It’s Been Done Once, It Can Be Done Again

Building on Quebec’s Inspiring Student Movement

photo Ion Etxebarria
photo Erin Sparks

Quebec’s student movement is on the move, once again. With thousands taking to the streets in Montreal opposing university tuition hikes and an estimated 50,000 students throughout Quebec joining a one-day strike initiated by L’association pour une solidarité syndicale etudiante—students are mobilizing.

Recent protests for accessible education in Quebec build on past successful, student-driven challenges to the Liberal government of Jean Charest. ASSÉ led a historic student strike in 2005, challenging Charest’s move to slash $103 million in student bursary funding in Quebec.

Tens of thousands took to the streets rejecting government cuts to education. Direct actions hit the offices of Quebec government ministers, building momentum for an ‘unlimited’ strike that eventually saw 170,000 students walking-out.

After months of protesting, the grassroots student strike built major political momentum that eventually forced the government to reinstate the full $103 million in cuts. Quebec’s student movement had pulled off a stunning political victory.

Today’s protests challenge government moves to hike tuition in Quebec at a time of economic crisis—$325 per student, per year over five years, starting in 2012. Current protests build on political gains won in past campaigns of Quebec’s student movement. Political action, such as the 2005 strike, is directly responsible for Quebec’s relatively low tuition fees as compared to the rest of Canada.

Moves to execute major hikes in post-secondary education fees will make university less accessible for the majority. Certainly, these increases will expand the growing income gap in Quebec society, as access to education is key to social mobility and any efforts to create economic equality in societies around the world.
It is incredible to consider the ruthless austerity economics in boosting tuition fees. They are expected to nearly double by 2017 under the current plan, in a province where the earning gap between the wealthy and the poor is at a 30-year high, according to a widely-referenced 2010 study by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques.

The comparatively low tuition fees in Quebec that the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec is lobbying so hard to raise are also linked to militant student protests in the 1990s.
A series of major actions, including mass student protests across Quebec in 1996 and thousands striking at Concordia University in the fall of 1999, led to another incredible victory for Quebec’s grassroots student movement—a near decade-long freeze on tuition fees in Quebec. Indeed, history presents a strong and clear challenge to any cynical claims that student participation in demonstrations or strike actions will not produce concrete gains for all students.
It is the grassroots determination to fight ongoing and often corporate-driven government attempts to unilaterally revoke the right to accessible education, on the streets and via direct action, that can lead to an accessible and community orientated student life in Quebec.

Within the current student protests, and especially highlighted throughout the 2005 student strike in Quebec, were strong voices for free post-secondary and university education. Calls were made based on multiple successful examples of free public universities across Europe, in Mexico and throughout the world.

As for claims that free public university education is impossible for governments to sustain, certainly this is a complex question. Nevertheless, a clear place to start securing federal funding in Canada today—and boosting public spending on education—is cancelling the absurd Conservative government move to spend multiple billions on military fighter jets.

Given the recent Concordia Student Union elections and the pro-student and social justice platform that won a majority vote, Concordia students are in an excellent place to join and participate in the current fight against tuition hikes in Quebec.

ASSÉ today represents 45,000 students in Quebec and is currently mobilizing toward mass protests for the fall of 2011. This is a mobilization that the CSU can directly support and join, and a mobilization that will likely decide the fate of the accessibility of post-secondary education in Quebec for the future.

Quebec’s 2011 student activism will have a major influence on university communities across Canada, a political battle that is certainly being eyed closely by increasingly corporate-minded university administrations coast to coast.

By the same token, Quebec’s mobilization has the potential to inspire students across Canada to take action and join the fight against a growing shift toward an American-style post-secondary system that moves university education out of the reach for the majority of students.

Beyond the campus, the key to contextualizing the grassroots power of Quebec’s student movement—and the sustained ability for student-driven protests to secure victories for accessible education over the past decade—are the organic links between student activism and broader social justice organisms in Quebec society.
Unions in Quebec, for instance, are joining the fight against the 2011 austerity budget. They are not only challenging rising education fees, but also obligatory health-care fees for Quebec residents introduced in 2010 and sustained in 2011, fixed to increase annually toward a $200-per-year flat tax by 2012. Students will also find immediate allies in trade union federations like Confédération des syndicats nationaux as they take to the streets next fall.

Certainly, the struggle over accessible education in Quebec over the next year points to key themes in a world of growing economic disparity. This is a fight for access to education on the streets in Montreal and throughout Quebec, but also across the globe.

This is a struggle against austerity economics that view our communities and our society in terms of a market economy. This is a fight for the dignity of all people to have the right to accessible education. This is a fight for the construction of viable social movements, and for a society driven by the principles of social justice, not corroded capitalist economics.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based community activist, musician and writer.

You can follow him on Twitter @spirodon. For more information on l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) visit

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 29, published April 5, 2011.