Why Activists in the US and Around the World Should be Learning from Montreal Student Strikers
On Wednesday night in Montreal, we shared a long dinner with student organizers, discussing everything from police tactics in Montreal and New York to the necessity of an anti-racist and anti-colonial framework for our movements. Our hosts noticed that, around the time that the nightly 8:30 p.m. march was supposed to begin, we were getting nervous about missing it. They laughed and said, “Don’t worry, it will go on until 2 a.m.” Or at least they normally do.
By midnight, after peacefully and joyfully marching through the city for hours, the police charged our march of about 4,000 people with batons and pepper spray. In a moment the scene became one of chaos and confusion. Many in the crowd turned around and ran, but there were police behind us, too, coming straight at us with their batons out as people were pepper sprayed and thrown to the ground. Eventually, we found our way out of the melée and asked our Canadian comrade what had happened to provoke the police. “Nothing,” she answered. “They just got tired of us.”
We had been lucky. Moments after the police charged us, they surrounded a group of 506 protesters and arrested everyone in what became the largest single mass arrest since the indefinite student strike began here in Quebec 103 days ago.
The student movement in Quebec is growing. On Tuesday, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 students, workers and supporters took to the streets to protest tuition hikes and the passing of the new, draconian anti-protest law — Law 78 — as well as to celebrate the 100th day of the student strike. But state repression is also growing. Last night’s mass arrest and other forms of police violence bear witness to the new climate of fear and repression that the Charest government is trying to create in order to break the student movement.
The passing of Law 78 is a direct attack on the freedom of assembly and the right to protest. It not only bans unpermitted marches or any unpermitted gathering of more than 50 people, but the vaguely worded “special law” also threatens to levy enormous fines against organizers, unions and potentially anyone who participates in an unpermitted assembly. The law comes in response to the growing popularity of the student movement and can be read as as symptom of the government’s inability to control the movement; it is a sign that in some ways the students are winning. In fact, since its passage last Friday, the nightly marches have only gotten larger as more people see the struggle expanding from the single issue of university tuition to a broader one that includes the right to protest and the suppression of dissent.
The media in the United States have hardly noticed the Quebec student strike, despite it being the longest and largest in the history of North America. Those of us who have been following the movement have been amazed by the sheer numbers that these mass demonstrations have mobilized, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets on major days of action. What is less known, but equally important, is that every single night for the past month there have been marches of several thousand protesters. These high-energy marches snake their way across the eastern side of the island for hours, through residential and commercial neighborhoods. People in bars, restaurants and apartment windows shout back, wave flags, chant with the protesters and cheer them on, even banging their pots and pans, in reference to the Latin American tradition of cacerolazo protests. The breadth of politicization and the everyday forms of solidarity in Montreal is formidable to witness.
“This didn’t happen overnight”
The prevalence of the red squares that symbolize the student strike is stunning: pinned in the hair of a girl on the metro, worn as earrings by another, attached to a baby carriage, or duct-taped on backpacks, shoes, bike helmets and cell phones. But most of all the small, red felt squares are safety-pinned to people’s jackets or shirts, a visible expression of the crushing student-loan debt that Canadian students face — on average, $27,000, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. They’re derived from to the expression “carrément dans la rouge,” literally translated as “squarely in the red.” They are everyday reminders of the increased burden of debt that will come with increased tuition. So many people are wearing the red squares, some claim that the dollar stores where the red felt is bought are running out of it.
When we express disbelief that one of the biggest universities in Canada, the Universitité du Montréal, has been forced to cancel classes and end its semester early because of the strike, and when we are amazed at the prevalence of red squares, people simply say, “Yes, but we have been working for two years to get here.” And it is true. The tuition hikes have been on the table since 2010, when the tuition freeze ended. In March 2011, Quebec announced its plan to raise tuition by $325 a year over 5 years. In response to this, protesters occupied the finance minister’s office.
When we ask how, over that time, so many students have been mobilized and politicized, the answer is both simple and complex. As student organizer Myriam Zaidi said, “We’ve been standing on corners handing out leaflets and having conversations with people about this for years. Just opening up that space of conversation has been hugely important. This didn’t happen overnight.” These basic forms of disseminating information about the tuition hikes and fostering debate about these issues have been pivotal in mobilizing massive on-the-ground support behind their call for a strike.
But the more complicated answer to our question lies in the organizing structure and history of student unions at universities in Quebec. Organized at a variety of levels — from that of the whole Quebec Province all the way down to individual departments — these unions provide a way for students to organize politically, granting them both legitimacy and power. Longer-term mobilizing strategies include campaigns to build strike votes at general membership meetings, carefully navigated negotiations with governments and university administrations, and coalition-building between the various unions. These have been pivotal in securing a unified front during the current strike. This current round of protests are also only the most recent expressions of a much longer history of radical student unionism in Quebec, which dates back to the 1960s.
All in all this has meant that when, on February 14, the student unions at the Universitié du Montréal called for a strike, they already had a very strong base level of support. From there, picket-lines were organized in front of classrooms, and efforts to shut down the university required constant organizing and action. As one student organizer told us, “In those first few weeks, it was very tedious. We knew the class schedule, and we would stand outside the classrooms with signs … Many students would know this was going on and just stay home … One conservative history professor charged the picket line once.”
The university didn’t take these actions lightly. Our friend went on to describe how, in March, fed up with the picket lines and the strike, the university hired a notorious strike-breaking security firm. Armed guards patrolled its hallways, interrogating people about why they weren’t in class, stopping professors and students alike to bully and harass them. This, however, only lasted a few days until widespread outrage from faculty of all political leanings forced the administration to withdraw the guards. Unbroken, the strike continued to the present, and now the provincial government has called for an early end to the semester in yet another attempt to break it.
There are varying levels of support at different universities and in different parts of Quebec. At the English-speaking, elite McGill University, support has not been as widespread, and an attempted student strike there has not been successful (despite having had an occupation of the administrative offices there in the winter). In some ways, this is emblematic of historic divisions between the French-speaking and English-speaking communities in Montreal and Quebec, and of the way that these divisions also fray along class lines. Occasionally this has meant that the protests have a nationalistic flavor to them, with people carrying the Quebec flag and chanting things like: “A qui le Québec? A nous le Québec!” (Whose Quebec? Our Quebec!)
These nationalist undertones have been increasingly contested by student organizers of color who have been actively working to articulate an anti-racist and anti-colonial analysis within the movement, while also combating the false view that the movement is dominated by white students. These efforts are increasingly successful, as shown by the creation of the students-of-color and anti-racist coalitions that had a presence at Tuesday’s march. (Listen to an interview with one of the organizers here, starting at 23:00.)
During these marches, or while banging pots on street corners with our Montreal comrades, the question often on our minds is how we as students in New York City can stand in solidarity with them. The first answer, of course, is to build our own movement and to build it in explicit connection with the one happening here in Montreal. We too are facing tuition hikes at public schools, from New York to California. We too are met with repression and violence when we express dissent. And, fundamentally, the core issues at stake here are the same ones that students and workers around the world are facing right now: the implementation of austerity measures, the increasing privatization of education and (to use Prime Minister Charest’s unapologetically Thatcherist language) a “cultural revolution” in the way we think of education. What was once a common good is being purposefully transformed into an elite commodity available to only those who can afford it.
Last night, as we marched in Montreal, it was with the knowledge that hundreds of our Occupy Wall Street comrades in New York were marching in solidarity for the third time. (Here is video of the first.) Occupy Wall Street itself grew out of solidarity with the Tunisian and Egyptian and Spanish and Greek uprisings, after people began asking themselves, “How do we do that here?” Our generation of students in the United States has yet to mobilize on a mass scale, but after watching what’s happening up here in Quebec, perhaps that will change.