The provincial government’s troubles began when it announced that it would increase university tuition 82 percent over the next five years, or $254 per year. The ensuing student strike quickly mushroomed into a general protest against the increasingly corporatist ideology of the Quebec Cabinet.
The local campaign involved both students and faculty from post-secondary schools across the Canadian province of Quebec, and exploded into the most widespread, sustained act of civil disobedience in the province’s history earlier this year. The provincial government’s plan to increase university tuition rates sparked months of collective action, culminating in a major victory as the movement defeated provincial premier Jean Charest in Quebec’s September elections1.
Charest’s ousting from office ended the longest currently serving premiership in Canada. The newly-elected premier, Pauline Marois of Parti Québec, canceled the tuition hike immediately upon taking office.
This was not the first serious political victory for the students. In May, Quebec’s Minister of Education, Line Beauchamp, resigned after weeks of pressure from student leaders. Their principled commitment to universal education, coupled with the immense size of the protests, denied Beauchamp the political leverage to sustain the Charest government’s hard-line approach.
As in the United States and around the globe, wealth in Canada continues to grow for what Occupy calls the 1%, largely thanks to imbalanced federal and provincial economic policies. Average wages in Canada have stagnated for more than 30 years, while in that same time the wealthiest one percent increased its share of the national income from 8.1% to 13.3%2.
Despite this imbalance – or perhaps at its source – the rest of Canada’s population is expected to subsidize the 1%, both with its labor and by paying more for social services like health care and education.
In Quebec, student leaders placed education at the heart of this growing income inequality and the social injustice it perpetuates. The government’s attempts to defuse popular unrest, for example, by offering to spread the tuition increase over seven years, thereby lowering the yearly hike to $219, failed. Protestors demanded a more fundamental change, insisting that education is a right that should be free and accessible to everyone.
At the core of the movement’s success was the persistence and scope of its demands. Protestors refused to allow either politicians or corporate media to reduce their position merely to a reaction against the tuition hike. Instead, they focused on the underlying motives behind the government’s plan: a growing commitment to economic austerity, privatization, and deregulation among Quebecois and Canadian politicians.
The strike began at Université Laval in the provincial capital of Quebec City on Feburary 13. It transformed into widespread indignation when the Cabinet imposed patently anti-democratic restrictions on the students’ freedom of assembly, most explicitly with the May, 2012 passage of “Bill 78,” surreptitiously titled “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend.”3
The bill suspended university classes across Quebec and singled out student protests as targets for police action.
By mid-March more than 165,000 students were on strike, and on March 22 at least 300,000 people attended a demonstration in Montreal4.
The massive opposition also included months of nightly marches in cities throughout the province, where protestors gathered to decry declining access to higher education.
Thousands chose solidarity with the protestors in the face of the government’s attempts to criminalize them. Protest participants or sympathizers could be spotted by the small red squares pinned to their clothes and backpacks. Another signature of the shared outrage, the sound of clanging pots and pans, or “les casseroles,” echoed throughout city streets as protestors gathered every evening before sundown.
As with the Latin-American cacerolazo protests that inspired the clamor, residents banged on empty pots from their windows and rooftops, shop-keepers from their front steps, and protestors as they marched through the streets. The increasingly widespread sound of popular discontent has also become the center of the “Global Noise” campaign, a consortium of international networks including Occupy, Spain’s Indignados movement, Yo Soy 132 in Mexico, and other groups in hundreds of cities around the globe5.
Prior to each nightly march, the crowd assembled to discuss the evening’s itinerary and other tactical concerns. Anyone wishing to speak was granted a turn at the megaphone, and decisions were reached by a public show of hands. The atmosphere at these general assemblies was both festive and serious, signaling wide enthusiasm among the participants even as they embraced the significance of their struggle.
Mainstream news coverage in the United States was almost non-existent, and the Canadian popular press consistently trivialized and dismissed the students’ demands as impractical or even irresponsible. All the same, the movement has achieved global recognition.
Peter Hallward, a philosophy professor at Kingston University London and advocate of similar efforts to resist tuition increases in the United Kingdom, called the Quebec movement “one of the most powerful and inventive anti-austerity campaigns anywhere in the world.”6
Alain Badiou, one of France’s most radical public intellectuals, claimed that “this point of resistance is now mobilizing a large-scale debate which concerns us all” and that we would do well to “always keep an eye on Quebec.”7
The largest and most outspoken student group, the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante – or CLASSE – led the effort to situate higher education at the base of an expansive vision for progressive social change. According to the CLASSE Manifesto, “Our concept of democracy places the people in permanent charge of politics, and by ‘the people’ we mean those of us at the base of the pyramid – the foundation of political legitimacy.”8
No such empowerment is possible, the manifesto argues, unless a whole society has equal access to public services like education, and the only way to ensure such equality is by making education free and open to everyone.
CLASSE has also embraced the “We Are Many Youth, but With One Struggle” Manifesto, which has been adopted by student organizations worldwide9.
“It is imperative,” according to this shared manifesto, “to defend high quality, public, free education as a right of every single person. We demand more funding for education, because this is the only way to make the democratization of access to education possible and to guarantee student financial aid, university dining halls, housing for students, child care centers, in addition to struggling for democratization of the internal decision-making processes.”
For these reasons, CLASSE has sought ties with labor movements10and continues to pressure Quebec’s provincial government despite the cancellation of this year’s projected tuition hike. With more than 100,000 student members – or roughly one third of the province’s total student population – freedom of education promises to remain at the center of struggles for social and economic justice in Canada, and perhaps to fuel similar uprisings around the globe.
Nate Gorelick is a frequent visitor to Quebec City, where he attends an annual training seminar in Lacanian psychoanalysis. In June, 2012, he marched with protestors and spoke to several activists (when their voices could be heard over the ringing of les casseroles) in anticipation of this report.