'Rêve général illimité' in Quebec

| May 10, 2012
Quebec student strike protest. (Photo: Darren Ell)

Across Quebec reaction has been swift to a proposal aiming to silence a historic student strike now in the 14th week.

Student assemblies are voting en masse to reject a Quebec Liberal government offer that fails to seriously address key issues driving the strike, including the $1,778 hike in tuition fees, a stinging increase even worse than the original planned $1,625 hike.

A settlement scripted to fail at Quebec City negotiations speaks to a profound disconnect between popular sentiment on the streets and the halls of political power today in Quebec, a division rooted in fundamental questions on austerity-driven economics.

Politicians in Quebec are moving to place an increasing part of the economic burden of austerity on public institutions, rejecting calls from the student movement to heighten public returns from the banking sector.

In a proposal last week, la Coalition large de l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), a major grassroots student coalition driving the strike, proposed that Quebec adopt a bank tax, starting at 0.14 per cent and increasing to 0.7 over five years, as a way to heighten public funds for post-secondary educational institutions. Beyond the important demand for a freeze on tuition hikes, a proposal to tax banks quickly sparked public debate, illuminating possible economic policies that dream beyond the neo-liberal economic box.

At a time of financial crisis, banks in Canada and Quebec are securing record profits, over $22.4 billion in 2011, a 15 per cent increase from the previous year. Given record bank profits in 2012 and recent reports outlining a secret $114-billion bailout at the height of the financial crisis, the Quebec student proposal to create a relatively tiny tax on financial institutions to benefit education is solid.

Today, little common ground exists between the Quebec strike movement and the Liberal government, a reality speaking to the likely inability for students and politicians in Quebec City to negotiate any viable solutions. Beyond a vibrant student strike demanding specific reforms on tuition, the strike movement is now articulating wider critiques on systemic injustices written into contemporary economic and political policy in Quebec.

Since its announcement in the 2010 Quebec budget, the media lackeys of the Liberal government have attempted to present this measure as inevitable. But behind this claimed inevitability we find an eminently political decision expressed in what the finance minister terms a "cultural revolution," and the international economic authorities refer to as an "austerity budget."

"Whatever the name given to it by governments, it clearly and definitively involves the dismantling of public services aimed at privatizing what remains of the commons," writes CLASSE in a recent public appeal for a social strike across Québec.

Today the political orientation of the student strike movement, articulated clearly in the social strike call or via anti-capitalist chants at street protests, contrasts sharply with the economic equations, largely driven by the logic of financial markets, drafted by the Liberal politicians fighting to impose a widely unpopular tuition hike.

In contrast to the CLASSE proposal for a public tax on banks stands Liberal economic policy that openly promotes Quebec as having "one of the lowest corporate tax rates in North America." In Quebec City, politicians are directing billions toward the corporate sector, while forcing the students to pay -- take for example the 2007 Alcan deal, returning an estimated $2.7 billion in potential tax revenue to a major Quebec corporation.

Student activists taking the streets are outlining a political vision for Québec that seeks to radically rework the present economic system. Can the thousands chanting "A-anti-anti-capitalista!" on the streets arrange a political solution with Liberal politicians who most often place corporate concerns first?

Nightly protests pointing toward larger social movement?

On the streets in Montreal nightly demonstrations continue, every evening thousands join a vibrant protest starting at Émilie-Gamelin park close to Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

Red flags fly every night, often accented by activist fireworks in the sky and mass percussion ensembles echoing off the skyscrapers across downtown Montreal.

Spirited chants ring out like "Charest dehors! On va te trouver une job dans le Nord!" (roughly translating to, Charest out! We'll find you a job up north!), referencing cynical comments made by Charest at a Montreal meeting on the controversial Plan Nord project, while riot police fired tear gas at people protesting on the streets. The major demonstration via environmental justice and student groups outside Palais des congrès in April marked a hike in police violence, and in the militancy of the student strike, while Charest's politically toxic comments sparked a media storm.

Certainly there is an incredible determination to the nightly street protests, a refusal to back down on the tuition hikes, but also a fighting spirit struggling to sustain a historic student strike, rapidly evolving into a broader movement for social and environmental justice in Quebec.

Night protests travel across the city, visiting various neighbourhoods and specific targets on different nights, from thousands demonstrating in popular neighbourhoods in east Montreal, to a recent night protest that took the message to the street outside Charest's house in the historically aristocratic Westmount.

Protests continue daily across the city and across Quebec (a relatively comprehensive listing of actions can be found at Ensemble, bloquons la hausse.)

In Victoriaville this past weekend, red squares were widespread at intense protests outside the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) general council meeting. At the protest, banners and chants illuminated broader economic and environmental justice struggles in Quebec. A principle force behind the confrontational protest was la Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics, a coalition including student unions, that has been fighting the PLQ government's attack on public services, including a new $200 per year health tax.

Clearly Quebec is witnessing a historic moment, as the ongoing student strike movement continues with daily protests, while quivering with excitement at a possibility the fight against tuition hikes will evolve into a broader movement for social justice.

Incredible barriers remain, however. The government in Quebec City is fighting to block any symbolic victories for the student movement, while police repression on the streets has in many cases been extreme. In Victoriaville, student Maxence Valade reportedly lost an eye, while another student, Alex Allard, is now struggling with severe head injuries.

Despite police violence, an incredible spirit remains on the streets and in student assemblies across Quebec, as popular votes are moving to reject a government proposal failing to speak to the specific demands and broader dreams of a student movement now sparking the popular imagination.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal based writer, activist and musician who is contributes to rabble.ca and is at http://www.twitter.com/spirodon/

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