On 13 February 2012 an indefinite student general strike in Quebec against an increase in tuition fees began. This now involves nearly 200,000 students from universities and CEGEP (“collège d’études générales et professionnelles”, an intermediary level of education between secondary school and university).
A fee rise of $1,625 over five years is planned — a phenomenal increase on the current $2168 per year. The stated intention is to raise fees to the Canadian average of $4,000 per year. Quebec currently has the lowest tuition fees in North America.
The fee hike was part of the Liberal government’s 2010 budget which included measures aimed at destroying, step-by-step the social conquests of the Quebecois working class, such as increases in charges for electricity, and a health tax of $200 per person, irrespective of their income.
The student movement has developed rapidly with demonstrations growing in size, some of which ended in confrontation with the police.
On 7 March one student, Francis Grenier, nearly lost the use of his eye. Students and supporters were enraged and the movement was galvanised.
On Sunday 18 March I attended a family demonstration with 30,000 people in Montreal. Thousands of others marched in Quebec and Sherbrooke.
On 22 March more than 200,000 participated in a national demonstration in Montreal — one of the biggest political demonstrations in the history of Quebec and even of Canada!
14 April saw the “Quebec Spring” demonstration.
There were then a succession of demonstrations and diverse actions: blockades of bridges, roads, occupations of ministries, and so on.
On 26 April a demonstration which I was part of was declared “illegal” by Montreal police. Nevertheless thousands continued their march, braving the orders of the police and winning an important symbolic victory.
The government turns a deaf ear to student demands and projects demagogic, profoundly dishonest propaganda about students who do not want to make their “fair contribution” to save the education system and rebalance public finances! This is revolting, coming from a government which has had many scandals and does not hesitate to lavish gifts upon big businesses, while imposing austerity measures on the working class!
In Quebec the struggle for access to education has always been an integral part of the struggle against national oppression — e.g. during the “Peaceful Revolution” of the 1960s which saw the modernisation of Quebecois society. The under-education of the French-Canadian people allowed Anglo-Saxon capitalists to create an easily-exploited reserve of cheap labour.
To conserve social peace the Quebecois political class, from the the nationalist Parti Québécois to the federalist Parti Libéral, kept university tuition fees frozen between 1994 and 2007 and before that, from the 1960s until 1990. With economic crisis, the liberal government has decided to go onto the offensive.
The two principal leftwing parties in Quebec, Québec Solidaire and the new independence party Option Nationale, gave their support to the student struggle and are in favour of free education from nursery to university.
This demand is defended vigorously by ASSE (Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), a combative student union which is in large part the instigator of the current strike movement. In order to unify the the student movement ASSE has set up CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante – broad coalition of ASSE.)
Free education at all levels is a fundamental demand for every socialist and democrat. Under socialism, the right to accessible and free education will be guaranteed to allow everyone to learn in a manner convenient to them and to constantly perfect their knowledge and skills.
The struggle of the Quebecois students is an integral part of the struggle for social justice and for the creation of an alternative to the cuts agenda and austerity budget imposed by the bosses and their political parties.
• Demonstrate outside the Canadian High Commission to denounce police attacks on Quebecois students! 5.30-7pm 16 May, Canada House, Trafalgar Square, London.