Quebec students strike against austerity and the petro economy

    Canada's biggest demonstrations since 2012’s Maple Spring are about much more than student concerns.
    Students marching in Quebec earlier this week. (Facebook / ASSÉ)
    Students marching in Quebec earlier this week. (Facebook / ASSÉ)

    While the U.S. media have remained relatively quiet about it, students in Quebec are in the middle of what may become the country’s biggest series of demonstrations since 2012’s Maple Spring — and potentially the largest strike in Canadian history. Organized primarily by the province-wide student union Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, 66 local student associations — spanning 10 campuses and 55,000 students — have declared an indefinite general strike. A total of 102,000 students will join in on April 2 for the #manif2avril national day of action. More student associations will be holding votes on whether to join in the coming weeks.

    Camille Godbout, an official spokesperson for the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, or ASSÉ, told the Montreal Gazette this week, “We will continue to increase the pressure. We’re angry.” To date, the strike has included near-daily demonstrations around the province, many of which have been met with the liberal use of batons and chemical gas by police. An estimated 300 protesters were arrested or ticketed Wednesday night in Quebec City.

    In the budget unveiled yesterday, education is scheduled to receive just a 0.2 percent raise, which — factoring in inflation — critics say essentially amounts to a cut. Student unions like ASSÉ, one of many such organizations, have a robust history in Quebec, the province that features Canada’s highest union density. Nearly 40 percent of all workers throughout Quebec are union members, compared to just 11.1 percent of U.S. workers, as of January 2015. ASSÉ, which represents some 80,000 students throughout the province, was formed in 2001 out of the worldwide global justice demonstrations at the start of the century. Today, ASSÉ continues to maintain that movement’s orientation towards disruptive action, and commitment to democratic and decentralized organization.

    ASSÉ represents both university students, as well as those at the province’s CEGEPs, private and publicly-funded colleges that provide vocational education and preparation for university (unlike in the United States, where the terms college and university are more or less interchangeable, the two are distinct in Quebec and a number of European countries). Members of each university department are typically represented by a different local, complete with elected leadership and voting power in the union’s national assembly. The strength and dynamism of these unions is a large part of what has kept Quebec’s higher education fees lower than the rest of the country’s, and better funded by its government. Most recently, locals from various student unions came together in both 2005 and 2012 to protest fee hikes. The latter, which resulted in a several month strike action that won serious concessions from the government, has served as an inspiration for student organizers around the world.

    But Printemps 2015 — a broader effort that includes major labor groups and more conservative student unions — is also about much more than just tuition hikes. Rather, a collection of Quebec’s progressive and anti-austerity forces have come together in opposition to the new, belt-tightening Liberal Party budget introduced yesterday, as well as the province’s laissez-faire approach to fossil fuel infrastructure and exploration — exemplified, in part, by the government’s cozy relationship to the controversial Energy East pipeline set to transverse Quebec. In addition to Printemps 2015 and ASSÉ, The Red Hand Coalition has played a central role in coordinating this spring’s anti-austerity demonstrations.

    “It’s not like a student concern,” one Printemps 2015 organizer told Canadian news site Rabble, “it’s a social concern.”

    Cuts to education, now, are seen as part of a broader attack on Quebec’s social safety net, including healthcare and pension benefits, and a degradation of particularly working class Quebecois life. A kick-off demonstration, entitled “Popular Protest Against Austerity and the Petro Economy,” was held last Saturday in Montreal, and drew participants ranging from 5,000 to 12,000, depending on who was doing the counting. A host of public sector unions may strike on April 1, but are in negotiations with the government so as not to do so illegally. The National Protest on April 2 will be followed by an “Act on Climate” March in Quebec City on April 11, and a much larger social strike on May Day.

    However the rest of this new Maple Spring unfolds in Quebec, organizers in the United States and around the world would do well to pay attention.

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