The ILPS salutes the fighting spirit and determination of the students in Quebec presently involved in an historic 10-week strike which has shaken the highest echelons of power and their neoliberal agenda and has mobilized thousands of students and supporters in an epic battle for the Right to Education. The students are targeting moves by the Québec Liberal government to go back on past promises and to hike post-secondary tuition fees by CAD $1,625 over the next five years, doubling present rates. A powerful grassroots battle is underway as students and supporters hold major street protests, sit-ins and other creative actions.
Over 200,000 people marched through Quebec’s largest city, Montréal on March 22, 2012, to support the strike, and there have been daily rolling protests for the past two months hitting government buildings along with banks and the stock exchange. Walking along the city’s streets the symbol of the student strike, red squares, are everywhere, attached to people’s jackets, hats, bags and backpacks. At the recent Earth Day rally attended by a record crowd of 250,000+ in Montréal, again the red squares were evident throughout the throng as the student strike seems to be lighting fires of resistance across the province.
After repeated refusals to meet with the students, the Liberal government of Jean Charest has finally been forced to negotiate with representatives of the three major student organizations. The government had been trying to split the student groups by demanding that the most militant wing first denounce so-called student “violence”. Meanwhile, the government of Jean Charest sent in the police to attack and arrest dozens of demonstrators, professors, teachers and supporters during the strike actions while private security forces were hired by the universities to try to force students and professors to attend classes.
There are presently 180,000 students out of the 475,000 university and college students on unlimited strike across Quebec. Three organizations are involved; the Federation of University Students, the Federation of College Students, and Assé, or l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (Association for Student Union Solidarity), the most militant organization made of independent student associations. Assé has united students under the umbrella of the smartly named CLASSE in French (Coalition large de l’ASSÉ – Class in English), a temporary united front to fight the tuition fee hikes and to coordinate a proposed general strike. Their slogan is Ensemble, bloquons la hausse / Together Stop the Hike!
Assé, particularly, has reached out to community groups, parents, unions and teachers, viewing the present struggle for the right to quality education that is free, accessible, public and non discriminatory, as part of the wider social struggle against public service cutbacks and the capitalist offensive against working people. Many students, for example, attended actions alongside indigenous people – which were violently repressed – to oppose the Quebec government’s “Plan Nord (Plan North)”. This Plan, with its false promises of thousands of jobs, will essentially allow mining and forestry corporations to destroy the north of the province in the search for quick profits.
Education in Canada is under provincial jurisdiction and tuition fees have historically been lower in Quebec (approximately CAN$2100/yr) than in other provinces because of strong student and popular mobilization. Keeping tuition fees low in university became a key social policy in Quebec starting in the 1960s. Before that, the number of French-speaking Quebecers who went to university was extremely low.
But with the cutbacks in funding that have resulted from neoliberal policies by the Federal government and the push for profit-oriented education by the private universities like the University of Montreal and McGill, there has been intense lobbying for increased tuition fees in line with what is being practiced elsewhere in Canada and U.S. Thus, the Charest government has now decided to increase tuition fees radically.
Students across Quebec today are motivated by victories of past strikes. These include the 1996 actions that led to an almost decade-long freeze in tuition hikes, as well as the 2005 strike when after months of protest students successfully countered an attempt by Jean Charest’s Liberal government to slash $103 million from bursaries granted to students.
On the political front, the student actions have received support from a variety of progressive forces, including ILPS-Canada members. The Quebec social democratic party, Quebec Solidaire, which has one representative in the provincial assembly, has offered concrete support to the students while the mainstream opposition party, the Parti Québécois, has mouthed opposition to the tuition hikes, but when previously in power continually tried to raise the same fees.
On the international front, Quebec’s student strikers have linked up with struggles elsewhere around the globe opposing imperialist attacks against the right to education.
These include students in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru who held a united day of action in 2011. In the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, thousands marched last year to defend public education, while in Colombia students held three national marches and a month-long strike against privatization of the Colombian education system. In Honduras, students occupied over 150 high schools in opposition to privatization, and thousands of students in Chile demanded free universal education and an end to the neoliberal policies from the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet that have left Chile’s universities the most expensive in Latin America.
The student strike in Quebec deserves the full support of all ILPS member-organizations as it forms the latest movement to defend the right to education for all and is a direct and strong repudiation of the neoliberal and imperialist policies targeting education, but also health and other public services. The students and peoples of the world are inspired by the student strike in Quebec to wage a strong, sustained and militant movement to defend the right to education and resist the policies that curtail this right.
The student strike has compelled the Quebec government to negotiate with the students. Whatever the outcome, this strike has shown that we can and must confront the imperialist agenda and that the wider population, fed up with the excesses of imperialism, is hungry to join in these fundamentally anti-capitalist struggles.###