Printemps 2015

EXPLAINER: Will Quebec’s student movement opt for a spring strike or a strategic fallback?

Government threatens to expel ringleaders as Quebec student movement debates the future of their strike
Alex Bailey

There’s a lot going on with Quebec’s student movement, including a divide over tactics and new threats from the education minister, who seems to have picked up a strikebreaking guidebook from the 1950s. Let’s get into it.

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Is there still a strike? Why am I hearing that it’s been postponed until the fall?

Traditionally there have been two poles of the Quebec student movement: on the one hand, the more radical and democratic ASSÉ, and on the other, the more bureaucratic and Parti Québécois-connected student federations FECQ and FEUQ. Now the federations are on life support, after being politically sidelined in 2012, then tarred with the PQ brush when both organizations’ 2012 leaders ran for that party, and most recently losing the University of Montreal’s student association, FEUQ’s largest and most influential member.

Into that vacuum has stepped the Printemps 2015 organizing committee, an autonomous and informal student association active at the grassroots in many ASSÉ and independent schools. The committee is calling for an immediate social strike. ASSÉ has mobilized for a limited strike, notably on Apr. 2, whereas the schools currently on unlimited strike are largely aligned with the Printemps 2015 movement.

A strategic withdrawal to prepare for an unlimited general strike this fall in concert with public employees is no defeat.

In a proposed strategic plan set to be discussed at this weekend’s ASSÉ congress, the organization’s executive advocates for ending the current unlimited strikes, arguing it is “highly improbable” they will survive until the fall. The document argues that public sector unions likewise affected by austerity will be in a position to legally strike in the fall, and a strategic withdrawal to prepare for an unlimited general strike this fall in concert with public employees is no defeat.

In an emotional appeal entitled “ASSÉ didn’t build the spring,” Printemps 2015 organizers argue for students to disregard the institutional leadership’s calls for moderation and seize the momentum already built, momentum that could be difficult to replicate. While many in the student movement agree with ASSÉ’s strategic vision, there’s also a feeling that the executive may have overstepped their mandate.

“What ASSÉ said is likely what will happen at English schools. That plan describes a process already set in motion here,” Ben Prunty, president of the Concordia Student Union, told Ricochet. “But I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. If general assemblies have capacity and drive to keep the strike going, that’s fine. It makes a lot of sense to keep the spirit and mobilization of the strike alive, even if we’re not actively engaged in a strike. I think a clear message has been sent that students are organized, we’re aware of what’s happening, we’re angry about it and we’re prepared to take action.”

A new threat? Didn’t you say last week that the education minister’s threat was a bluff?

At the end of February, François Blais was named the seventh Quebec education minister in 10 years, replacing Yves Bolduc, who resigned under a cloud earlier that month.

Blais threatened to cancel the semester of striking students, a rookie mistake from a politician new to the file, for reasons you can read about here.

Clearly, the minister reads Ricochet. That or his staff tugged on his ear with the tough news that his threat was empty. In either case, he’s back this week with a new threat, and this one has a few more teeth.

La Presse quotes the minister in a meeting with university rectors as he urges them to single out leaders of the student strike movement who “exaggerate” (whatever that might mean) and expel two or three per day.

“There are disciplinary measures available, up to and including expulsion,” the minister told radio station CHOI on Tuesday. The rectors “should use them. If you were to do so for two or three people per day, that would cool the ardour of certain people.”

Needless to say it was kind of the government to go ahead and directly equate the province’s students to cranky toddlers, but one wonders if they really thought through how the most powerful student movement in North America would react to being infantilized.

Expelling some students, according to Blais, “would make the others reflect, that much is clear. This is what we do with kids when we want to correct their behaviour. We don’t start tomorrow by saying: go to your room, no supper for you. We start by saying ‘there will be consequences for what you said to your mother, etc.’ And we want to make sure we are making that gesture.”

Last week, in a touch of what I thought was hyperbole, I summarized the government’s position thusly: “To hear them tell it, they’re stern but fair parents to a cranky province that needs a nap.”

Needless to say it was kind of the government to go ahead and directly equate the province’s students to cranky toddlers, if for no other reason than to aid all those editorialists struggling to find their metaphor, but one wonders if they really thought through how the most powerful student movement in North America would react to being infantilized.

The threat itself takes on chilling overtones given the one example of such political profiling to expel dissenters on evidence: the case of the UQAM nine.

The UQAM nine? Who are they?

According to a report in Le Devoir, on Friday, March 20, the last workday before the beginning of the current strike the following Monday, nine students at UQAM received notice that they were facing charges for vandalism and illegal acts committed over the previous two years during strikes and protests and that their university had begun proceedings to expel them.

The nine are central figures in their student associations and engaged organizers with widespread respect and support from the student body. In an ironic twist, one of the students currently represents her peers on both the board of governors of the institution and its elite executive committee, the same body seeking to expel her.

These unprecedented charges against elected students for engaging in political activities under a mandate from their classmates, which have been described as intimidation by the student associations at the Université du Québec à Montréal, fit into a larger pattern of political profiling.

What’s political profiling?

Katie Nelson, an avowed but non-violent anarchist who amassed almost $7,000 in fines during the 2012 student strike and its aftermath, is currently suing the City of Montreal and its police department for political profiling. Her lawyer, constitutionalist Julius Grey, is working the case pro bono in the hope of establishing a constitutional precedent that includes political beliefs alongside race, religion, gender and sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination. Nelson was just elected to lead her departmental student association at Concordia, which has joined the current strike in a limited capacity, and is an eloquent poster child for the right to hold radical ideas. [Disclosure: Katie Nelson is a friend, and I’ve helped out with her case.]

The truth is that student democracy is often inconvenient for educational institutions and government.

As Nelson’s high-profile trial approaches, one university is trying to punish students for their political convictions, while the education minister is advocating for others to join them.

The truth is that student democracy is often inconvenient for educational institutions and government. They have our sympathies. But to see this as a structural flaw in need of repair, and then borrow a page from strikebreakers of old by targeting ringleaders for expulsion, seems somewhat at odds with the stated goal of both parties: to educate and engage young people.

So you said this threat had some teeth. Are students afraid? Will they back down?

“It’s important that we all stand together,” concluded Prunty. “This is an effort to cut the head off of the movement, but this isn’t a movement that has that kind of structure. It’s a bad call by the government, and the only way to respond is with increased mobilization. We can’t allow this targeting to happen.”

“Many of the people leading this strike are in elected positions, acting on mandates their students gave them. This is a political question, not a judicial question, and threatening our political leaders with personal consequences is an injustice to student leadership and student democracy.”

So what next?

Over 100,000 students will be on strike tomorrow, Apr. 2. For many associations, such as the faculty of law at McGill, this will be their first time participating in a strike. The mass protest in Montreal dubbed "Our services are worth more than your profits" is expected to attract tens of thousands and its success or failure will largely determine the near-future of the Quebec student movement. I'll be there, as will many members of the Ricochet team, and you can follow us on twitter (Ricochet, Ethan Cox) for live updates.

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