By Jessica Squires
The Quebec government has announced a “special law” to crack down on student protests—a law so draconian it is almost difficult to believe. But students and workers in Quebec are standing strong.
In the month since Socialist Worker last reported on the magnificent student strike in Quebec, still continuing despite repression after 14 weeks, a lot has happened. There have been failed negotiations; a Minister of Education resigned, and a new one was appointed; and now, the Quebec government’s bill 78 will bring about sweeping repressive measures against all forms of protest—not just student demonstrations.
In one fell swoop, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has evoked all the worst episodes of Quebec’s repressive past: the anti-communist padlock laws of the 1930s, the Duplessis regime, the War Measures Act of 1970, and the crackdown that ended the 1972 General Strike.
It is important to understand this development in the context of Quebec’s national liberation struggle. In order to reverse the achievements of Quebec’s quiet revolution of the 1960s, Charest has crassly appealed to right-wing populism, bringing about a return to the authoritarianism of the 1950s, with the help of other right-wing politicians, the police, and the neoliberal right including the corporate media.
To understand how we got here, we need to look back over the last fourteen weeks, and even before.
The strike against tuition fee increases was launched in mid-February in a Quebec in which the ruling Liberals were flagging in the polls. Despite this, speculation was rampant that there would be an election. It looked as if Premier Jean Charest was pinning his election hopes on right-wing support for a massive natural resource extraction deal called “Plan nord,” which would gut the north and its communities. Charest had barely survived several years of corruption scandals.
But his main opposition, the Parti Québecois (PQ), had also experienced a crisis. It may then have seemed to Charest that his best bet against the PQ was to find solid ground for his own Liberals before they could regain their strength, and before a new right-wing party on the scene, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), could fully find its feet.
Polls coinciding with the strike’s launch in mid-February gave two-thirds support for Charest’s plan to increase tuition fees 75% over five years (it is now 82% over seven years). The Liberals began to squeeze out CAQ and creep upwards in the polls.
Charest refused for nine weeks to sit down to talk with the students. Amidst escalating police repression, which resulted in two lost eyes and a coma, it seemed clear to many that he was counting on populist anti-strike sentiment to give him a boost for the election, which some thought he would call for the spring.
But Charest miscalculated. The movement continued to gain momentum. There were daily demonstrations across Quebec. Police repression was rampant. Some protesters began to break windows. Anti-strike students applied for injunctions from the courts, which were defied successfully by strikers.
Charest began to look like he was incapable of managing what was becoming a social crisis. The students called government bluff after government bluff. Repeated attempts to divide the movement or weaken it with half-measures to reform student assistance failed.
Finally, astonishingly, a desperate Charest asked public sector unions to help broker a deal. And finally, after eleven weeks, the government sat down to negotiate.
But the deal on the table was fatally flawed, because the government refused to talk about tuition fees—the main reason for the strike. The government had finally agreed to meet with students, but then manoeuvred them into signing a deal they did not agree to.
The student associations believed they had a deal they could work with that incorporated a kind of moratorium on the increases, but the government denied that was their intention. The deal was massively rejected, defeated in general assembly after general assembly. The strike continued, and it looked as if no further negotiations were possible.
Then, on May 14, Line Beauchamp, the Minister of Education resigned, saying she did not feel she was part of a solution. That same day the new Minister was appointed, Michelle Courchesne. She immediately asked for meeting with the students.
When they met, Courchesne told the students that no law was being contemplated to try to force students back to class. She was either lying, or wrong. On May 16 the government announced it was introducing a “special law”—of a type referred to in French as a loi matraque, or bludgeon law.
Upon adoption of Bill 78 on Friday, May 18, 2012, Quebec is now, in terms of democratic rights, in its worst situation since the War Measures Act of 1970. The Charest government is seeking to ban student strikes altogether—a tactic used by the Quebec student movement on a regular basis, and tacitly accepted, by administrators and government, since 1968.
The law is a direct attack on student unions, their right to organize, collect fees, and demonstrate. It imposes severe fines on anyone either organizing, encouraging, or participating in demonstrations on campus or within 50 metres of a campus, and anyone impeding access to classes.
Worse still, it requires all protest organizers, no matter where in Quebec or what reason, to notify police eight hours in advance of any gathering of more than 50 people. And it requires unionized workers to deliver classes, no matter the working conditions. It holds demonstration organizers responsible, legally and financially, for any “misbehaviour” by participants—effectively requiring organizers to police their own ranks.
The law has a sunset clause of just over a year, thus ensuring it will be in force during the next Quebec general election, which must be called between now and next spring.
But it is already clear that the people of Quebec, students in particular, are not ready to take this lying down. “When laws become unjust sometimes you have to disobey them and we are thinking seriously about this possibility,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of the CLASSE student union, during a media conference with all three major trade union leaders.
Unions were quick to denounce the law, as were the bar association and many other important social movement groups. Although it is now technically illegal to do so, some, including left-wing Québec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir have begun talking publicly about massively organized civil disobedience.
If Charest was seeking social peace through this law, or hoping to distract from the scandals dogging his administration, he is sadly mistaken. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on the evening of May 18, in the 24th consecutive night-time demonstration since a brutal police crackdown almost a month ago. The demonstrations, expected to continue daily across Quebec, have taken on a new tone: jubilant, determined, defiant.
Charest may be hoping the summer will cool things down. But Quebec’s spring shows no end in sight.
There is an urgent need for solidarity. The legal team of CLASSE has appealed to people across Canada to bring motions to local union councils, community organizations and neighbourhood associations against Bill 78 and for legal support funds. Solidarity against Bill 78, and demonstrations coinciding with the next mass protest on May 22, are the first step towards spreading the Quebec spring.
If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the talk “1972: when Quebec workers occupied”, with Gatineau activist Jessica Squires, and the panel “The 2012 Quebec student strike” with Quebec student organizer Xavier LaFrance, lawyer for striking students Sibel Epi Ataogul, and leading member of Québec solidaire Monique Moisan.