The Threat of Quebec’s Good Example

By Peter Hallward, June 1, 2012

The following is the full version of an article that appears on today’s Guardian UK online. The Guardian online version is reduced in length by the editors for reasons of space.–RA, June 1, 2012

The extraordinary student mobilisation in Quebec has already sustained the ‘longest and largest student strike in the history of North America’, and it has already organised ‘the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history’. It is now rapidly growing into one of the most powerful and inventive anti-austerity campaigns anywhere in the world. Every situation is different, of course, and Quebec’s students draw on a distinctive history of social and political struggle, one rooted in the 1960s ‘Quiet Revolution‘ and several subsequent and eye-opening campaigns for free or low-cost higher education. Support for the provincial government that opposes them, moreover, has been undermined in recent years by repeated allegations of corruption and bribery. Nevertheless, those of us fighting against cuts and fees in other parts of the world have much to learn from the way the current campaign has been organised and sustained. It’s high time that education activists in the UK, in particular, started to pay the Quebecois the proverbial highest compliment: when in doubt, imitate!
The first reason for the students’ success lies in the clarity of both their immediate aim and its links to a broad range of closely associated aims. Students of all political persuasions support the current ‘minimal programme’, to block the Liberal government’s plan to increase tuition fees by 82% over several years. Most students and their families also oppose the many similar measures introduced by federal and provincial governments in Canada in recent years, which collectively represent an unprecedented neoliberal attack on social welfare (new user fees for health care, elimination of public sector services and jobs, factory closings, wanton exploitation of natural resources, an increase in the retirement age, restrictions on trade unions, and so on). And apart from bankers and some employers, most people across Canada already regret the fact that the average debt for university graduates is around $27,000.

A growing number of students now also support the fundamental principle of free universal education long defended by the more militant student groups (loosely coordinated in the remarkable new coalition CLASSE), and back their calls for the unconditional abolition of tuition fees, to be phased out over several years and compensated by a modest and perfectly feasible bank tax, at a time of record bank profits. ‘This hardline stance’, the Guardian’s reporter observed the other day, ‘has catapulted CLASSE from being a relatively unknown organisation with 40,000 members to a sprawling phenomenon that now numbers 100,000 and claims to represent 70% of striking students.’ Growing numbers, too, can see how such a demand might help to compensate in a small way for the most obvious socio-economic development in Canada over the last thirty years: the dramatic growth in income inequality, reinforced by a whole series of measures (tax cuts, trade agreements, marketization plans…) that have profited the rich and very rich at the expense of everyone else.

In Quebec, student resistance to these measures hasn’t simply generated a contingent ‘chain of equivalences’ across otherwise disparate demands: it has helped to create a practical, militant community of interest in the face of systematic neoliberal assault. ‘It’s more than a student strike’, a CLASSE spokesman said in April, ‘we want it to become a struggle of the people.’ At first scornfully dismissed in the corporate media, this general effort to ‘make the student movement into a social movement’ has borne spectacular fruit in recent weeks, and it would be hard to describe the general tone of reports from the nightly protest marches that are now taking over much of Montreal in terms other than collective euphoria.

Nothing similar has yet happened in the UK, of course, even though the British variant of the same neoliberal assault – elimination of the EMA, immediate trebling of fees, systematic marketization of provision, etc. – has been far more brutal. But the main reasons for this lie less in some uniquely francophone propensity to defend a particular social heritage than in the three basic (and eminently transposable) elements of any successful popular campaign: strategy, organisation, and empowerment.

As many students knew well before they launched their anti-fees campaign last summer, the best way to win this kind of fight is to implement a strategy that no amount of state coercion can overcome – a general, inclusive, and ‘unlimited’ boycott of classes. One-day actions and symbolic protest marches may help build momentum, but only ‘an open-ended general strike gives students maximum leverage to make their demands heard’, the CLASSE newspaper Ultimatum explains. So far, it has been 108 days and counting, and ‘on ne lâche pas‘ (we’re not backing down) has become a familiar slogan across the province. So long as enough students are prepared to sustain it, their strike puts them in an almost invincible bargaining position.

Ensuring such preparation is the key to CLASSE as an organisation. It has provided new ways for students previously represented by more cautious and conventional student associations to align themselves with the more militant ASSÉ, with its tradition of direct action and participatory democracy. Activists spent months preparing the ground for the strike, talking to students one at a time, organising department by department and then faculty by faculty, starting with the more receptive programmes and radiating slowly out to the more sceptical.

At every pertinent level they have created general assemblies, which have invested themselves with the power to deliberate and then make, quickly and collectively, all the important decisions about what to do next. In keeping with compelling historical precedents, actions are decided by a public show of willing hands, rather than by an atomising expression of private opinion. The more powerful and effective these assemblies have become, the more active and enthusiastic the level of participation. Delegates from the assemblies then participate in wider congresses, and in the absence of any formal leadership or bureaucracy, the ‘general will‘ that has emerged from these congresses is so clear and so concentrated that CLASSE is now the main organising force in the campaign, and in a position to put firm pressure on the other and more compromise-prone student unions.

Week after week, assemblies have decided to continue the strike. In most places, this has also meant a decision to keep taking the steps necessary to ensure its successful continuation, by preventing the minority of dissenting students from breaking it. Drawing on his experience at McGill University, strike veteran Jamie Burnett has some useful advice for the many student activists now considering how best to extend the campaign to other parts of Canada: don’t indulge in ‘soft pickets’ that allow classes to take place in spite of a strike mandate, and that thus allow staff to isolate and fail striking students. ‘Enforcing strikes is difficult to do, at least at first, but it’s a lot less difficult than failing a semester. And people eventually come around, building a culture of solidarity and confrontational politics in the process.’

The main result of this process so far has been one of far-reaching collective empowerment. Resolved from the beginning to win over rather than follow the more sceptical sectors of the media and ‘public opinion’, the students have made themselves more powerful than their opponents. We ‘have learned collectively, CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said last week, ‘that if we mobilise and try to block something, it’s possible to do it.’ From rallies and class boycotts, in April the strike expanded to include more confrontational demonstrations and disruptive nightly marches through the centre of town. Soon afterwards, solidarity protests by groups like Mères en colère et solidaires started up in working class districts of Montreal.

In a desperate effort to regain the initiative by representing the conflict as a criminal rather than political issue, the panicked provincial government rushed through its draconian Bill 78 to restrict the marches, discourage strike enforcement and consolidate its credentials (in advance of imminent elections) as a ‘law and order’ administration. In the resulting escalation, however, it’s the government that has been forced to blink. On 23 May, the day after an historic 300,000 people marched through Montreal in support of the students, police kettled and then arrested more than 700 people – a jaw-dropping number by historical standards. But the mobilisation has become too strong to contain, and after near-universal condemnation of the new law it is already unenforceable. Since 22 May, pro-student demonstrations have multiplied in ways and numbers the police can’t control, and drawing on Latin-American (and older charivari) traditions, pot-clanging marches have mushroomed across Montreal and throughout the province of Quebec. Last night tense negotiations with the government again broke off without resolution. Business and tourist sectors are already alarmed by the prospect of a new wave of street protests continuing into Montreal’s popular summer festival season.

There is now a very real chance that similar mobilisations may spread further afield. Recent polls suggest that most students across Canada would support a strike against tuition increases, and momentum for more forceful action may be building in Ottawa and across Ontario; the most recent polls in Quebec itself also show that an initially hesitant public is beginning to swing behind the student demands and against government repression. On 30 May, at the ritual hour of 8pm, there were scores of solidarity rallies all over Canada and the world. In London around 150 casserolistas clanged their way from Canada House to the Canadian embassy at Grosvenor Square.

If enough of us are willing to learn a few things from our friends in places like Quebec and Chile, then in the coming years such numbers may change beyond all recognition. After much hesitation the NUS recently resolved that education should be ‘free at all and any level’, and activists are gearing up for a massive TUC demonstration on 20 October. After a couple of memorable springs, it’s time to prepare for a momentous autumn.

Peter Hallward teaches at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University London, and is a member of the Education Activist Network. His book on ‘The Will of the People’ is forthcoming from Verso in 2012. He is the author of the 2008 ‘Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment.


From the ‘Comments’ section of this article on The Guardian, June 1, 2012:

1. I want to add some precision to this “only 1/3 of students were striking”. I am a Quebec university student. I study actuaries and my faculty chose not to strike because I believe it is much harder to condense and catch up in scientific courses such as mathematics.

It doesn’t mean that because a faculty wasn’t striking until now that we all agree on this 75% tuition hike. This 1/3 statistic was over used by the media to discredit the student movement. On march 22, we were 200 000 students striking against this tuition hike (every faculty was striking on that day), many students from medecine, science, high commercial studies, etc. but the government refused to negociate a different compromise and counted on the fact that students would go back to class and that the student movement would disappear on its own if it was ignored. Which obviously didn’t happen.

This is absolutely not a matter of “me, me, me” as I was reading in the previous comments. I believe people who believe in this “entitlement” bullsh.. just don’t know much about the situation and therefore lack information to bring a clear and concise point of view on this topic. As it was brought in other comments, it is mostly the younger generation who will have to pay for these high tuition fees and what people don’t seem to realise, is that raising these fees will just be another way to take money out of the middle class’ pockets. Because it is mostly the parents of students who will pay for their education.

Also, since the adoption of bill 78, the “special law” which restrains the democratic rights to demonstrate and to freely associate (I suggest you read about it), it is not a matter of tuition hikes anymore, this law will affect any workers union that will try to negociate their working conditions with government this means they could be forced back to work and forced to accept any kind of salary drops, etc.

Last week, around 2000 lawyers were demonstrating in the streets against Bill 78. Just sayin..
Every night people from every district and even from outside Quebec, gather together to protest against this bill. The government’s inaction contributed to create a social crisis where two visions are opposing.

And for those who think striking students will fail their classes, bill 78 suspended every class until august so, nobody is going to fail here and it would be totally dramatic for universities to have such a high level of failure. This is no win-win situation.

Note an important fact that should not be forgotten : the actual political party in place, the Liberals are under a special commission for alleged fraud (if you want to read about it it is called “Commission Charbonneau”). People in quebec pay 40% more for infrastructure because the construction industry is controlled by the mafia. The liberals sold an island for peanuts in the St-Laurent gulf to their “economical friends” for its oil and gas ressources which means a loss of 3000 billion dollars for the people of Quebec. People are sick of being asked to pay more n more when our government is dishonest. The message people are sending the government is : “put some order in ur expenses and then we will discuss any raise your want in public services.”

2. Response to Jebedee, 1 June 2012 2:43PM

a. Why might an open-ended boycott win out? You could consider CLASSE’s initial explanation at, or this longer answer here:

b. Except in the very unusual case of unanimous consent, collective action always involves some degree of coercion, by definition; this is what Rousseau meant by ‘forcing people to be free’. It’s an old argument but an unavoidable one. It boils down to whether, confronted with injustice, you’re prepared to organise for collective action, or willing just to let individuals do their own thing. Since individuals have no power in a society based on systematic exploitation, to reject collective action is in practice to accept the status quo, and to consign the great majority of people to impotence.

Anyone who’s every been involved in a strike knows this perfectly well. The more at stake in a strike, the more forceful the measures people defending it tend to take: look at e.g. the history of the IWW, or the way collective actions were sustained (v. successfully) in Bolivia 2000-2005.

Here’s a little more from that Jamie Burnett article I referred to, which is clear on this & some related points:

‘ One common mistake at McGill was the holding of ‘soft pickets’ where activists allowed classes to happen despite their strike mandate. Strikes are not about an individual decision to skip class, facing whatever consequences might follow. They’re about the collective action of students preventing classes from happening and disrupting ‘business as usual’. Students at McGill failed their semesters because of improperly enforced strikes. Letting the members of your student association flunk out of school because you feel uncomfortable with conflict isn’t okay. Enforcing strikes is difficult to do, at least at first, but it’s a lot less difficult than failing a semester. And people eventually come around, building a culture of solidarity and confrontational politics in the process.’ (

Peter Hallward

3. Just to follow up on Peter Hallward’s point, the Quebec Labour Code prohibits members of a striking union from going back to work, in the absence of a collective decision. (See — s. 109.1 ).

Student associations are not trade unions, of course, but Quebec law does treat them in a similar fashion in some respects (such as automatic collection of dues, access to university/college facilities etc.), and in practice most establishments have accepted that decisions to go on strike, or terminate a strike, are taken collectively.

In establishments where there has been a majority vote to go back to classes (or not to go on strike at all), the minority (those who wanted to continue striking/go on strike) have accepted the majority verdict.

I have little sympathy for the students who have sought injunctions to go back to class when the majority of their colleagues voted in the other direction — they are free riders, who will get the benefit of lower tuition if the strikers are successful, and increase the risk that the strikers will be failed for not attending classes.

franzca, 1 June 2012

4. In Quebec, student associations are regulated by a law, the Student Association Accreditation and Financing Act. Once a student association is accredited to represent a particular student body, ALL students are considered members and ALL students must pay association dues — in this respect, it is very similar to Quebec labour law and the “Rand formula”.

In the case of trade unions, agreement to respect strike votes is not a condition of membership — it is a LEGAL requirement. The corresponding legislation for student associations is silent on the issue.

There are several hundred associations, but a quick look at bylaws of departmental associations at Universite de Montreal (the largest one) suggests that most, possibly all, do have clear rules on voting — often show of hands followed by possibility of calling for a recorded vote.

In passing, those who read French may want to check out — an agreement between the administration and the student association at College Lionel-Groulx, on how to “manage” the student strike that was called there in February. This provides for a right to picket, cancellation of most classes, but the continuing of adult education classes and some other activities. This is the college where dissenting students got an injunction forcing their classes to be held, leading to the entrance-blocking incident that gave the government the pretext to pass Law 78.

I realize all of this legalese may be rather surprising to readers in other countries, but Quebec is a surprisingly legalistic society.

franzca 1 June 2012

5. Any suggestion that Quebec’s student movement is inspiring others in Canada is wrong. The rest of the country knows that…blah blah blah…I’m glad I live in sensible Ontario, rather than in Quebec’s “distinct society”.

I live in Ontario as well, for the time being, and on Wednesday participated in the first big ‘casserole’ demonstration in Toronto, in solidarity with the Quebec students, and against the intertwining logic of austerity and repression bearing down on us everywhere. Turnout exceeded expectations, and it was by far the most energetic demo I’ve ever been in, in Toronto. The G20 was a police riot against a polite and earnest crowd. This was miles better. Here’s a video. You can see the back of my head for a couple of seconds!

But the the most remarkable thing: the demo, unusually, weaved through residential streets. And the response from people on their porches and in their front gardens was overwhelmingly, and I mean overwhelmingly positive. They were running in and coming back with pots of their own to bang.

I think the smug notion that Canadians (outside Alberta, at least) value deference, solipsistic consumerist house arrest and the status quo more than freedom, solidarity and social justice is starting to fray at the edges. Outside Alberta, at least.

Here’s another clip from Toronto. After middle-aged ladies like me had gone home, it turned into an amusing game of cat and mouse with the police.

Here’s a clip from Vancouver.

Vive le Canada – outside Alberta, at least. Vive le Canada libre!

iruka, 1 June 2012

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