yes we canada: the student movement in québec

1 05 2012

Ollie Sutherland argues that students in the UK have much to learn from current anti-fees protests in Québec

One cannot help but contrast the current, powerful student movement in Québec, Canada, to its counterpart in the UK. It was considered a big deal when in November 2010 we had roughly 100,000 (who came from around the country) on the streets of London, whose population proper is roughly 8 million. In comparison, 200,000 turned out for recent protests in Montréal, whose population proper is roughly 1.6 million (and only 3 million in the wider urban area).

Both events were provoked by a hiking of tuition fees – in the UK a 200% increase to a whopping £9,000 a year, in Québec a 75% increase to £2,400 a year. This is not to mention Québec’s tuition fees were, and with the increase, are still lower than the North American average. This is in contrast to the UK, whose fees of £3,000, before the trebling, were already much higher than the European average.

Unlike in the UK, in Québec, after the large demonstration, most of the students did not just head back to university. The movement is a full scale student strike, which has lasted so long now (nearly three months – since 13 February), that it’s likely most will have to retake the university year due to tuition time missed. This difference in tactics is important: those in Québec recognise a large demonstration showing how upset or ‘angry’ they are will not force a benevolent, democratic state to reconsider. What’s needed is a serious disruption to the status quo, the working day, the operation of capitalism: a prolonged strike, until the state and the capital interests that run it concede.

Disrupting the operation of capital is exactly what the students have attempted: radical students have four times succeeded in blocking the port of Montréal for a few hours (22 March, 28 March, 5 April, 10 April). This was done by blocking the roads to it, some activists using the same black-bloc tactics activists in Oakland used a few months ago. Hundreds blocked the entrances to the main office of the government-run corporation for the distribution of alcohol in the province. Activists unleashed a plague of locusts into classrooms of the city’s main business school which required professional exterminators to contain. Daily, students block major roads across the city. These actions have been limited to a select few militants, yet the fact they’ve even happened, and their persistence, is deeply encouraging. Activists have vowed to keep disrupting economic life until concessions are won. Solidarity with workers has been present: thousands of students joined a solidarity protest together with Rio Tinto steelworkers facing a lockout, while students joined fired Aveos airline workers in Montréal city centre protesting job cuts.

Activists have not shown any hesitancy to target the state, too. Back in January hundreds blockaded the entrance to the Ministry of Education’s building. A few weeks ago, hundreds blocked the entrances and occupied the offices of the CEGEP Federation (Québec’s equivalent of the Russell Group). Some, confident from the hitherto success of the strike, have even gone as far to tackle liberation issues: disrupting government meetings – one of the homophobic and racist Québecois immigration minister for those stances he holds, and another which was planning to sell off indigenous North American land to private energy companies.

Under Québecois law it is illegal for students to strike, yet it is legal for workers: hence what the student strike represents is a recognition students too are workers – people who have their labour exploited. We should pay attention to this – the efforts of the strike to link with the wider working class struggles against capital. It is indeed a pleasant surprise, given many students’ lack of interest in the UK anti-cuts movement, or even hiked tuition fees for future entrants, that will not affect their ability to get a degree and thus enter a high-pay job. (Of course, the current amount of graduate jobs is not infinite, but this is still the reason why many that go to university choose to do so, and certainly why they studied hard to get into ‘better’ universities – ones whose qualifications will open more doors).

However, it is also the apparent impossibility of successfully resisting cuts that drives apathy. Seeing no successful fight means people cannot even conceive of and hence consider engaging in anti-cuts activism. This issue is essential; for example, in my university, it was how (and thus why) many wealthy middle-class kids got into the anti-cuts movement: the occupation of a large, prominent space in the university gave a clear possibility to fight cuts, hence many who would otherwise be apolitical got involved. In Québec, the clear possibility of action, aided by the support of many of their teachers, got the kids involved, and the success of said action has meant the movement has not lost any significant momentum.

I don’t want to discredit the genuine hard work of many in the UK student movement. But it’s vital we look to Québec and see what a real struggle looks like. It’s vital we ditch the pathetic National Union of Students bureaucracy and any bourgeois fantasies about an accountable, democratic government. This call comes at the time when activists at the annual NUS conference are fighting just to get the NUS to call a(nother) national demonstration. Unfortunately, the only demonstration this may turn out to be is one showing that we cannot revive the movement we had in 2010; let’s hope the same will not be the case in Québec.

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7 responses

2 05 2012
Timus

I agree that one of factors that have damaged the student movement in the UK is engaging with (and creating) bureaucratic structures, like the NUS. I can’t see that this is the only cause though. For one thing, we made a massive strategic error by focussing solely on the vote in parliament about tuition fees – there was no real analysis about what we would do if the vote should pass, and thus the movement inevitably fell apart. For another, there was a tendency among uni students to ignore the contribution of school/college students, despite the fact that they were taking the biggest risk during walkouts, and despite the fact that in many cities they were the most numerous group on protests.

Since the school students were younger and had less public space to air their views from (e.g. occupations, ‘official’ student organisations, etc), this meant that the issues they cared about were sidelined. If you counted the placards on an average march in Bristol, you’d probably see more about EMA than tuition fees. Yet the tuition fee issue was the one that was pushed to the press, regardless of all the others. In my opinion, this lead to the alienation of younger people from the organised protest movement (which was possibly a factor in the dis-organised riots movement that emerged later in the summer). This focus on tuition fees probably also alienated university staff, as it was other aspects of education reform that would effect them most.

Finally, we failed to build any real structures for our movement to organise through. At my university, our occupation group did nothing to build links with schools/colleges in the area. We also had no solid contacts with the other occupations around the country. This meant that we had to rely on the NUS and the institutional left (such as the NCAFC and EAN, both of which appear to be dominated by different socialist groups), for organisation. We did, however, manage to start organising with the staff union, a relationship which has been slowly flourishing over the past year. If we had built some real organising structures in our movement, I think it might still be fighting today. The lack of analysis and preoccupation with big, London marches is a symptom of the real problem – that this movement is no longer a self-led, grass-roots movement, but rather is becoming a tool for political and vanguardist parties.

Organisational structure need not be complicated, bureaucratic, or even formal. If we had simply established better email contact between the occupations, we could have done a much better job of sharing resources and organising. This contact between universities could have done much to facilitate discussion and organising after the vote on fees had passed. At the local level, we could have done a much better job too – making contact with other schools and colleges in order to form permanent links would have been much easier when we were all united behind a similar cause, and going on the same protests. I think the student movement in the UK can rise from the ashes, but to do so we will need to let go of the desire to take positions of power in the NUS, start building informal relationships between campuses, and get involved in the hard, slow, invisible work of grass-roots organising.

2 05 2012
Mark

Thanks for the comment Timus.

My experience of ‘student politics’ was a weird one.

Going to university is a process that changes young people dramatically and definitively, this of course includes their political views.

In my first year I was practically a Palestine nationalist and lead a rather fun but also silly occupation during Operation Cast Lead. This was mostly a group of my friends and the SWP, who were still trying to recruit me.
Following this I half-heartedly stood in uni elections as a revolutionary socialist and got a NUS delegate position.

I decided to start calling myself some sort of communist after talking with a member of the CPGB but decided to join the commune after my first year.
At the beginning of my second year I was part of a rather fun and useful postal strike support group at the neighboring uni. Cuts came to my university a year early but without the national spectacle very few students were interested. Outside of mind-numbing anti cuts meetings I printed off trade union posters urging support workers to vote for strike action and stuck them around the university.

My third year was the year of Millbank, I know this is a traditional complaint but looking back I felt the problem was that students who waned to fight the cuts identified too much with their local and well meaning SU officers.

During my experience, the ex-poly that I went to was traditionally less political than the main university next door. I made the argument at an anti-cuts meeting that both SU anti-cuts groups should merge (not a radical proposal) people nodded their heads in response but the SU officers opposed this. They were able to win support for this by saying we didn’t want to be ‘swallowed up’ by the other larger anti cuts group.

I myself did donkey work for the SU (ringing contacts at the SU to ask them to come on the national demonstration and was the only person who took minutes to actually produce them). After Millbank the main university held a meeting and I had to stand outside in the hall as it was that packed, however there was no imagination other than more demonstrations and lobbying.

What you say about college students is correct. In Manchester they formed the majority of demonstrators. I leafleted the local college once (think it was with a leaflet from libcom.org) but again the only perspective was for another demonstration.

In third year students are also more busy as uni work and dissertations matter and I had also decided that as a students socialist education was important and I was involved in a reading group.

The AWL has just produced a report of NUS conference like it is something important. Apart from calling for national demonstrations, NUS is completely irrelevant and students do not even realise that they are members. When I went I was still an independent, it was fun to heckle and meet other left wingers but that was it.

Sorry if all that was irrelevant but what I was trying to show that for most people uni is just three years, they socialise in the first, might get involved with politics in the second and then study in the third. The exception are those who become academics or get elected to an SU position.

I think you are on the right lines, people need to stop identifying with their SU and make contacts with disgruntled workers – I briefly attempted this approach with a communist newsletter for the university (I think this was the best political activity I have ever done) but it was ‘suspended’ by the CS group I was in as they did not feel it involved enough people – http://thecommune.co.uk/tag/the-educator/

Hope this comment was of some worth.

2 05 2012
Ollie S

Timus – the focus on the parliament vote, as I alluded to, was why the movement’s potential was limited from the start: the framing of the movement around a democratic state etc. While the lack of attempts to build a movement were important, part of that is material, ie the fact it’s not easy to build clear and powerful organisational structures out of nowhere. If there’s a way in, that will make it easier for people to get into it – ie with the example of my university.

The fact students – HE and FE – have such little tradition of struggle is also a really important issue. I myself went to FE colleges trying to mobilise kids, but there’s not much you can do besides encouraging them to walk out. They clearly feared and had no idea how to deal with the school management – unlike say, kids in France or Italy (or indeed Canada atm). Building that confidence takes time at any rate, and of course lots of hard grass-roots work (nice quote from Howard Zinn here: ‘And to look at history and understand that when change takes place it takes place as a result of large, large numbers of people doing little things unbeknownst to one another’).

Mark raises a good point about the conditions of university – ie people’s activity limited by what year they’re in, also by the fact they’re only there for three years. Organisation and structures will inevitably be hurt if activists have to leave the university/leave town (when they graduate).

In other news: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83SLtpBiJjg (‘Run Motherf*ckers, run!)

7 05 2012
Y en eso llego Fidel...

I take issue with your view on the NUS, whilst I acknowledge they’re a bunch of new labour careerists its worth noting that we ignore them at our peril. The NUS has access to a plethora of resources for organising and also encompasses all students, their demos were FAR bigger than the one on Nov 9th organised by EAN, NCAFC etc. Whilst it was relatively successful it was only organised by militants meaning it wasn’t a genuine mass demo unlike the huge NUS ones that had not only radicals but also otherwise apathetic students. The NUS is a bureaucracy but we bypass it at our peril.

7 05 2012
Ollie S

Well those demos were big more because people thought they could win/pressure parliament not to vote for the hike. The NCAFC ones were weak not because they were independent of the NUS but because by that point people thought the battle was already lost (especially as the anti-cuts movement had been really weak that past year).
But demonstrations being the focus of the movement is exactly the problem with NUS – because it’s made of careerists, they’ll be willing to hold a civil protest, but nothing more than that. That won’t change government policy. When it comes to more direct action, which challenges the state more than feeble protests, they refused to defend protesters.
We should work within and without the NUS, ie use its financial resources but not get sucked up into its reformism (the latter can happen surprisingly easily). It doesn’t really have links with all students (many for example would ignore its emails)…to get people involved we need to build networks on university campuses. Ie, the occupation at my university that got many previously apolitical people into lefty ideas/ideas of a different way to organise society. NUS-sponsored big protests are less likely to politicise people than real grassroots local action.

9 06 2012
Ollie S

Surprising they haven’t yet won significant concessions. I think this is in part due to the weak main slogans of ‘Non a la hausse’ (no to the increase/fee rise) and ‘bloquons la hausee’ (Let’s block the increase/fee rise). They should be against tuition fees in general, not against just an increase.

8 01 2013
Ollie S



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