Yesterday, Quebec’s student groups — including the most militant — voted to end their six-week long strike and return to classes. The strike had been called after the government of Jean Charest made serious cuts to post-secondary education. The government has now agreed to reinvest $482 million in the grants-and-bursaries program which will allow them to restore $70 million this year, of the $103 million it cut last year, and be back to the full $103 million per year by the 2006-2007 school year. Near the end of the strike, some of the issues were analyzed by some of the students involved.

>by Antoine Casgrain

It has been well over a month since the movement of student strikes in Quebec was launched at the initiative of CASSEE (Coalition de l’ASSÃ0/00 elargie — ASSÃ0/00 is the Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante or Association for Student Union Solidarity, a militant student federation, and CASSEE is a coalition including ASSE affiliates and other student unions.) The demands of the major striking student associations, were twofold:

  • Abolition of the change to L’Aide Financiere aux Etudes (AFE) which cut $103 million from the bursary programme, increased loans, indexed the loan ceiling to future increases in tuition fees and decreased the financial independence of students.
  • Maintenance of the CEGEP system and an end to the entire project of privatization.

Both demands were made with the intention of moving towards free tuition and the eradication of student debt.

Never since 1968 has a student movement been so strong in Quebec. Gigantic demonstrations marked the strike.

Launched by CASSEE, the call for a strike was adopted and continued by two moderate student federations, la FECQ (based in the CEGEPs) and the FEUQ (based in the universities). The strikes reached students in departments which are traditionally not militant, such as medicine, law, management and the sciences.

The government’s strategy was to discredit the movement by labelling student actions as violent. These accusations were relayed by the media and above all undermined the credibility of the most radical current of the movement represented by CASSEE. In spite of heated debates on campuses, the idea that the accusation of violence was nothing more than a pretext to remove the main instigators of the movement seems to have been accepted.

The associations face the challenge of unity

For the past 10 years, the Quebecois student movement has been divided into two federations: the Federation Etudiante Collegiale du Quebec (FECQ) and the Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ), representing the majority of students and officially recognized by the state. Historically, these two federations have preached collaboration with the state and with business and made much of their “pragmatism.” The FEUQ only now, after 15 years of existence, made its first call for a strike.

On the other side, a more radical tendency has succeeded in establishing itself. L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÃ0/00) has put forward the historical demands of the socialist student movement: free tuition, public universities, humanist education, solidarity with other social struggles etc. Its strategy is based on the idea of a unionism of struggle, the creation of a real relation of forces in the streets to challenge the government.

ASSÃ0/00 made an excellent initiative in calling for the creation of CASSEE, a coming-together of members from ASSÃ0/00 and independent associations sympathetic to ASSÃ0/00’s positions. This coalition was responsible for calling the student strike as well as greatly expanding the demands of the strike. Demanding the abolition to the changes to AFE is aimed at getting the debate out of a sterile battle of numbers. It is a refusal to manage the cuts.

Unity was in effect established over the demand to reinvest the $103 million cut. But no perspective of unity on a broader and more constructive basis is likely. On one side, the FECQ and FEUQ federations were not ready to include broader demands. And, on the other side, ASSÃ0/00 is closed up in a sectarian approach which denies all the positive actions the federations have taken. ASSÃ0/00 incessantly repeats that the unity of the student movement can only happen with itself at the centre.

A politicizing strike

After a month of the strike, the level of politicization among young Quebecois had greatly increased. Bed-ins, conferences, occupations and demonstrations awakened many people and created a renewed militancy. The generalized hatred towards Jean Charest that has prevailed since his election is becoming more and more a political critique.

There has been increasing discussion on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthy. Today, there is discussion of uniting demands from all social sectors — unions, welfare recipients, environmentalists. Students who two months ago were simply going to their classes became actively involved in occupations. The question of the electoral struggle lies in suspense. The Union des Forces Progressistes began to gain sympathy among students, but the Parti Quebecois continues to seduce the majority of them. An anti-electoral strategy is widespread among the most active militants.

Finally, the students are certainly the first in a series of challenges and strikes against Charest’s government. Public sector collective agreements are under attack and teachers are already striking. The recent cuts to social assistance were denounced from all sides. As popular struggles continue to grow, the student strike will surely be a model in the months to come.