The 2012 Quebec student movement, which stopped a planned tuition hike and toppled a provincial government, was a rare victory within the current political climate of neoliberal austerity. For many involved, it was “only a beginning” and part of a larger effort. “La grève est étudiante, la lutte est populaire” (it’s student strike, but it’s a popular struggle) was a common refrain. After the long fight over tuition, the movement kept its wheels turning. Reborn as a broad movement against austerity and the fossil fuel economy, the mobilization in Quebec has revved and sputtered and now finds itself at a strategic and organizational crossroads.
The 2012 Student Strikes in Context
By the summer of 2012, word had spread of Quebec’s student movement. Hundreds of thousands of students, adorned with red squares, took to the streets of Montreal for massive demonstrations to the supportive clatter of pots and pans. The casseroles were heard daily, and nightly protests clashed with armoured police mandated to use force, while police helicopters droned overhead late into the night.
Few had foreseen such large, persistent opposition, but preparations had begun long in advance. “The fact that people worked together for two years in the [Red Hand] Coalition created a discourse and created a movement where groups were mobilized in 2012,” explains Véronique Laflamme, a spokesperson for the Red Hand Coalition, a less-wordy moniker of the Coalition Against User Fees and Privatization of Public Services.
Formed in 2009, the Coalition consists of nearly 100 groups: a mix of community groups, union locals, and student associations, including ASSÉ, star of the 2012 tuition fight. “Popular education continued after that, and now, in 2015, groups outside the student movement have adopted the discourse more and gotten mobilized,” Laflamme told The Dominion in May 2015, while members of the Coalition were organizing occupations in Montreal demanding the right to housing.
Buffeted by the broad support of the Red Hand Coalition, the 2012 strike was the work of thousands of student activists in their faculty or departmental associations. Associations in ASSÉ operated together in their system of direct democracy, imposing no top-down decisions on associations. It was in student associations’ general assemblies, not closed executive offices, that members would discuss proposals and mandate actions to take a combative stance against Quebec’s Liberal government plans to increase tuition.
The students’ ultimate tactic was the unlimited general strike, when students would collectively abstain from—and shut down—classes, threatening the loss of the school year and freeing up thousands of students to organize and attend nightly demonstrations. With a mandate from its members, ASSÉ would then act to support those members, producing mobilization materials and co-organizing protests. Student associations FEUQ and FECQ, less militant and more hierarchical, also mobilized members to strike, and the three associations at times drew hundreds of thousands to protests in Montreal.
This was the first strike for most students, but education-related strikes had been organized roughly every 10 years in Quebec since 1968, fighting effectively to keep the system well funded and fees low. The previous strike was in 2005. In the 1950s and 60s, large uprisings of the Quiet Revolution fought for the creation of a public education system, universal health care, separation of church and state, nationalization of energy utilities, and for other public services.
September 2012 Elections
When the movement reached its peak in the summer of 2012, it didn’t seem to be going away; if anything, it felt like it might keep growing. Spurred by outrage at the laws banning freedom of assembly that were meant to suppress the movement, large swaths of Quebec society began to support the students. Jean Charest’s governing Liberals were sliding hard in opinion polls but refused to back down on the tuition issue.
On August 1, the Liberals called an early election for September 4, and the tone changed drastically.
Léo Bureau-Blouin, the high-profile spokesperson of student association FECQ, decided to run as a candidate for the Parti Québécois (PQ), encouraging students to Photo by David Gray-Donald 10 The Dominion Fall 2015 follow him to the voting booth. Other organizers also joined the PQ, whose leader Pauline Marois had joined in a casseroles protest, banging pot lids together. The newer, smaller and more radical Québec Solidaire also drew students to its team. Both parties campaigned on the promise to cancel the tuition increase.
“It had a big demobilizing effect on the movement,” recalls Joël Pedneault, a student leader at the time. “It was harder to get people to demos during the campaign; a lot of people were just putting energy into the election.”
The Parti Québécois won a minority government, and Jean Charest retired from politics (he is now an expert on mining, oil and gas for a major law firm). The former student spokesperson Bureau-Blouin, newly elected, declared, “[This election] has shown that real change can occur when you mobilize.” Two weeks later, the PQ announced the fee increase legislation had been scrapped and the question of university financing would instead be decided through a series of education summits. FEUQ and FECQ student associations cried victory, but ASSÉ, wary of the government’s deferral tactic, didn’t jump for joy.
At the summits, the PQ refused to discuss the greater vision of the student movement: gratuité scolaire, free education. In response, ASSÉ boycotted the final meetings. Tuition ended up being indexed to near inflation: an annual increase of 3%. “That, over a longer time, will still equal the increase the Liberals put forward,” points out Pedneault, who is now a spokesperson and popular educator for MEPACQ (Quebec Movement for Popular Education and Community Action). “You should definitely be skeptical of left-seeming parties getting elected. An election isn’t a victory unless you win things, right?”
A Movement Regrouping
The PQ quickly got to work cutting education budgets and welfare services, unleashing textbook austerity measures. “They like to appear left, but they were just as bad as the Liberals,” says Pedneault.
Though many students were opposed to these measures, signs of burnout were showing after months of intense mental and physical effort. Some suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and worse.
Still, students protested at the education summits. ASSÉ put together a large showing at its annual end-of-winter demonstration. The Red Hand Coalition organized a campaign in 2013 against the PQ austerity measures, with a specific focus on increased electricity costs, and organized a large demonstration in September of that year.
But that PQ government’s lasting legacy was not its adherence to neoliberal economics. “We have to divide the time the PQ was in power in two: the time before the Charter and the time after,” emphasizes Pedneault. The infamous Charter of Values would have banned public service workers from wearing any religious garb except for a modestly sized Christian cross, among other provisions. It was denounced by many as racist and bigoted, but it stoked nationalist sentiments and was embraced by many in Quebec, including many of the students who went on strike in 2012.
While the Charter of Values and a commission into construction industry corruption kept opposition to austerity quiet in the media, a number of groups were busy again with popular education.
In 2014, the Red Hand publicized its proposed alternatives to austerity, “$10 Billion of Solutions,” a document often referred to since. A number of studies about neoliberalism, debt, the tax code, and austerity were published by IRIS (Institute for Socio-economic Research and Information), appealing to Quebec’s intellectual left. ASSÉ, acting on a mandate from its member associations, launched an education-focused campaign against austerity in the 2013–2014 school year and produced a policy document, “Who Benefits from Austerity?”
A year and a half into its mandate in April 2014, the PQ called an election in the hope that support for its Charter of Values would buoy them to a majority. The divisive nature of the Charter dealt it a stinging defeat. Newly minted Liberal leader Philippe Couillard campaigned on unity and tolerance. Less than two years after having ousted them, Quebecers sent the Liberals back to power with a majority of seats in the legislature.
While cuts to services had been tough on Quebecers under the PQ, “It’s definitely easier to get people mobilized against the Liberals,” says Pedneault of public perception of the two major parties, speaking in May 2015.
Once the Liberals were elected, discussions began on how to confront the Liberals in their four-year term. Some wanted to wait and see what was coming and what could conceivably be won, while others pushed to quickly mount a wide-ranging resistance that would pick up where the student movement had left off in 2012.
In spring and summer 2014, plans began materializing for a mobilization towards a “grève sociale” (social strike) on May 1, 2015. A social strike was an idea that had been discussed widely since at least 2012 in left-leaning and anarchist circles, from community groups to student organizers, to workers. It was no secret that publicsector union employees, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, would be coming to the end of their contracts with Quebec on April 1, 2015, and could be in a position to strike after that time (likely some time after). A large public-service strike could rock Quebec society, creating massive disruption.
It was in this context, and a strong citizen resistance to fossil fuel extraction and transportation in Quebec, that students at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal) formed Printemps 2015 (Spring 2015) committees as places to organize a mobilization for the spring. Austerity and the petro-economy were the targets. These mobilization groups quickly centralized into one large committee, referred to simply as P15, with several subcommittees, open to anyone who came to meetings. It aimed to have involvement from across sectors of Quebec society, going beyond a student movement. Informational materials were produced, several using images of wolves howling their dissent, and the message was pushed that Printemps 2015 was going to be a heated season. But organizational deficiencies in the mobilization were not addressed. In November 2014, a student involved in 2012 mobilizing, Myriam Tardiff, wrote a popular text about some poorly executed actions, titled “A Monumental Flop.” Tardiff described how people weren’t doing the hard work of organizing and were “relying on thoughts of the magic of 2012.”
Looking at the Printemps 2015 committees from a summer vantage point, UQAM student Julien Daigneault noted in the campus’s Socialist Students paper that “many people had confidence in the Printemps 2015 committees to carry out the strike ‘against austerity and hydrocarbons.’” But, Daigneault writes, “The P15 committees are not student associations, nor official liaison committees. They are accountable to no one, unlike official committees and legitimate associations.” In 2012, by contrast, student associations, in the system known as combative syndicalism, had engagement at the base membership level in planning escalating pressure tactics against the government, up to and including the now-famous strike.
The autonomous and unofficial organization of P15 was done in part to allow flexibility so that organizing could include anyone: non-unionized workers, students, unemployed people or others. But in practice, the P15 group became a small, tight-knit group of activists, white and francophone, more radical than most in the organizations they were trying to push. They were not showing the patience needed to do mass mobilization at the scale seen in 2012, including popular education and widespread discussions of strategy.
By spring 2015, as protests took to the streets daily during the initial two-week student strikes, tensions flared between ASSÉ and P15. Tens of thousands of student were on renewable strikes starting March 23, and these were nearing their end. ASSÉ’s executive, wondering whether tangible demands could be won as part of a continued strike at that time, wrote in a preparatory document for ASSÉs congress of the option for a “strategic withdrawal” until fall 2015, when unions might be prepared to join in disruptive actions, potentially including strikes. Those active in P15 quickly wrote a letter, “The ASSÉ won’t bring the spring,” blasting this suggestion and pushing for all-out mobilization efforts in the spring. At the beginning of April, the entire ASSÉ executive stepped down amid calls to resign at their congress.
Despite this, the ASSÉ executives’ warning had been heard and widely discussed. The ensuing divisions took some wind out of the strike’s sails. By the next week, strike numbers were dwindling, remaining active almost only in Montreal. A few weeks later, the strike was all but over. Public-sector unions, while speaking out against austerity and voicing discontent with the Liberal government, did not take strike actions in March or April.
May 1, 2015 was a disruptive day, bringing attention to austerity measures throughout Quebec. Organizing for the day of action had been in the works for a full year, and there were sizable showings from unions and in regions of Quebec that had remained mostly unmobilized during the strike. It wasn’t however the launching of a well-coordinated cross-sector resistance so much as a ceremonial, albeit energetic, close to the season.
The spring 2015 anti-austerity protests in Quebec showed strong citizen discontent as well as structural problems in Quebec’s ambitious mobilization infrastructure. Looking back on the journey since 2012 and watching the tides of electoral politics in Canada turn to be more welcoming to left-appearing NDP parties, the words of Joël Pedneault, just as from countless others inside social movements before, keep ringing: “An election isn’t a victory unless you win things, right?” What will social movements around the country be holding governments to; what will they be fighting for after the ballot boxes close?