Montreal, QC--The three-day 'Popular Summer University' of Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme (NCS) featured two full days and one evening of informed and inspiring discussion and debate on the current political situation in Quebec and the prospects for building a militant, working class movement on a socialist program. The following is a summary of the key sessions that this writer attended.
The conference opened on the evening of August 16 with a boisterous and informative session on the worldwide struggle against the commercialization of education under capitalism. Three hundred and fifty people crammed into a theatre room at the Université du Québec à Montréal to hear a panel of speakers, including several leading voices of the student struggle in Quebec.
Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme (The New Socialist Notebooks) is a political and theoretical journal published twice a year. This was the third summer school it has organized. It featured five plenary sessions and some 40 workshops under the theme 'Organize, resist, overcome!' The plenary topics were 'The odious debt,' 'Indigenous peoples speak out,' 'Feminism and social movements,' 'Defeat the right' and 'The challenges facing the union movement.'
From student struggle to citizens' struggle
The opening session was titled 'From student struggle to citizens' struggle: Can we still make a society?' It featured Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of the Quebec student coalition CLASSE; Francisco Figueroa of the Student Federation of Chile; Christian Laval, professor at the Université de Paris in Nanterre, France; Gilles Gagné, professor at the Laval University in Quebec City; and Fanny Theurillat-Cloutier of Profs contre la hausse -- Professors Against the Tuition Hike -- in Montreal.
The two university presenters provided an excellent overview of how education and other social services society are being downgraded to serve the interests of the capitalist elite. Francisco Figueroa provided an outline of the mass struggle waged by students in Chile over the past two years.
Theurillat-Cloutier and Nadeau-Dubois spoke on the student struggle that has deeply shaken Quebec this year. While they didn't offer a projection of where the struggle is headed during and after the provincial election that will place on September 4, they said it has sparked a vast social awakening in the province. Speaking of the broader social justice that the student movement is seeking, Nadeau-Dubois told the crowd, "After all we have seen and been through, it's hard not to be optimistic for the future."
In his talk, Nadeau-Dubois provided three examples of the changes that have shaken Quebec over the past six months. For one, the political and economic elite has lost considerable moral and political credibility. He told the story, to much laughter, of an adolescent who was asked by a journalist during one of the mass student marches why she had joined the action that day. She replied, "I joined the march because the government said I shouldn't."
For another, he said experiences of direct democracy have taken deep root, not only in the student organizations but also in the community, trade union and other social organizations that have joined the struggle.
His third example was that the student struggle had advanced the project of a socially progressive Quebec. He told the story of a woman who moved to Canada when she was young and said she had never been able to identify herself as a Quebecois. Prior to the student struggle, she told her daughter, "I never identified with this thing called 'Quebec.' Now, I can say for the first time that I know what it means. It means, 'free education.'"
Nadeau-Dubois hit out at the idea that the election of the nationalist Parti québécois can resolve the concerns of students in Quebec or the broader social eruption their movement has sparked. Interestingly, he had just come from a panel discussion of student activists at a nearby conference where one of his co-panelists was former FECQ association leader-become PQ election candidate Léo Bureau-Blouin. Nadeau-Dubois reminded the audience of the long record of the PQ in applying pro-capitalist policies while governing the province. (The party was first elected to office in 1976 and has governed Quebec for about half the time since then.)
Further, he said that no electoral process alone can resolve social issues in favour of the working class. Only significant social mobilization can do that, including during elections.
The PQ has pledged, if elected, to repeal the draconian, anti-student Law 12 (formerly Bill 78) and to declare a moratorium on the Liberals’ 82 percent over seven years university tuition fee increase. It says it will index tuition increases to the rate of inflation and will hold an états-généraux (formal, society-wide consultation) on the future of education in the province.
More discussion on student struggle
Several workshops took place on the student struggle. The one this writer attended featured Camille Robert of CLASSE, René Charest, a union and community activist and writer, and Anne-Marie Voisard of Profs contre la hausse. Serge Denis, an editor of NCS, introduced the session. Thirty people attended (a higher than average attendance at most of the workshops at the conference).
There was no assessment offered of the votes this past week of striking CEGEP (post-secondary college) students to return to class,* especially the votes taking place that very day at the two CEGEPs in Montreal. (Fourteen of the 48 CEGEPs in Quebec were still on strike on May 18 when the government's Bill 78, now Law 12, suspended their school year until August.) There, students had voted narrowly to remain on strike, but voter participation was deemed so low as to require a second vote. (In the end, a large majority voted to return to class, but they also decided to walk out of classes on the 22nd of each month until tuition fee hikes are beaten back).
There was significant discussion about the role that trade unions and their members have played in the student struggle. The reluctance of the top leadership bodies of most unions to take up the call of the militant section of the student movement for a 'social strike' has stirred a great deal of concern and debate in the unions. Here is yet another accomplishment of the student strike. The call for a social strike first emanated from the union movement several years ago in response to cuts to social services and the imposition of user fees. This year’s student movement revived the proposal.
This discussion continued at the evening plenary session on 'The challenges before the union movement.' The presentations varied, some focusing narrowly on sectoral interests while others drew interesting lessons for the entire union and working class movement. Fifty people attended.
Transforming the unions
The closing session of the Popular University on August 18 rivaled the opening session in the depth of its political analysis. It consisted of a panel discussion on 'Defeat the right.'
Teacher and union activists Éric Martin and Marie-Ève Rancourt reflected on the evolution of the trade union movement in Quebec in recent years and offered critical perspectives on how it could be transformed into a fighting movement. Martin said the unions should adopt and fight for an anti-capitalist program. Commenting on the political perspective needed, he said he thinks it is time to launch an international association of socialist political parties.
Quebec solidaire candidate Alexandre Leduc spoke on the evolution of his party since its founding in 2006 and offered comparisons to the political social transformations taking place in Venezuela and Bolivia. He made a strong pitch to found a left, mass circulation newspaper and welcomed the recent rise in trade union support and affiliation to his party.
Montreal area NDP Member of Parliament Alexandre Boulerice said he and his party are committed to a fight in the Parliamentary arena against the right wing agenda of the Harper government. He welcomes the rise of fighting social movements to accompany that work. During the discussion period, he said he had no prior knowledge of the announcement by NDP leader Tom Mulcair in a radio interview earlier that day of his wish to re-found a provincial section of the NDP in Quebec.
Election campaign continues to surprise
The conference took place as the election campaign in Quebec reaches mid-point and support for the governing Liberal Party is on the decline. The Parti québécois has taken a significant lead in the polls but it has also introduced a divisive proposal into the campaign. Party leader Pauline Marois says that if elected, the party will introduce a 'charter of secularism' that would prohibit employees of public institutions from wearing religious symbols (such as the scarf worn by many Muslim women) in the workplace. The charter would make an exception for the display of small crosses or crucifixes because these are deemed to be expressions of the 'historic culture' of Quebec.
The debate over this proposal took a turn when a, small-town mayor with a notorious history of proselytizing Christianity at city hall attacked a PQ candidate of Algerian origin, Djemila Benhabib, complaining that "I can't even pronounce her name." She became his target after she suggested that the crucifix that hangs in the Quebec Legislature be permanently removed.
The mayor's pronouncement provoked a wildly popular video on social networks in which a young girl is asked if she can pronounce Benhabib’s name. "Of course," the girl says confidently as she proceeds to make the simple pronouncement.
Debout (Stand up!)
While in Montreal, this writer is staying in the electoral district of Gouin where Françoise David, co-leader of Québec solidaire, is the party’s candidate. Her campaign office is a large, attractive storefront on a busy street. The office is a busy hub at all hours of the day and evening. In the last election, in 2008, David won 32 percent of the vote in the district for the party. She will represent the party in the televised leaders' debate to take place August 19.
Several local and regional unions have endorsed the candidates of Québec solidaire in this election. The theme of the party's campaign is Debout! (Stand up!). Party posters are visible everywhere on telephone poles and the fronts of homes in the city center. They proclaim, variously, 'Stand up: for better pensions; to protect natural resources; for public transit; for free education; for a guaranteed annual income.'
Québec solidaire is proposing increases to tax rates on corporations and wealthy individuals that would finance expansion of social services and environmental protection.
Early in the election campaign, the federal government agency that manages federal buildings in the city of Hull/Gatineau, across the Ottawa River from the capital, removed Québec solidaire posters from all federal government property. That action was successfully challenged by the party before Quebec’s electoral authority.
The local QS candidate who challenged the agency’s action is Bill Clennett. He attained national notoriety on February 15, 1996 when then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien assaulted him during an outdoor political function in the Ottawa region. Chrétien jumped on Clennett and began to strangle him in response to heckling by Clennett and other anti-poverty activists.
Roger Annis is a social justice activist and writer based in Vancouver, BC.