In early 2012, student activists, organized through CLASSE, descended upon Cégep Valleyfield. The campus, just West of Montréal, was not known to be a hotbed of progressive activism. It was, however, the site of the first strike vote that would cascade into more than 300,000 Québec students protesting a tuition fee hike by striking from their classes.
The stakes were high and momentum was critical: If Valleyfield students voted against the strike, it would likely mean more failed votes at the cégeps that followed. The Maple Spring hinged on Valleyfield.
CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois delivered an impassioned speech that he hoped would tip the balance towards a successful strike vote:
"They say that we're the generation of comfort and indifference, the generation of cash and iPods: that we're individualistic, egotistical, that we don't care about anything except ourselves and our gadgets," said Nadeau-Dubois to the nearly 1000 students present. "Are you not angry to hear that? I am. Today we have the chance to prove to them that this is false and that it's always been false."
After three hours of debate, Valleyfield students voted to go on strike. The motion carried by just 12 votes.
The making of the Maple Spring
The account of this meeting is one of many anecdotes from the events of the Maple Spring that swept across Québec in the winter and spring of 2012 in Tenir Tête, by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and published in French by Lux Éditeur. It's a must-read for anyone who followed the student strike.
Nadeau-Dubois mixes personal insights with the arguments advanced by student activists. He talks about what it was like to witness (many) successful and (few) unsuccessful strike votes, how he navigated demands from the mainstream press to condemn acts of vandalism and how he approached his role as lead spokesperson for the most impressive show of student power in Canadian history.
His writing style is simple and accessible, a welcomed break from the heavy writing that tends to characterize the French left. With a moderate understanding of French and a dictionary, English readers will find Tenir Tête simple and engaging to read.
He marries stories of the student strike with the arguments that activists used to oppose the tuition fee hike promised by Jean Charest's Liberals. He reminds readers that the strike was not spontaneous but instead the result of lots of hard work, research and building on former organizing victories and failures in the student movement.
In recounting his involvement in the student strikes, he debunks many of the lies that were perpetuated by the mainstream press, particularly that the strikes were widely supported and that in most cases, it was large majorities of students who had voted to strike. He also explains that students fought not just against the proposed tuition fee hike of $1,625, but against the broader system of austerity that seeks to underfund higher education and download the costs onto the individual.
Québec's current fight is painful reminder of Ontario's current reality
While reading Tenir Tête, it occurred to me just how bad things in Ontario have gotten. In the second section, Nadeau-Dubois debunks two arguments that CLASSE confronted during the strikes: that higher tuition fees are simply a way to ensure that students pay their fair share and that higher tuition fees ensures a level of excellence in the system.
Ontario student activists are well acquainted with these arguments.
What was striking is that Nadeau-Dubois' arguments sound as if they could have been made in Ontario more than ten years ago: Where Québec is still fighting back the privatization of higher education, Ontario's politicians have massively divested from the system.
For activists reading outside Québec, section two is a depressing glimpse into the past: where CLASSE used those stats as a warning, Canadian activists will see it as a depressing take on a current reality. Cynics might see it as cute.
Nadeau-Dubois captures the moments of the Maple Spring
Tenir Tête tells the story of two opposing forces, students and government, but also examines the role played by the mostly negative coverage from a chorus of right-wing journalists and commentators. He writes about the various labels columnists applied to the students, with all sort of hyperbole, including comparisons with Iraq, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
The book has few weaknesses, with one notable, unfortunately titled chapter "The Indians without a chief?" With so much already written about the student strikes, Tenir Tête offers a straight-forward account about how the strike felt from the inside, from the movement's most recognizable face.
Nadeau-Dubois wears the role he had during the strike as an author. He speaks as if it were still on behalf of a movement, looking back. He captures the moments that stood out to him and makes no grand pronouncements about the future.
Instead, he asks whether the strike was "All that for that?" in the last chapter. He acknowledges that despite the incredible show of force of the first half of 2012, the tuition fee increase of Pauline Marois' Parti Québecois feels somewhat like a defeat.
However, he doesn't let the pessimism stand. He responds to that sentiment by reminding readers that change isn't brought about by single events. He quotes songwriter and icon Gilles Vignault who said to him, "Les choses changent lentement, mais les choses change."
Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. Check out her blog on rabble.
Tenir Tête is available in French from Lux Éditeur and will be available in English from Between the Lines in Spring 2015.