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Hope for student radicals in Quebec.

In 1967, a year before French students marched through Paris, Quebec students occupied all six floors of the McGill University administration building. This radicalism has remained a defining feature of Quebec student politics. In recent years, Quebec students have faced funding cuts by provincial and federal governments and the impact of neoliberal reforms. These attacks have generated some of the most significant student mobilizations in recent years.

The Quebec Student Unions

Today students in Quebec are joining the international boycott campaign against Israeli apartheid in large numbers, including L'Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Etudiante (ASSE), a student union representing over 42,000 students. This gesture of solidarity by ASSE extends well beyond the usually narrow confines of student politics seen in the rest of Canada. Indeed, their demands during the 2005 student strike illustrate their structural analysis of capitalism and education: stopping the conversion of grants to loans; ending decentralization and privatization of the CEGEP college network; and free access to education and the elimination of student debt.

The 2005 Quebec Student Strike

In the winter of 2004, the Quebec Liberal government tried to reform student loan and grant programs, including converting $103 million of student grants into loans. The ASSE immediately began a strike campaign, which included protests, petitions, sit-ins and a strike-organizing coalition. Despite attempts by the provincial government and rival student unions to crush the radical elements in the ASSE, the seven weeks of general strike were marked by student unity and determination. At the peak of the strike, between 80,000 and 100,000 students and supporters marched through Montreal. Negotiations between the lobbyist unions and the government were less than satisfactory for many striking students, who rejected the agreement.

This momentum brought about a deepening of democratic participation in a large number of student unions throughout the province. Going further than the immediate issue of the loans and grants, the students were able to launch a broad debate in Quebec's population about the place of education in society, including accessibility and public funding of post-secondary institutions.

Quebec Student Struggles Today

In 2007, the ASSE hoped to take advantage of its growing student power to block the de-freezing of tuition fees. In the fall of the same year, the ASSE called for a general strike and asked the campus unions to organize general assemblies to vote on the issue. Many voted for the strike, but a majority rejected it.

This past year, students at Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM) faced severe setbacks, including tuition-fee increases and a multi-million-dollar deficit-reduction plan that would lead to service cuts. During the eight-week strike, over 15,000 students walked out of class. Unfortunately, unions were only able to force UQAM to ask the government to reinvest in post-secondary education.

In the coming year, the ASSE will undertake a campaign against the privatization of social services. This campaign is to be directed at every public institution and social service facing neoliberal restructuring. The ASSE will also continue the struggle against imperialism and denounce the Canadian occupation of Afghanistan.

Challenging the Neoliberal Campus

The dissent expressed by Quebec students is one outcome of the shift from welfare to lean-state social relations. But the mobilization of students in Quebec is a testament to a legacy of militant student unionism lacking in the rest of Canada.

The Quebec campus struggles of 2007-08 have shown the need for students to develop new strategies in their struggle against the neoliberal restructuring of the university campus. Most importantly, they will have to develop alliances with social and labour movements to win broad support for their struggles.
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Author:Lafrance, Xavier; Webb, Chris
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CQUE
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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