May 24, 2012

Debunking myths about the Quebec student strikes

Denise Martins, right, at an interview with members of Concordia TV.

Denise Martins
Reprinted from the Ontarion

May 22 marked the hundredth day of student strikes in Quebec. The following list of myths and facts will hopefully uncover the truth behind the recent student demonstrations.

I recently spent three days in Montreal with a group of student journalists working around the clock to learn more about the truth behind the strikes.

Quebec students have nothing to complain about because they have the lowest tuition fees in the country.

This is one of the most propagated myths of the strike. The fundamental flaw of this myth is its failure to analyze why Quebec fees are so low. The freeze in tuition fees, along with many other victories, are the result of mass mobilization on behalf of the student movement. A ten-year freeze was won in 1996 through a student strike in Quebec, and an attempt to convert student bursaries into loans in 2005 was stopped the same way. Students in English-speaking Canada have long been able to point to the Quebec model of accessibility where students graduate with a debt a fraction the size of those in other provinces. The erosion of Quebec students’ right to education will hurt our ability to demonstrate that alternatives are possible.

Bill 78 is a desperate attempt on behalf of the Charest government to bring peace back to Quebec.

Bill 78 was passed in Quebec’s National Assembly (provincial parliament) on May 19 supposedly to end the “unrest” that student protests had caused. The bill demands anyone seeking to organize a protest of more than 50 people to first seek the approval of the local police at least eight hours in advance. The request to protest must include route of the rally, amount of people expected to participate, and duration. The police reserve the right to deny a request to protest, thus potentially making any protest illegal. Furthermore, the bill illegalizes any form of student demonstration within 50 metres of the outer limits of post-secondary institutions. This can practically illegalize any actions in Montreal since the city is full of post-secondary school campuses.

Bill 78 does the opposite of maintaining peace. This bill gives the police practically unlimited power to make any unwanted protest illegal. Calling a protest illegal and criminalizing the 20,000+ students that continue to march the streets every night despite police repression has only added fuel to the fire by shifting the discussion from a tuition fee freeze to one about civil liberties.

Students are not workers and therefore they cannot strike

History has shown students winning through strikes all over the world. To deny this fact is to deny history itself. The strike cannot be termed a “boycott” since education is not merely a commodity that one can choose not to purchase, it is a public good that must be protected. Boycotts are usually individual and relate to not purchasing something. Students presently on strike in Quebec have collectively decided to strike, and all pay their tuition. It is not a traditional labour strike, but it is definitely not a “boycott.”

The Quebec government has no other choice but to raise tuition fees.

Through its actions, the Charest government has made it very clear that the tuition fee hike is no longer about available funding, but the political choice to privatize post-secondary education.

At most, the complete funding of post-secondary education in Quebec (i.e. the complete elimination of all tuition fees) would cost $700 million. This number may seem extravagant out of context, but in one year alone, the province of Quebec handed out $950 million in tax cuts to the rich. Moreover, the proposed raise in tuition fees totals only $216 million.

Policing cost will soon exceed the revenue that would be created by the tuition fee hike.

The police only attack when provoked.

This myth could be extended to mean that the police only attack when they feel threatened. The fact is that in Quebec, as well as in any other rally, the police’s job is to retain an intimidating demeanour, and when they realize that their mere presence fails to scare people enough to cause a demonstration to disperse, they use more perverse means to disperse crowds.

For example, after a night of rallying, the group I was with decided to call it a night and discuss the events we had seen in a bar. However, when the rally turned into the same street as the bar, it was the police that pepper sprayed people in two different bars (including our own), not the protesters. At this point, the police had no interest in dispersing the crowd as they blocked both sides of the street. We were able to flee the scene through the back exit of a local bar.

The strike is anti-democratic. Students that want to go to class are being prevented from their “right to education.”

In order to be able to strike, every student group has had to hold a strike vote at its general assembly. At these assemblies students raise concerns, amend clauses and vote on striking. The decision to strike was reached in a democratic fashion and each organization determined its own terms for striking. Some associations voted to strike for a few days; others are on unlimited strike until the government agrees to freeze tuition. Many held weekly strike votes where strategies were discussed and some added clauses like striking only once 100,000 students had joined the strike.

Whatever the terms for striking, decisions were made in a democratic fashion. The proper way to defy a strike is by taking it to a general assembly and voting the strike down.

I can sympathize with students that have democratically voted to strike being annoyed that their classmates dismiss the democratic process. However, the instances of preventing students from going to class are few and far between though each one is heavily reported on.

You break the law you go to jail. It’s only fair.

Since the incarceration of tens of thousands of people is virtually impossible, Bill 78 is simply an okay-go for the police to do as they wish. A recent online picture petition shows the faces of thousands of protestors saying they will disobey the law.

Many lawyers have come out and said that the new law is in fact illegal and that it would be defeated when it is taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. However, this process is tedious and in the meantime, police repression will continue to be a factor of any student demonstration. Even before the law, arrests connected to the student strike were more numerous than the G20 or the FLQ “October crisis.” This is the most widespread and prolonged use of police repression in Canadian history.

Quebec students are more militant. This is a culture unique to Quebec.

From impoverished countries like Cuba to rich ones like Germany, free tuition has been achieved. Students all over the world have fought to create conditions for accessible education. Quebec happens to be the most recent, powerful, and local example.

If it can happen in Quebec, it can happen in Ontario.

If you are interested in seeing Quebecois students in action yourself, Concordia University Television (CUTV) broadcasts every rally live. Tune in any night and judge for yourself at

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