A Look Back at Maple Spring

Anna Kruzynski is professor at the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. Her research activity aims to help activists and organizations document, analyze, and reflect on their activism. In addition to her academic work, she is also involved with a variety of community organizations (la Pointe libertaire, Collectif de recherche sur l’autonomie) and social movements. She co-edited Nous Sommes Ingouvernable (We Are Ungovernable) about contemporary anarchism in Quebec, which was published in March 2013. 

GOTTINGER: Many people believed when the Quebec Liberal Party lost power in the provincial elections of September 2012 and the Parti Quebecois (PQ) came to power (the PQ immediately ended the tuition hikes and an emergency law that essentially criminalized protest) that the students had won. What was achieved by the protests that comprised the Maple Spring?

KRUZYNSKI: We can break the student movement and what has been called the Maple Spring into two phases. The first part is from February/March 2012 to the election of the PQ. The second part is from September until now. The balance of power was in favor of the student movements prior to the elections in September. All of the different student associations, whether they were more radical or more reformist, were all united in favor of a tuition freeze. Everybody knew that was what was going on. CLASSE was talking about free education as a long-term goal, but their demand was a tuition freeze. That was clear. [CLASSE was a temporary coalition of student unions created to stop the tuition increases. Its name stands for Coalition large de l’ASSÉ, ASSÉ. ASSÉ is one of Quebec’s more radical student associations.] 

This is one of the factors that contributed to the election of the PQ and to the loss for the Liberals, who clearly had an idAeological slant towards imposing user fees for public services. There wasn’t only the issue of tuition fees, but also fees for health, electricity, and public transportation. There was a general ideological shift that they wanted to impose on Quebec following neoliberal trends. For this reason they couldn’t really fold on the issue of a tuition freeze because it would have been fundamentally against their ideological position. I mean, they might have folded if there had been a really unbelievably huge uprising, but they were able to kill the uprising, to a certain extent, with Bill 78, which implemented major repression. [This bill suspended the university semester and made protests of larger than 50 people—not approved by the police—illegal. Infractions against the bill resulted in large fines for individuals and student unions.]

The Liberal party decided to take a chance and go into the elections. The general population wanted the crisis to be resolved and decided that the PQ was going to be the best government to resolve the crisis. At that point, when the liberals were not re-elected, we can say that was a victory for the student movement and the citizen’s movement that emerged from it. 

Since the election of the PQ, we’re in another phase. Historically, the PQ has had a completely different approach to politics than the Liberal Party. They don’t “force” their policies onto people. Instead, they bring all the actors together around the table. They’ll bring together the business community, unions, community organizations, and the social movements and they’ll try to come to “consensus” on unpopular policies. But this process is really just a public relations campaign and not a true consultation process. There’s no real deliberations that result in a collective decision. The PQ then comes out publicly with the results of the “consensus.” This process ends up creating a dynamic where some organizations feel that they’re on equal footing with the government. 

For example, on February 26, 2013 the more reformist student organizations—the FEUQ (Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) and the FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec)—ended up taking part in the consultation process (education summit on tuition increases). But instead of continuing to build a counter-power (students in the streets) as part of a conflict strategy, they decided to engage in negotiations. Of course, it’s the government that decides on the policies and the power dynamic between a government (PQ or otherwise) and a student association is clearly unbalanced. In order for the power to be more equalized, there needs to be some form of action in the streets. In this second part of the movement, the CLASSE coalition disbanded, but ASSÉ, which is the more permanent form of the organization, gave an ultimatum to the government and said, “If we’re not going to talk about free education we’re not coming to the summit.” 

So, they boycotted the summit and called for actions in the street. The spokesperson from the FEUQ ended up denouncing ASSÉ in the media because ASSÉ didn’t participate in the summit. This is something that the reformist student organizations like FECQ and FEUQ didn’t do during the Maple Spring. The movement during the Maple Spring was so large and there were direct actions going on every day that the more reformist organizations didn’t agree with, but they never denounced the actions publicly and maintained a front of solidarity. But then in the second phase they criticized the decision of ASSÉ to boycott the summit and that ended up contributing to the marginalization of ASSÉ. 

The student federations didn’t call their large number of members to participate in the street demonstrations that were planned during the summit. There were tons of actions planned. For example, there were teach-ins and demonstrations before, during, and after the summit. If they had called for their members to participate in the demonstrations, when FECQ and FEUQ were at the negotiating table they could say, “We demand a tuition freeze and look at all the people supporting us,” then they would have been in a much more powerful position. Instead there were hardly any people in the streets. There was one demonstration that had 10,000 people, but compared to the hundreds of thousands we saw in the spring, it was nothing. Some demonstrations had to be canceled because there was no one there. 

Because of this, the government was able to say, “There is no support for the more radical demand to freeze tuition and people want us to solve this crisis at this summit.” So the PQ imposed indexation (gradual tuition hike). In one sense, it’s not as bad as what had originally been proposed, but this indexation is an eternal hike. It’s constant increases, year after year. With the PQ proposal, tuition costs are going to increase significantly. I think that the FEUQ/FECQ misunderstood that in the system that we’re in where social relations are stratified one must always keep in mind that the government is not an ally. The government is your target, even if they’re pretending to be your friend. It’s still a conflict in social relations and it’s still about building power. It’s never going to be possible to sit down and negotiate on equal footing with the government. 

Was it a victory? I think we can look at many of the positive aspects that came out of the Maple Spring. First and foremost, even though the tuition hike was not blocked as was demanded, the increase will be less than what was originally set forth by the Liberals. In addition, there have been improvements to the loans and bursaries program, the creation of a “council on universities” to oversee governance, and the government has opened the door to a consultation process on fees that have been mushrooming in the past decade or so. But some of the most important gains were made on an organizational level. The movement has contributed to the politicization of youth, but also of the general population. The movement educated people on neoliberalism and public services, but also on democratic processes. Thousands of students had firsthand experience with horizontal, decentralized direct democracy. It has also enabled a building of power that can now be counted on for future mobilizations. 

During the Maple Spring, there were people taking to the streets in the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada defying Bill 78. Bill 78 made it so that you could no longer protest in any spontaneous way and that is something that is very foreign to Quebec policy. We can also mention the creation of the neighborhood popular assemblies. People began talking about how they could organize in their communities. It went beyond the tuition hike discussion into discussions about gentrification and other kinds of issues, which was quite interesting. There’s also the fact that lots people in Quebec have realized that the police force is not there to serve and protect. Many have realized that the police are part and parcel of the state, which is trying to control social revolt and social upheaval to maintain power even when a significant proportion of the population was supporting the student movement.

How has support for the student movement changed since the beginning of Maple Spring? Has protest fatigue set in? 

At the beginning of the movement there was a real effort by the state to marginalize the student movement. There was a period of time, for about a month, when all you would hear in the mainstream media was that the students were taking the workers hostage by disrupting the everyday functioning of the city. You would hear things like: “the students may be on strike, but they’re actually partying up a storm in Florida,” or “The students are complaining about the increase, but they all have iphones.” This was how the mainstream media was portraying the movement. This is part of the state trying to regulate itself. Before using repression, generally the state tries to marginalize protest. It was hard to gauge what the public was thinking during this time. But the students kept going and the movement kept getting bigger. On March 22, 2012 there were hundreds of thousands in the streets. It was 30 degrees and the whole downtown was completely blocked. There were families, elderly people, students, professors, artists, punks, and pretty much everybody. 

Clearly there was popular support in March 2012. From that point on, state actors realized they were going to have trouble marginalizing the movement and you started to see the increasing repression. With Bill 78, they were really trying to stop the movement from expanding. But with that bill people became outraged. Whether or not people agreed with the students and whether or not they agreed with their tactics of disrupting the regular functioning of the economy and the city, they felt that this bill was over the top. So, support for the student movement increased even more. 

That’s when you saw people banging their casseroles on their balconies all over Montreal in solidarity with the students. You would see people hanging the red square (symbol of the student movement) out their window everywhere you went. The bill made it so that you had to be 50 meters from a university building if you wanted to demonstrate on a university campus, and it also became illegal for professors to refuse to teach if there were only 1 or 2 students in their classroom. Prior to that it was up to the professors to decide whether or not they would teach if only a couple of students showed up. Our unions had been telling us, “if there’s less than 10 people in the class don’t teach.” After the bill, it became illegal for the union to tell us that and the fines for an organization violating the law were in the tens of thousands of dollars. There were heavy fines for teachers who still refused to teach and individuals participating in a picket. There were different levels of fines depending on whether you were an organizer or had some official position. 

This had an impact. People stopped organizing in a transparent way and started becoming more anonymous in what they were doing. The bill also suspended the semester. So, there was no more strike because there was no more session. It was a lockout. 

There were a few associations that were still on strike, but overall the student movement went on break over the summer. There were still meetings going on all summer organized by the more radical organizations in the movement. For example, anarchists would organize meetings to talk about the necessity of a social strike. Some of the other social movements were also talking about a social strike. The CSN (Confédération des syndicats nationaux), which is one of the major unions in Quebec, had a one day social strike mandate to use. It’s not much, but it’s important for a trade union in this context. They had a mandate voted in assembly, but they didn’t use it. Had the other social movements joined forces with the students when Bill 78 passed, the social upheaval might have gone to another level. 

In the Spring, I was doing workshops about the necessity of the social strike. People were very interested, but the social forces didn’t seize the moment. During the summer, things fizzled out. Then there was an attempt to rekindle the strike movement when school started at the end of August. After the PQ was elected, only a few student associations voted to continue the strike and even some of the most combative ones voted against continuing the strike. People were tired and some people had faith that the PQ would follow through on their promises. The current premier, Pauline Marois, who was the opposition at the time, was wearing the red square during the Maple Spring in parliament. During the election, the PQ said they would: overturn the tuition hike and the health tax, not increase electricity bills, and get rid of Bill 78. They ended up getting rid of Bill 78, but a few months into their mandate, they backed out of the other promises. 

Many people hoped that the summit on post-secondary education that the PQ organized would result in a tuition freeze, but the PQ just wanted to bring the groups together and calm things down. After the summit, there was even more demobilization. It’s really unfortunate because the conditions were there for the social movements to win their demands. Had the more mainstream federations remembered that the PQ are not an ally, but an adversary; had there been lots of people in the streets during the negotiations, then the demand to freeze tuition could have been won. 

Why do you think there’s this culture of protest in Quebec that is so different from the rest of Canada?

Here we have the legacy of the Nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The more radical elements of the nationalist movement like the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) are references for some in the current movements. There’s also the tradition of neighborhood organizing, which is very strong in Quebec, not only in the urban centers, but even in the rural areas where you have community organizations that started up in the 1960s and 1970s with the slogan Power to the People. They were about self organization, self determination, direct democracy and direct action. 

After the “Quiet Revolution” there was the founding of the welfare state. This was the direct result of everyday conflictual social relations between movements in the streets and the State. There were “welfare mothers” that were occupying the office of the administrator of Social Security for a week at a time. They were having soup kitchens in there. This was common practice. The same thing was happening for social housing. There were demonstrations, occupations, direct actions, and citizens committees. There was street organizing where each street had a committee and once a month the delegates from each committee would meet to talk about who needs a park, who needs what, how are we going to help each other in terms of urban development. There was a whole movement around cooperatives where workers were controlling the means of production. There was also a very strong Marxist-Leninist movement from the early 1970s to 1980, which had an incredible impact in the community organizations and unions in Quebec. They were organizing reading circles with Marxist analysis, which were extremely interesting. 

In the 1980s, there was a big empty period, a kind of political vacuum. In this period, the state started co-opting many of the local initiatives. For example, these kinds of initiatives where people were deciding with their neighbors to set up a daycare, a food co-op, a housing co-op, a people’s health clinic, and a people’s legal aid center, all of which were self-managed with the members being the users. But many of these were co-opted by the state. For example the people’s health clinics became CLSCs (centre local de services communautaires), the network of health clinics in Quebec, which is state funded. There’s only one people’s clinic left in Quebec (in the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood in Montreal), which is funded by the state, but still run by citizens. All the rest have become engulfed by the state. The same is true of the legal aid centers. The people’s health clinic and legal aid center in Pointe-Saint-Charles managed to hold onto its autonomy because of the strong activist history of the neighborhood. 

So in the 1980s, you had an institutionalization of the community sector. The same thing happened with the unions that happened everywhere else. The unions that had been combative in the early years became part and parcel of what we call the “co-management model.” Many unions worked hand in hand with state actors. This is especially true when the PQ is in power. The PQ, with its position in favor of sovereignty for Quebec, is more of an ally to unions that share those politics than the Liberals who take a federalist stance. Overall, from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, there was a calming down. Partnership, “cooperation” and “consensus” became the norm. Combative street politics and building counter-power became the exception. 

Then at the turn of the century, with the anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movement, we see a resurgence of combative politics and combative organizations in Quebec. In 2001, there was the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City with 34 heads of state discussing the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). This was a key moment for the resurgence of street politics in Quebec. At this point there were many huge demonstrations. There was 100,000 people in the street against the FTAA. Then, in 2003, there were hundreds of thousands of people in the street against the war in Iraq. There were these huge symbolic demonstrations with zero impact. It was as if the government didn’t even notice what was happening in the street. People were outraged by the war and the neoliberal measures and when symbolic demonstrations had no effect, they felt very demoralized. 

Then there was the World March of Women. In Quebec the women’s movement has played a big role in terms of what is going on now. La Fédération des femmes du Québec was the initiator of the World March of Women, which were huge. In 1995, you had the Bread and Roses March where 850 women marched from all over to Quebec City. This was the precursor to the World March of Women in 2000 when there were actions across the world and especially strong actions in Quebec. These women were marching against capitalism and patriarchy and they had specific demands. There was a grassroots movement that participated in neighborhoods and mass demonstrations. 

I remember on the last day of the march when Françoise David (who is now one of the members of the Quebec national assembly as Québec Solidaire and was president of La Fédération des femmes du Québec at the time) made a speech and there were huge crowds in the streets. She said, “The government is not listening to us and something needs to change. Either the women’s movement needs to decide to participate in civil disobedience and direct action or we need to create a feminist political party.” After that she decided to create the feminist political party. That’s when Option Citoyenne (Citizen Option) was created, a precursor to Québec Solidaire. Québec solidaire was the fusion between Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option Citoyenne. Option Citoyenne emerged out of contemporary social movements while the UFP was more of an old-style socialist party. Amir Khadir, the other Québec Solidaire member in Parliament, came from the UFP. Québec Solidaire came out of the social movements with this idea that we have to break out of the politics of demand to the politics of act. Their idea of politics was to form a political party in an attempt to take power to put into place another vision of society. The party really took off. There are feminists, environmentalists, unionists, and even anarchists in the political party. Also, during this time, the contemporary anarchist movement was gaining momentum. People were thinking about and experimenting with alternative political, economic, and cultural institutions. To paraphrase the preamble to the constitution of the IWW, we are working to build a better society within the shell of the old. 

What do you think is the next phase?

I think there’s something in the idea of reclaiming the commons and reclaiming public space as collective through direct action and creating alternative political institutions. This can allow space for people to deliberate and talk to their neighbors or their coworkers or their fellow students, or whoever and experiment with different kinds of political forms. This is in the perspective of the Chiapas Zapatista motto “walking: we ask questions.” Where, as we walk together, we deliberate and we experiment and we figure things out. We make mistakes and come up against obstacles, but then we collectively figure out new ways of doing things and as we do that answers to the big problems in our society will emerge. 

To me this is one of the most interesting ways to move forward. The logic is that as you try out ideas and practices you will engage those who are searching for alternatives. And through pollination of ideas more people get involved. As more people get invested, the alternative political, economic, cultural, social institutions gain power. In Quebec right now there’s a relatively large network of cooperatives. Within these Co-ops, people are controlling their means of production. It’s not a very huge phenomenon, if one compares it with places like Latin America, but more importantly, people are not necessarily making the links with the political sphere. Most people are not talking about how cooperatives are getting at the core of capitalism in terms of wage labor, production for profit, and other things. Without political intention, cooperatives remain a pimple in the grand scheme of things. And capitalism will move forward regardless of whether or not cooperatives exist.


Paul Gottinger is a writer from Wisconsin. This interview is an excerpt from a longer conversation on whiterosereader.org. Photos are from various Maple Spring actions.