of their continual history of effective student strikes. The strike claimed the red square as a symbol: supporters keep swatches of red fabric or felt pinned to their clothing. The largest universities and CEGEPS (general-interest requirement institutions and technical schools) have been involved since the beginning, as part of the group CLASSE.
Image courtesy of Photomaxmtl at flickr
Police brutality and violence erupted during the early days of the protests. On May 16, the Québec government enacted Bill 78 and other emergency bylaws meant to cull student action by imposing permits for gatherings of more than fifty people, freedom of protest, and even the right to wear masks as defense from police violence.
This only strengthened the movement. Bill 78 was a catalyst for the movement, from one focused only upon tuition to one concerning the general responsiveness of the government to the will of the people, to providing a fair and open democracy. Even the United Nations expressed concern over a limitation of human rights. Nevertheless, anglophone media coverage both in Canada and around the world has been one-sided and lacking.
I was lucky to be in Montreal on July 22nd, joining the estimated 80 000 protestors – both students and supporters. There were unions, professors, grandparents marching in solidarity, young children who chanted “we know the special law”, and giant red squares hung from the patios of apartment buildings. Yet in the words of a dear friend I met this summer, a UQAM student, that’s “not a great turn out”: crowds were larger during the university school year, reaching 200 000 in May. Protestors called for the replacement of their current government, but did not back a solitary party or candidate.
A call for wider social change
Reading the manifesto of CLASSE gives you an idea of the breadth of this movement: democracy, social programs, ecology, economic disparity, privatization, and even gender discrimination are within its goals for change. Yes, this movement it recognizes the additional limitations tuition raises place on women. A text from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute of Concordia University is available here in both French and English. Access to postsecondary education is still a substantial struggle for many women. It is not only a student strike, not only about tuition hikes imposed by the government. It is also not only a cry against Premier Jean Charest, but against everything he incarnates.
“Education is not a branch of the economy, nor is it a short-term training service. Our educational system, which is at the root of all knowledge, can allow us to pave the way towards freeing society as a whole; it can provide a liberating education that will lay the foundation for self-determination.”
- CLASSE manifesto, StoptheHike.ca
The student strike in Québec has a wider impact than just the province, or even than just Canada. The word is political empowerment: not only the absence of apathy, but the exercise of our rights as engaged individuals who can and should affect the grander scheme of things. We should not ask why the students of Québec are striking, but why others are not.
The future of the strike
Since the provincial elections were called in early August, the strike has gone largely ignored and even forgotten in the English-speaking world. The CEGEPs (though not the universities) voted to return to classes this fall, and many say the movement appears to be losing steam. The leader of militant student group CLASSE Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois resigned shortly after the elections were called – but his torch has been taken up.
August 22nd marked the sixth monthly daytime-march, and 191 days since the strike began. Yet the students march on, and more than ever, I hope the world steps up and shows its support as another university semester begins.
Reader submission by Emily R. Douglas
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