Anarkismo.Net: The History Of The Quebec Student Movement And Combative Unionism

In September 2012, shortly after the end of the largest unlimited general student strike in the history of Quebec, several class-struggle anarchist organisations in Canada along with a few local chapters of the IWW put together a cross-country tour to bring the history and experiences of the Quebec student movement to students and activists outside the province. Stopping in over a dozen cities from Toronto, Ontario to Victoria, BC, the tour brought a participant in the 2012 student strike to audiences in colleges and universities as well as union halls and various cooperatives. The article that follows is based on this conference. Special thanks to Jonathan from Zabalaza for editing help! Promotional poster for the 2012 cross-Canada tour on the Quebec student movement

The student movement in Quebec has recently written an important chapter in its history. The strike that was launched back in February 2012, against the latest hike in university tuition turned into one of the largest social movements in the province's, and perhaps even Canada's, entire histories. 

Of course, one of the interesting side-effects of the events of the last few months has been that news of the strike has spread outside the province, and many students and activists have taken notice. 

We're not only happy that our struggle has inspired hope among the left about the ability of social movements to fight back in this difficult context where the state and business leaders seem to reign unchallenged. But we're especially excited to witness the fact that the strike in Quebec has sparked debates across borders about charting a way forward for the student movement. 

Birth and early history of the student movement

The strike in Quebec didn't happen because we “just do things differently”. It didn't happen because there's anything inherently specific to francophone culture. If we want to help students and activists outside Quebec learn from our movement, we need to start by addressing the fog of “Quebec exceptionalism”. One way to do that is to talk history. It's an interesting starting point because right there, we've got something in common. 

We're all surrounded by the history of Kings, Queens, conquests and statesmanship. The elite's history. Quebec isn't any different in that respect. History of popular movement and resistance is overlooked unless it plays into the nationalist narrative of dominant political discourse. What the Quebecois student movement does have, however, is a strong tradition of sharing the legacy of student struggles. 

The birth of the student movement can be traced back to the mid-forties, not in Quebec, but in France. 

At the outset of World War II, a number of students, some with links to the anti-fascist resistance, sought to give a new direction to the national student organisation. The apolitical / corporatist attitudes prevalent among student groups at the time gave rise to an ambiguous relationship with the Nazi occupiers during the war and so as a response, these students took on the task of transforming the student associations of the time into real student unions, modeled after labor unions. 

In 1946, the National Union of French Students, or UNEF by its French acronym, adopted a founding document: the Charter of Student Syndicalism, later known as the “Charte de Grenoble”. It defines the student as a young intellectual worker with specific rights and responsibilities which ensue from this particular status. 

• Article 4: “As a worker, the student has a right to work and rest in the best of conditions and in material independence, both personal and social, guaranteed by the free exercise of syndicalist rights.” 

• Article 7: “As an intellectual, the student has a responsibility – to seek out, propagate and defend Truth which entails sharing and advancing culture as well as drawing the meaning of history – to defend liberty against all oppression, which constitutes, for the intellectual, his most sacred mission.” 

In its beginnings, French student syndicalism took off around concrete issues of decolonisation and the Cold War. Those who upheld apolitical student associations were confronted. 

Back in Quebec, the notion of student syndicalism didn’t catch on until the early sixties. At that time, student associations in the province were still apolitical and centred mostly around organising parties and providing student services. But in 1961, students in Université de Montréal, wanting to break with that tradition, wrote their own charter of student rights and responsibilities, inspired by the Charte de Grenoble. 

It was a new ideological paradigm. Students, as young intellectual workers, developed a new awareness of their role in society as a whole. They were no longer content to concern themselves with student issues. They started getting involved in worker's struggles and identifying with the working class. As a result, more and more student activists subscribed to the idea of building student unions that could not only provide services but also organise struggles and thus take an active role in shaping society. 

At the time, society was going through secularisation and the education system which was previously under the control of religious authorities came into the hands of the state. The old authoritarian reflexes of administrators and faculty weighed down on students' new sense of duty and responsibility. They wanted to participate in the important decisions that affected their institutions. The watchword became “student power”. 

Another important factor is that there was only one francophone university in Montreal, the Université de Montréal. It was elitist, expensive, and being perched up Mount Royal, was far removed from French-speaking working class boroughs in the city. Combined with the fact that the much smaller English community could count on two prestigious universities (Concordia and McGill), the sentiment of injustice would become gradually stronger. 

So around this fight to democratise access to higher education, students coalesced around new, militant student unions and helped drive the development of the syndicalist tendency. Combined with a general uproar in labour, feminist and nationalist struggles in society, the student movement quickly became a force to be reckoned with. 

In 1964, conscious of the need to co-ordinate the struggle, conscious of the need to build the financial and organisational tools required to maintain a permanent balance of power vis-à-vis the state, syndicalist students created the General Quebec Students’ Union, or UGEQ by its French acronym. 

Just a few years later, in 1968, as major students protest enflamed Europe, the upheaval crossed the Atlantic and reached Quebec. A huge wave of turmoil swept across the province and the fledgling student movement stepped in with the first unlimited general student strike in Quebec's history. Even though, in the aftermath of the strike, the government created a new public francophone university in Montreal, UQAM, along with the University of Quebec network and a brand new student financial aid program, the strike action was perceived as a failure. It was perceived as a failure simply because the result didn't come close to the huge expectations. Even though the revolt spread across countries and started to look like revolution in a few places, the social outburst eventually died down. That sentiment, shared widely among student militants, was about to have pretty dire consequences. In the following years, many local student unions were disbanded. The UGEQ, whose membership was based in the student unions, also disappeared. 

It's not that student activists were massively abandoning the struggle, but because they saw student unions as too bureaucratic. They felt unions held back student's militancy and the potential for radicalisation. In disbanding student unions and reorganising in smaller, radical political groups, they hoped to be able to build a truly revolutionary movement. Even though these critiques weren't entirely baseless, the decision to kill off student unions was made rashly and without hindsight. Unsurprisingly, the loss of the only structures and resources that could mobilise a mass movement led to a collapse of the entire student movement. As an added consequence, whole areas of student life on campus, which were built and under the control of student unions, fell into the hands of administrations. Obviously not everyone in the student movement saw all this in a positive light. It sparked a big debate in the student movement about which forms of organisation were needed. Only 6 years later would the movement recover. 

In 1974 the government announced plans to introduce university entry tests for francophone students. In response, a co-ordination of syndicalist student unions started organising for a new general strike. But the Liberal government wanted to prevent any reoccurrence of the events of 1968, especially on an issue it didn’t consider very important. Difficult negotiations with public sector unions made the prospect of a confrontation with students even less appealing. So it quietly retired its plans to introduce the tests, before the students got far ahead in the preparation of the strike. 

Since the government's reversal was announced as temporary, students decided to press on. The feeling of empowerment from an easy victory inspired them to expand the platform of demands of the strike to include improvements to the student financial aid program. The strike got going with just a handful of student unions, but it quickly got much larger. In total, forty institutions, Cegeps and universities, participated in the strike. Four weeks into the struggle, the government announced an important set of concessions and the strike came to a close. 

The success of that strike lead, the next year, in 1975, to the creation of a new, permanent, Quebec-wide, syndicalist student organisation: the National Association of Quebec Students, or ANEEQ. For the next twenty years, the debate between syndicalist unions and affinity groups was put to rest. By the time of the next large student mobilisation in 1978, ANEEQ eventually grew not into the main student union, but in fact the only student union and quite literally representative of the entire student movement. Most importantly, however, it remained true to its origins by actively promoting and developing rank-and–file control of student unions and combative militancy. 

The Parti Quebecois era

The Parti Quebecois won the elections in 1976. At the time it was definitively a progressive party. Most importantly for the student movement, its political platform promised to abolish student debt, enact free tuition and implement a “pre-salary” programme. It's no surprise: lots of activists in ANEEQ, and activists that experienced and organised the strikes in 1968 and 1974, were involved in the party. The election of the PQ to the government created a wave of enthusiasm among the entire left. Unsurprisingly, however, this enthusiasm was short-lived : the party's progessive platform was quickly shelved. 

By 1978, there was a rift within ANEEQ. On the one hand, the more radical activists wanted to start organising a general strike to try and force the PQ into implementing its own program. While on the other, you had activists loyal to the party, which defended a much more conciliatory stance towards the government, hoping to make progress on the issues by way of negotiation and dialogue. 

Though both factions were about equal in numbers, the radicals, mostly Cegep students, won a crucial leadership election. Just a few days later, a single rural Cegep student union launched a general strike. Their demands: the PQ's own elections platform on accessibility to higher education. The strike gradually expanded, though not as fast as the previous one. After about three weeks, thirty Cegeps and a handful of university faculties were on strike. As the mobilisation seemed to start dying down, the large UQAM student union entered the strike. Again, the government was forced into concessions during the strike. After two distinct announcements of improvements to student financial aid, the strike ended. As students started going back to class however, ANEEQ launched a campaign of occupations of MP offices. In a single day, six offices were occupied. 

With the positive results from the third general strike, a renewed feeling of empowerment helped consolidate ANEEQ's radical leadership. It remained as a symbol of radicalism and mass mobilisation until its very end. Advocates of conciliation and negotiation eventually formed their own, separate organisations. 

In 1981, that happened when RAEU and the FAECQ were born. As brainchildren of PQ activists whose party held power, the new student unions were rapidly integrated in to the state's apparatus. Amazingly, they were also hostile to any form of mass mobilisation. Their rallying cry was “the strike, never again!”. 

The 80's opened a gloomier chapter in the history not just of the student movement, but for the left in general. It was the era of the post-referendum, crisis inside the PQ, the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, the dissolution of revolutionary groups and difficult battles between the labour movement and the PQ's Rene Levesque government. 

Internationally, Reagan and Thatcher ushered in the age neoliberalism. The welfare state was on its way out and policies of privatisation and massive cuts in social spending became the order of the day. 

The austere eighties and the downfall of ANEEQ

In Quebec, the Liberal Party succeeded the PQ in 1985. Under pressure from their youth wing, however, the Liberals promised to maintain the freeze on tuition fees. This regime change was bad news for the RAEU and the FAECQ, whose bodies were entirely controlled by PQ activists. Both organisations eventually collapsed into irrelevance. The next year, in 1986, the education minister declared that the tuition freeze should be abandoned. He went as far as saying there were “twice too many university students in Quebec”. 

A few months later, ANEEQ, after a campaign of general assemblies and a 5000-strong demonstration on parliament hill, launched a general strike. The main demands, issued by GA's and adopted in a congress of ANEEQ members and non-members, were to force the government to promise to maintain the freeze, to dump university ancillary fees and again to improve student financial aid. Just two weeks into the strike in which about 25 unions participated, the education minister came out with a promise to maintain the freeze until the next election and temporarily abandon ancillary fees at UQAM. On the issue of student financial aid, he promised a series of meetings with students, in which the demands would be “considered”. 

While the student unions decided to stop the strike, at least temporarily, a number of occupations of government buildings were organised the following year to keep up the pressure. Months went by and the negotiation meetings promised by the government didn’t produce any results for the students. So as a response, ANEEQ launched a call for a new general strike to try and materialise their demands for improvements to student financial aid. Unfortunately, the 1988 student strike never took off. 

The Liberal party went on to be reelected, and in 1990 they announced a huge tuition fee hike, bringing them from $500 per year to more than $1200. At the same time, it gave universities the power to increase these fees by u

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