Citizen Action Monitor

How Quebec students mobilized North America’s largest strike movement

Three strike leaders share their best advice to students in Canada, the US and beyond

No 469 Posted by fw, May 4, 2012

“You only need a spark to light the fire… You only need one or two people to light the spark of struggling. Creating mass movements is not easy but the Quebec student movement has risen out of nothing. I think you can build on the popular discontent that you’ve built on before with the Occupy Movements for instance, and build broader mass movements to directly contradict the rise of neoliberalism in the States or in the rest of Canada.”Jeremie Bedard Wien

In the following Real News video, three Quebec student leaders explain how they built a massive, multi-faceted student movement in short order. My transcript appears below the 11:17-minute video, and includes added subheadings.

How did Quebec Students Mobilize Hundreds of Thousands for Strike? By the Real News Network, May 4, 2012.

TRANSCRIPT

David Dougherty introduces the story and the students

David Dougherty, reporting for TRNN — More than 165,000 students from Quebec have been on strike for more than eleven weeks in order to pressure the provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest to go back on its decision to increase tuition rates, some of the lowest in Canada by 75% over the next five years. On April 18, the Real News met with student leaders, Alex Matak, Jeremie Bedard Wien, and Gabriele Nadeau-Dubois to discuss some of the origins and strategies of what has quickly become one of North America’s largest student movements.

David Dougherty — For students…student organizers and activists in other parts of the country are looking at Quebec and saying, “How did you guys do that? How are you able to mobilize 250,000 people and continue the strike for ten weeks? If you guys could share some of your insights on the Quebec student experience and what students in other universities and other settings – the United States and Canada and beyond – what are some of the things they can learn from the Quebec student example.”

Applying principles of direct democracy facilitated quick mobilization of massive student movement

Jeremie Bedard Wien, Student Organizer, CLASSE – One of the main examples of how we are able to mobilize such a broad number of students is that our student unions are inherently political. And they operate, anyway, the ones that are members of CLASSE [umbrella group of student associations], they operate according to principles of direct democracy, therefore involving a maximum amount of students in general assemblies which function day-to-day which usually is the highest governing body of these unions. Therefore, the maximum number of students are able to participate in the daily political life of their student unions instead of dedicating power to a group of individuals like it happens on so many Anglophone campuses outside Quebec and even within Quebec.

Out with hierarchical student unions, in with inclusive, participative democratic general assemblies

Alex Matak, Student Organizer, Concordia University – Yes. And that definitely was the change that happened this year at Concordia where typically the political structure is that of a student union that is elected and hierarchical and people can speak through some other representative. I think for the first time ever this year smaller student associations have become political and have started having general assemblies where people had a direct say in not only…had not only a direct vote but a direct say in shaping the thing that they would be voting on and really owning that. When it began, it was a few student member associations that did that and it quickly snowballed into something really huge because that kind of participation is what so many students have been waiting for for a long time. I think that, in and of itself, that cultural change toward instances of direct democracy was enough to mobile people towards something like a strike.

David Dougherty – How much of this is about the tuition raises, the tuition hikes? It seems that this has kind of become something as part of a broader political struggle.

Student organizers knew tuition hikes were part of larger government plan to destroy social welfare

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Student Organizer, CLASSE Spokesperson — The first thing that we can say is that the increasing of tuition fees was announced at the same time of a lot of other measures – health act in Quebec, which is the first time in our history where we will ask people to pay for health. In the United States it’s something very common. Here it’s like…in fact, the finance minister called it a “cultural revolution”. On this point I agree with him. It is a cultural revolution and since nine years now, since the Liberal government was first elected, we are living a cultural revolution in Quebec where this government tries to destroy all the welfare system that was built in the 60s and the 70s in Quebec. So the public education system, the health education system, the collective insurance system that we have – this government is attacking all those public services, privatizing them, putting prices on them, on the services. And so when the tuition increased, what arrived is…first it surprised no one. Everyone was waiting for this increase. Everyone was knowing that it was coming. The organizers in the student associations they were all aware that the tuition increase was part of a larger plan to destroy what we call here, the modèle québécois, the Quebec Model, something like a social democracy. When the strike began it was the issue of tuition fees. People are on strike against the tuition increase, the major idea of the associations. At the beginning. But after four or five, six, seven weeks of strike people have had a lot of general assemblies, have talked, have protested, have met workers in the street, families, community groups and this conjuncture of so many people who have nothing to do with their lives except talk politics and do actions and protests. That creates a climate of…

The tuition fee hike is just the tip of the Liberal government’s neoliberal iceberg. A much bigger fight is just beginning

Jeremie Bedard Wien — …social change, I think you could say. Definitely. One of the things the movement has succeeded into is that we’ve been able to put very many issues, very many political, very many social issues on the map. We’ve been able to put them out there in the public debate. One of CLASSE’s main demands has been for years, free education, like we see in Europe. So we shouldn’t only limit ourselves to reacting, to attacks on education, to tuition fees but also demand this broader project, which is free education. We’ve mobilized mostly around tuition fees but after two months of strike but people on strike have nothing else to do, as Gabriele mentioned, but to discuss politics. And they’ve realized that this tuition fee is only the tip of an iceberg, the neoliberal iceberg, and that in the next few years we will have to address these issues in the same way we’ve addressed tuition fees.

The student strike has raised public awareness of the need to defend Quebec’s political and social culture

Alex Matak – I think, to go back to your last question, that’s another reason why this movement has been able to mobilize so many people because it is drawing those connections, those broader connections, the underneath of the iceberg where people were mobilizing under this tuition increase because, of course, it’s the immediate material…it affects the material conditions of people’s lives immediately. Increasing how much it costs to do anything has a very direct and immediate impact. But the reason that it’s been able to gather so many people and continues to gather people and continues to be basically relentless is because, I think, as these guys have said, people have begun to recognize the ideological nature of the hikes and of the budget and all the decades of social struggle that are being literally attacked by this government and by this budget. And I think no matter what level your income or no matter how much that increase will actually impact you, I think so many people have been able to be mobilized around defending the political and social climate of Quebec and not allowing it to be destroyed in that way. So I think drawing those deeper connections have been incredibly important.

David Dougherty – Is there any final comment that you guys could make to other students who are watching this with great attention and anticipation to see what’s going to happen here?

Alex’s advice – “Believe that you can actually overcome these things”

Alex Matak – I would say that the most important thing is to believe that you can actually overcome these things. I think there’s this ongoing argument — that is starting to drive me crazy – of Quebec’s tuition is the lowest in Canada and one of the lowest in North America. And I think that that is sort of a defeatist attitude that underlies what is going on in other parts of North America where it’s so bad – I mean in the United States it’s so bad that it probably feels really difficult to many…any kind of backwards movement on what’s going on. But it’s important for students to look at this and know that with the right amount of passion, organization, and resolve you can start to reverse…you can detract the cause of neoliberalism. It just takes a lot of work.

Gabriel’s advice – “They didn’t know it was impossible so they did it”

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois – I would say to people who look at us and find our struggle inspiring that we are looking to the students of Chile and we are finding them really inspiring. I think our strike could be a lot bigger, could be a lot more disturbing. It’s always easy to look in another country and look on another movement and find out — oh they’re so organized and we’re so not mobilized. In Quebec, inside the student movement we see the same dynamic. You see…you go to some college and university saying — oh people from this school are so mobilized and we are not. And I saw so many of these schools this year thinking that they would never be on strike, that they would never have even a general assembly and they just did it. And they just worked. I think it was Mark Twain who said — they didn’t know it was impossible so they did it.

Jeremie’s advice – “Build on the popular discontent”

Jeremie Bedard WienYou only need a spark to light the fire. And I think it summarizes very well what we’ve been able to achieve in the last few months. Colleges going on strike without national organizations not even knowing about it is a great example. You only need one or two people to light the spark of struggling. Creating mass movements is not easy but the Quebec student movement has risen out of nothing. I think you can build on the popular discontent that you’ve built on before with the Occupy Movements for instance and build broader mass movements to directly contradict the rise of neoliberalism in the States or in the rest of Canada.

RELATED READING

  • Quebec students ignite the popular imagination  by Stefan Christoff, rabble.ca, April 30, 2012. “Despite repeated incidents of police brutality, strikingly hostile mainstream media coverage and a sustained refusal by the Quebec Liberal government to negotiate in good faith, popular support and energy toward the strike is growing. Beyond surveys, or poll numbers, the Quebec student strike is historic in nature, a sustained mass protest movement creating political space to debate not only rising tuition fees but also fundamental questions of social justice.”
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