In February of this year, Quebec students began an unlimited general strike to oppose a tuition increase from $2,168 to $3,793 between 2012 and 2017 announced by the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest. In October, following massive demonstrations and the resignation of one education minister and then another, Charest and his government were defeated in elections. In its first cabinet meeting on its first day in office the new Parti Quebecois government repealed the tuition increase. The new Premier said she will not decrease funding for universities and will convene a summit on how to fund universities within her first 100 days as premier – without raising tuition by more than the rate of inflation.
What caused these dramatic events?
The strike started on February 13, 2012 at Université Laval and it quickly spread throughout the 2- and 4-year colleges in the province. On March 22, 310,000 students were on strike, and 300,000 people marched in the streets. On May 18 the Government passed an emergency law that tried to limit how protesters could demonstrate. In what has been called “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian History,” between 400,000 and 500,000 people marched in downtown Montreal on May 22. Everyone wore small red squares of cloth. Summer did not stop the strike, and in October the protest brought down the government.
This is not in a far-away place or far-off time. This year, 300 miles away, hundreds of thousands of people endangered their educations and repeatedly took to the streets to preserve tuition that seems unbelievably low by U.S. standards.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for CLASSE, one of the leading student organizations involved in the protest, explained “This straightforward demand was always placed within the context of a broader critique of austerity measures, and a broken system that places the interests of the rich ahead of those of the majority of the population. Although the hike has been defeated for now, the broader struggle against this austerity agenda continues. Our governments persist in slashing taxes on major corporations (tax cuts that have failed in their stated goal of stimulating the economy and creating jobs). Meanwhile they plead poverty when it comes to funding critical social programs like education and healthcare.”
Sound familiar? We have a lot to learn from our neighbors to the north. Montreal is just 300 miles away but a world apart when it comes to politics. Students (and unions) there have a sophisticated understanding of power, a refined politics of coalitions, and a determined militance we can only dream of.
Nadeau-Dubois goes on, “To be effective, we need a common front of social movements. One capable of fighting, and winning, a new battle each year. Our power comes from our numbers, and building a mass movement requires focus, selflessness alongside mutual support, and unity amongst movements.”