June 26, 2012

In Quebec, school's out but not the class struggle

Student protest continued on Friday, making another big splash in two places cities at once.

J. Boyden

School is out of session. The students have returned home, leaving their close-knit campus life behind. Young people are in summer jobs – or searching for summer employment, as the youth unemployment rate in Quebec is still one of the highest in Canada. And so the English-language corporate media has a new line about what they`ve mislabelled the Quebec student “boycott.’ The spoilt brats have surrendered. The resistance is melting away.

Anyone who believes that line in Quebec was in for a rude awakening on June 22. That’s when another major demonstration rocked the streets in Montreal, quickly growing in size to become a rumbling, noisy human river running through the downtown. And at the same time, the largest mobilization Quebec City has seen during this five-month struggle also swept through the streets of the historic capital.

Still going strong

Crowd estimates placed the Montreal protest at over 30,000 people. Organizers in the student union strike coalition la CLASSE suggested the demo, or “manif” in French, was even larger. As temperatures on the sunny pavement quickly reached 30 degrees Celsius, street repair workers cheered-on the protestors, misting them in cool fresh water. The Quebec City manif stretched over four kilometers from the National Assembly through city streets.

Such numbers are no small achievement, coming as we enter the hot days when working people make good on long-dreamt of vacations. The rally took place on the Friday before a long weekend and St. John Baptiste Day, the national holiday of Quebec.

Imagine planning two mass simultaneous demonstrations on the eve of Canada day!

Quebec City struggle

The manif in Quebec City was particularly important because of a new restrictive bylaw passed by the City Council just four days before, echoing law 78.

Laval students and community groups quickly denounced this municipal regulation for “peace and good order” and organized a protest at council chambers. In video broadcast by news network RDI, the Mayor’s chief in staff shoves a protestor. The young man angrily storms out, bumping into a city councillor on his way. The police handcuff him directly afterward and charge him with assault.

Later police arrested 20 more demonstrators outside city hall.

The bylaw not only requires people to inform police of the place, the time and the route of any demonstration, but also forbids the presence of a crowd on public property between 11:00 pm and 5:00 am.

La CLASSE, correctly in the view of many left and progressive groups including the Communist Party of Quebec (PCQ) and the Young Communist League (LJC), is openly defying these measures and their pioneer, the repressive Law 78. The militant student union central has so-far refused to bend under this anti-democratic law which will hammer down onto the students in August. That’s when student’s return to police-state campuses where all strike action – even symbolic, like a poster – is illegal and subject to fines that are thousands and even hundred-thousands of dollars.

Labour’s activists support students

Resisting Law 78 also means refusing to submit protest routes to the police. And in this sense, the demonstrations on July 22, which refused to release such information, were another mass outpouring of civil disobedience. Judging from the labour flags in the Montreal protest, this view is held by more than a few trade unionists -- but not most of the top labour brass who sadly refused to promote the two demos because of their brazen defiance of Law 78.

When the Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ) called on the government to “stop making [anti-student] TV commercials and agree to meet with students and a mediator,” the president of Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL) Michel Arsenault quickly added “it is in the interest of all students, their parents and the general population to now find common ground before the conflict resumes with even greater intensity at the end of the summer.”

In a leaked letter to Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Ken Georgetti, Arsenault was even more direct about his fear of a struggle with “greater intensity.” The “radical wings are calling for a social strike and we do not believe this is THE [sic] strategy to be promoted for the moment,” he wrote in a message strongly supported and forwarded across the country by the CLC.

These QFL/CLC letters are attempting to stop financial and political support for the militant group CLASSE outside of Quebec. The letters show how two strategies -- broad popular mobilization and a class struggle approach, vs. a narrow electoralist and nationalist route (ie. voting for the Parti Québécois (PQ) – have come into sharp relief not just among the students but also labour.

It also shows the growing support for a general strike among labour activists.

The letters have engendered a rebuff from the left of the labour movement in Quebec and beyond. And the CSN, Quebec’s other major trade union central which is not affiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress, is now strongly ruminating of calling an Estate’s General – a mass all-Labour conference – to debate the tactic of a general social and political strike.

Legal battle begins

In the past month the student unions have also launched a legal challenge against Bill 78, supported by seventy labour, social, environmental and community organizations. Their first motion in the court was to “request a stay of execution” meaning until certain provisions of the law are studied in detail, it would not be enforced.

The student’s lawyer also argued that the government considers student organizations and their leaders to be like trade unions, attributing to them the same responsibilities toward their members, while denying them the same rights – ie the right to strike.

The law continues to be explosive politically. Even an elected member of the far-right CAQ party quit its ranks in protest of the CAQ’s aggressive support of the law. On the streets, reports are that police are only occasionally charging protestors under law 78. But it has emboldened the police who are acting as if they are enforcing a political mandate. Just consider these reports.

Political police

In early June, Mathieu Girard had the heart-wrenching experience of discovered his sister’s body, after she committed suicide. A well-known student activist at his school, Girard’s mother had heard rumors just a week before that the police wanted her son for allegedly releasing a smoke ‘bomb’ -- like ones used in paint-ball games – in the subway. She even phoned the station, but nothing came of it.

Instead, Quebec police swooped down on 19 year-old Girard with his mother and brother on Highway 20, en route to his sister’s funeral in the northern Quebec town of Chicoutimi. Letting the others proceed to the funeral, they dragged the student activist back to Montreal and charged him with mischief.

This kind of “psychological warfare” is accompanied by direct violence. Online broadcasters like Concordia TV have repeatedly captured police brazenly hurting student demonstrators. One You Tube with over 200,000 hits shows a Montreal police officer firing a rubber bullet at a protestor and shouting: “There! Right in the ass, y’little shit.”

A pacifist philosophy professor responded to this violence by joining the protests dressed in a giant panda suit. Now he has also been charged -- for wearing a mask, an illegal act according to a new Montreal bylaw. “The panda costume allows me to do things that I couldn’t do otherwise, like hug police officers, for example,” the professor told reports, saying the costume helped calm tense situations.

Preventative solidarity?

During the Grand Prix, there were also reports of fourteen-year old children arrested and held for hours without their parents being told, and young people insulted, manhandled, handcuffed and kept in the sun for hours by police just for wearing the red square.

One young woman was photographed, then detained and finally arrested just because she persisted in reading George Orwell’s 1984 on the subway.

This is known as “preventative arrest” when no criminal act has been committed or when no breach of peace is imminent. “What we are witnessing is the replay of the same police techniques [during the 2010 G20 meeting in Toronto],” the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said in a statement. “This conduct is excessive and illegal.”

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay have also taken up the issue. At the opening of a Special Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June, Pillay said she was “disappointed by the new legislation passed in Québec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly,” she was quoted by Radio Canada.

Meanwhile, NDP’s continued silence in Ottawa on this issue keeps getting louder. On June 20th, the Harper government moved that "This House recognizes the duly elected National Assembly of Quebec's right to pass legislation, such as Bill 78, within its areas of jurisdiction and in conformity with both the Canadian and Quebec Charter of rights and freedoms."

To proceed, the Tories needed unanimous consent – which some Bloc MPs and Elizabeth May from the Green Party denied. Did the NDP speak up? Yes, said at least one NDP back-bencher’s twitter – but that was rapidly corrected or, rather, muzzled. Then CBC’s Kady O'Malley quoted a high-ranking NDP MP saying his party not only supported but also helping to write the motion!

But sneakily using the national question as a pretext to trump solidarity between working people is an apostate distortion of the working class principle of equality of nations and internationalism.  Moreover we see how “flexibly” the ruling class treats their own Constitution – which technically says provinces can not write criminal law – in the context of a class struggle.

Red square alert

Back in Quebec, supporting the red square also seems to continually get people in trouble. When Fred Pellerin – an internationally known Quebec storyteller, poet and songwriter -- was awarded the Order of Quebec he politely turned it down.

While “touched, to say the least,” he said in an open letter, “They were going to pin a bit of brilliance to by jacket, in the name of the Quebec people. My people. But [...] I could not forgive myself if I were to celebrate and toast the honour of this people in the present context, while the very foundations of our democracy are being shaken.”

The Minister of Culture Christine St-Pierre replied that by wearing the red square Pellerin was associating himself with “intimidation [and] violence.” Within days, over 2000 key players in Quebec’s cultural milieu, in an unprecedented revolt, demanded a public apology from the Liberal Minister.

PQ on a roll?

On the other side of the Quebec National Assembly, the official opposition PQ have been emboldened after winning the Liberal stronghold of Argenteuil, an upset for the first time in since the riding’s creation in 1962. In the polls, they are in a tight race with the Liberals.

But when the same people surveyed were asked about Charest’s ability to establish peace and order, his rating goes up to 50%. “Having lost any moral authority, Charest has fueled the student conflict so he can step in and be the saviour of social peace,” one commentator said recently.

For student leaders this suspicion was confirmed when the Quebec Liberal Party’s electoral strategy became public.

“In light of recent Liberal documents that have surfaced, it would appear that the Premier’s strategy was to maintain tensions and encourage the spread of chaos all along” a statement by the FEUQ said. Charest “never wanted to resolve the crisis, but only to divide and conquer, at any cost,” they added.

The accusations weren’t dispelled by the revelation that the Quebec Liberal Party was trying to block a proposal by the Directeur général des élections du Québec to set up voting stations on campuses.
A ticking time-bomb also exists for the Liberals with the Charbonneau Commission on government corruption. But after hearing damning testimony of government links with organized crime, the Commission has now recessed for the summer, avoiding the political fall-out.

Liberate us from the 1%

In response to the Liberal’s “Teflon” resilience, some progressive nationalist voices have proposed an alliance of the PQ with a smaller nationalist break-away party Option Nationale, and Quebec Solidaire (QS). That strategy has been turned-down by QS, however.

“The student and social crisis that we’ve now been living for several months is an eloquent example of the ambiguities and contradictions in which the Parti Québécois is enclosed” spokes-people Amir Khadir and Francois David wrote in reply noting the PQ’s ambiguous and inconsistent stance towards the students and neo-liberalism in general.

In fact, Pauline Marois, leader of the PQ, took the occasion of the July 24 Fête nationale holiday to openly remove her red square and call for unity and harmony of Quebec society.

“The meaning of this political awakening and of this ongoing social metamorphosis resides, in our opinion, in the massive rejection of a system controlled by a minority that does not stop getting richer on the backs of the 99%” the leaders of QS wrote, adding that their party “is also convinced that only a social project can henceforth carry the national project” [and] “political propositions must be in synch with the progressive social movements.”

The letter is a welcome sign from a Party that has increasingly seemed to put the question of independence before class struggle.

La Presse writer Patrick Lagacé goes even further, saying that “The tectonic plates of Quebec society are shifting. Since the sixties, the dividing line was always that sovereigntist-federalist axis [...] This spring, a new dividing line is under construction, right under our eyes. The Canada- Quebec axis is being erased, a new one, a left-right axis, is taking its place.”

A sense of optimism

And what’s shaping up is clearly, in words of the popular slogan here, ‘a student strike, a people’s struggle’.
As writer Rick Salutin has noted, “any argument you can make against accessible post-secondary schooling, would apply in exactly the same way to high schools and elementary.” In other words, access to education is a class demand.

“In fact, during the last Depression, when high school still wasn’t widely available,” Salutin adds, “there were the same arguments you hear now about how we couldn’t afford it.”

What the government can clearly afford is fighting the students.

By then end of May the Charest government had spent over $800,000 to promote its position on tuition fees in a large-scale publicity campaign.  Then there are the additional police costs. Figures compiled by the FEUQ go as far as placing the cost of the strike at $104,000 per hour, which includes teacher pay, the costs of demonstrations to the city of Montreal, and additional expenditures on policing due to protests.

These costs far outweigh the revenue generated by the tuition increase.

Meanwhile, the first student who won an injunction to break the strike in his department and force his fellow students back to school – arguing that it was vital to have access to education for which he had paid money – has quit his class ironically saying that he needs to make spend more time working and saving up... for school.

For their part, the student federations have announced their summer mobilization will aim to turn the “malaise of Quebeckers” against the Liberal government in key ridings and summer festivals while the CLASSE, has decided to holding a series of major conferences across Quebec starting July 18th to discuss the way forward, and win students to continuing the strike in August.

So as summer heat’s up, it’s not the progressive students who seem to be tiring.

Or as la CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadu Dubois wrote recently, “Against all expectations, Quebec’s youth— hundreds of thousands of us—have accepted an historic challenge: defending social justice. It’s hard not to be optimistic.”

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