Last year, hundreds of thousands of students throughout Quebec were on strike for much of the year in a fight against tuition increases. The strike succeeded in reversing the increase, and even brought down the provincial government.
When PHENOM helped to host two visiting strikers last year, it inspired members to see for themselves.
Eleven Massachusetts activists, mostly students, were part of PHENOM’s delegation to Montreal in May. We were warmly welcomed by students in Montreal. They put us up in their homes, fed us a lot of pizza, partied with us, and showed us what a vibrant movement looks like.
We met firsthand with leaders of both the more radical student federation (ASSE – Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante) and the larger of the more mainstream federations (FEUQ – Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec). We heard remarkable stories of grassroots democracy, brilliant strategies, hundreds of thousands of people in the streets and about what solidarity means in practice.
Although the organizations represented different constituencies and philosophical positions, they agreed ahead of time on some key points: no negotiations with the government unless all were represented; no group would criticize anyone else’s tactics; no federation would make a positive or negative recommendation to its members as to whether to accept any offers made by the government.
All decisions were made in local student assemblies. These were held regularly on each campus, often in each department. For the first few months of the strike, each assembly voted weekly on whether to continue the strike. This extreme participatory democracy gave the strike tremendous legitimacy, even with those who disagreed with it.
The strike had a presence not just on the campuses, but in communities and in the streets. When the government passed a repressive law banning large street demonstrations, the grassroots response was the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history. And every evening, adopting a tactic from Latin American movements, thousands of supporters of the strikers banged pots and pans in many Montreal neighborhoods.
At that point, the government had no choice but to call elections. The Parti Québécois, which had promised to rescind both the tuition hike and the repressive legislation, won a narrow victory.
We came home inspired and motivated. An excellent history and assessment of the strike is on PHENOM’s website at http://phenomonline.org/wp-content/uploads/Quebec-by-Alain-Savard.pdf.
Anyone up for a trip to Chile, site of the hemisphere’s other gigantic student movement?