July 23, 2012

Marianne Breton Fontaine on the Quebec student strike

Rebel Youth shares here the speaking notes by Marianne Breton Fontaine and her contribution on the Student Solidarity Tour that reached out across southern Ontario campuses. Photo left: delegates from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the United Steelworkers join Quebec students at a major protest yesterday.

I was asked to speak about the context in which this strike was developed, because we cannot see the Quebec student strike in glass jar or, as we say in French dans une boulle de verre.

But if you are outside the strike and you just look at the corporate media, you could think that our strike is just the reaction of a bunch of spoiled students who do not want to pay even $1600 for their education – despite the fact that Quebec student`s pay less than in the rest of the country.

The front-page headline from McLeans magazine on June 4th presents that wrong understanding of the student strike very well: [The Quebec Student Strike.] "How a group of entitled students went to war and shut down a province, over $325."

Who are these students who want to keep such privilege in tough times!

The truth is that the student strike has arisen [...] in a very inflamed social and political moment. We are at the crossroads of many struggles right now across Canada.

Consider the Harper Conservative Budget, the Omnibus Bill C-38. [...] All these attacks together are what is being called austerity.

We are told that there is an economic crisis and we cannot afford any more social programmes that the people won, after struggle, in the past.

We are told the state does not have any more money.

This is exactly the message of the Quebec Bachand Budget, named after the finance minister who himself called it a radical change.

And it is also what people are hearing in Greece, Spain, Britain, and elsewhere.

But the economic crisis was not created by social programmes, or by the people.

To note one statistic, from the Montreal-based IRIS research group, in the last 40 years, Quebec corporations doubled their profits but paid four times less taxes.

Deeper than that there is a systemic problem, and I think we need to openly state that this is an economic crisis of the capitalist system.

We need to find an alternative!

The struggle of students is not just a question of having accessible education.

A few months ago, I interviewed Camilo Balesteros from the CONFECH – the Student`s Federation of Chile where the student have also mobilised in the street, with 300 000 gathering in the street of Santiago, fighting directly for free education, nothing less, and against one of the worst funded education systems in the world -- even high school is not free.

The Chilean students are now, for about a year and a half, in an ongoing series of strike and actions.

Camilo explained to me that their struggle could not be reduced to the demand of free education.

It could not finish there, and just let the government determine how to make free education happen.

It is a question of having the means to achieve free education.

So they struggled to change the Constitution to put the right of education into that document.

They also called for nationalization of natural resources, to have the wealth to pay for free education.

The Chilean students said these means that are needed to achieve accessible education are also the means that are needed to achieve the demands of other popular struggles.

By consequence, the student struggle is confronting directly the austerity measures and the social vision that austerity represents!

[...] Quebec students are not the only one to answer by taking the street.

The young people, internationally, have gathered great courage and risen up, redoubling their efforts to set aside their differences and fight together for a better world. Often fighting in more difficult situation than ours.

What is specific to Quebec is the combination of three factors:

First, the growing corruption scandals that have implicated the Charest Liberals (but also the Parti Québéquois) liking them to the Mafia.

Of course, corruption is not unique to Quebec, but the Liberal Party refused to have a public inquiry for over a year, despite a huge pressure from the public.

Secondly, the government has passed two austerity budgets forcing privatisation of public services, creating a Health Care tax of $200; reducing the envelop for the wages of public sector workers; promoting hazardous Shale Gas projects; initiating the in-famous Plan Nord economic development, despite the opposition of Inuit and First Nations communities and destruction of the environment; and of course increasing student fees.

And thirdly, the development of social and environmental movements by people’s forces to fight back against all those measures, like the Red Hand coalition built by student, labour unions and community organisation to directly to fight austerity.

This rapid increase in involvement by the people en mass in politics – beyond elections every few years – has scared the ruling class.
Take this statement from the president of the Employers Association in Quebec:
“Eventual elections will provide citizens with the opportunity to have their say in regard to the current debate and to decide the responsibilities of everyone involved. That is how democratic societies solve their conflicts and make their decisions - at the polls instead of in the streets.”
Stop mobilizing and just wait for the next election.  This statement is completely anti-democratic!

In fact in order to make gains, including at the polls, we have to go to the streets.

The anti-democratic Bill 78 was also put together in order to discourage any king of mobilisation, whatever it is the student themselves , or other organise groups like labour that would like to protest in solidarity.

It shows the fear of big business and the reactionary political parties faced with a population organising itself and defending its own social interests, because our struggle has opened the question of social transformation.

The student strike is by consequence, also a fight for democracy.

To stop this amazing mobilisation from the people, the Charest Liberal`s have tried to ignore the situation, hoping letting the movement will fall apart on its own accord; to intimidate, through legal injunctions, police violence and repression, and now Bill 78; and to divide the student movement.

To their credit, the two other student Federations have refused to negotiate without the CLASSE.
The Charest Liberal government, and its allies, has also tried to win the battle of ideas and convince the students and the rest of the population by saying that: a diploma is a personal investment.
According to this neo-liberal or big business logic, by paying more the student simply invests in themselves. In other words, a student becomes a product and education becomes a commodity, a privilege.
Instead of social solidarity, we have the atomisation of society – evacuation of all social aspects from education.
Can knowledge be a commodity?  Knowledge is perhaps the only thing – together with love -- that grows only when it is shared. The social tool for transmission of knowledge cannot be reduced to an individual investment.
In fact, there are two ways of viewing education.

What the corporations need, ie. a functional worker with a certain amount of training, or what the people want – education as a right.

Our public education system has developed out of this contradiction. Some people say – education is good for the economy. I would ask: whose economy?
Let me illustrate this point with some examples.
In 1966 the Parent Report fundamentally changed education in Quebec. For over a century the Québéquoise people had been second-class citizens in their own land.  We had higher unemployment, we lived in poorer conditions, we had poorer quality health care and higher rates of disease than the rest of Canada.
The majority of Quebecers did not know how to read or write. Except for some programmes in law and theology, we could not learn in French.
Education was dominated by the Church, women were not allowed in the vast majority of colleges, and there were few science and technical programmes.
But one the one hand the Quebec economy developed, and on the other hand people began to demand a better life.
The Quite Revolution exploded in Quebec society and at the core was the question of being ‘masters of our own house’ and French-language education.
An official commission was established and the resulting “Parent Report” secularized education and created the CEGEP system which is distinct from the rest of Canada, merging college with the last years of high school.
The Parent Report expressed diverging class interests at the same time.
The businesses needed a more highly trained workforce.
The people also needed to get out of the Dark Ages maintained by the ultra-right Duplessis government of the 1930s and 40s.
The Parent report proposed free education as an ultimate goal, to be achieved by freezing the tuition fees and reducing them when possible. The idea was to have the most accessible education system.
Quebec is today totally different. And our education system played a big role in our emancipation.
Free education would require less than 1% of Quebec`s budget and could be obtained by restoring the capital gains tax.
But the corporations do not want to pay the bill for education.
You can see this also with the report that just came out from the McGuinty Liberal government at the start of this tour proposing three-year degrees.
Are students over-educated? Maybe even with `unnecessary` degrees like philosophy or women`s studies?
Or do they have sufficient training to be employees – and the employeers, through tax dollars, will not pay for more?
I am reminded of another extreme example.
About a year and a half ago, I attended a conference in South Africa and met with a leader with the National Union of South African Students, which was an illegal organization under the apartheid system.
They told us that quality education was forbidden to the majority black population, and particularly for women.
For them, access to education could not be separated from their struggle for emancipation.
Education is freedom.
I personally think we have a lot to learn from the student’s of Cuba, who have won free education and demonstrated that there is an alternative direction, even for poor countries.
In closing, I wanted to say that your support and your red squares are very important for us.

Millions of people in Canada share our sentiment that education is a social good, it should be accessible, and it should be a right. Actually, a survey made by the Canadian Federation of Students showed that 83% of Canadians are for a freeze, and 37% for a reduction of fees.

As we go into August, we will continue to need your support – and your fightback.

Two lesson from the Quebec struggle might be important for you.

In Quebec the students have learnt a hard lesson in the power of unity. Over the past forty years, students hav ecollectively marched out classes eight times in a general strike.

While not all students hit the streets, so many acted together that, despite fear mongering by university administrations, they were not academically penalized.

All but one mobilization forced the government to back down.

But the one mobilization that did fail, in 1988, fractured the movement killing the l'Association nationale des Etudiantes et des Etudiants du Québec (ANEEQ).

The lines of communication between the Quebec student movement and the Canadian student movement were also broken, a unity based on equality and the recognition that the Quebec people were a nation, not just residents of another province, but that we had a common struggle.

We are rebuilding that solidarity now, twenty years later, and this tour is one step.
But coming back on the question of unity. Unity does mean to adopt the lowest position to make consensus, but to recognize our real opponents, to politically convince our potential allies, going beyond the campus.

And to get out of an economic discourse with demands that only speak to individual students.

By addressing the question of how to achieve free education, or even the freeze, we can outreach to other people’s demands and struggles, and grow the movement.

I think that even where the student leadership is reactionary, like the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, students on campuses can move into action if they can connect with the mobilization.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of Quebec is to have a plan of action of escalation.

The strike is the most powerful moral weapon the student’s have. But to get there, one day of action should be follow by another, then by an occupation, and a week of local action, a one day strike, etc.

It is militancy that won our current level of accessibility, not charity from the government. Victory through struggle is possible.

The Quebec Student Strike is not over $325, or $1600. It is not about numbers.

It is about what kind of future we have.

Ignorance, debt and more poverty?

Or bold, different direction that says education is a social right.

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