Le Québécois Libre, April 15, 2012, No 299.
As the "Unlimited General Strike" of post-secondary students in Quebec slouches into its ninth week, the strain is showing.
The Charest government, far from acceding to the strikers’ central demand that it abandon plans to raise tuition in the province, has managed to irritate some of the strikers with a palliative offer to restructure student loan repayment schemes. The offer is a sign, as if another was needed, that the government has no intention of dropping its plans for tuition hikes. The energy and formidable organization of the protesters will likely be no match for the stolid inertia of the government.
Glorious weather helped lend a joyous and carnivalesque atmosphere to the massive demonstration that wound its way through the streets of Montreal on March 22. One protester carried a sign that read "Printemps Érable," a uniquely Quebecois play on the French for Arab Spring (printemps arabe) that translates as "Maple Spring." The elation of that enormous outdoor party with its sea of red must have contributed fleetingly to a feeling of impending triumph. But as the more typical cold of a real Quebec spring returned in the days that followed, so a mood of hard work and desperation returned to the strikers. Posters have gone up around the UQAM campus exhorting the boycotters not to give up, but the temptation to do just that must be growing daily.
Lack of Consensus
Many students, of course, were never on board with the protests to begin with, but lacking a formal organization and unified message, their actions get less attention. Nevertheless, Laurent Proulx, a student at Université Laval, did make headlines when he went to the trouble of seeking and winning a court injunction against the students who were blocking access to his anthropology class.
Last week, the Université du Québec à Montréal finally sought a legal injunction against the students who have several times blocked access to entire buildings on campus. At McGill, students have illegally occupied administration buildings. In a particularly bizarre move, a group of protesters held the staff of the Montreal Economic Institute captive in their offices, presumably to register their discontent at the enormous influence the free-market think tank wields in the corridors of provincial power...
One hears people say that the decision to walk out of classes was taken democratically by the student organizations, and therefore no student can legitimately attend classes while the strike continues. But of course the students have not entered into anything like a contractual agreement to respect the decisions of the general assemblies of their student unions, much less the decisions of their union executives. For all the bluster of the student organizations, they simply are not that kind of organization.
Strike? What "Strike"?
The frustration of students like Laurent Proulx highlights a key aspect of the "strike" that deserves serious scrutiny. The strike is not a strike at all: it’s a boycott. Nothing therefore should prevent students who have not consented to the action from attending their classes, and of course nothing should prevent professors from giving those classes. But they are prevented, and often by force, by the "strikers."
Talk of strikes seems really to have convinced some students that they are the modern-day equivalent of the heroic asbestos miners whose walkouts helped launch the Quiet Revolution. But the absurdity of this posture is obvious: they are not employees; they are consumers. One suspects that a lot of their rage against "commodified education" stems from the simple realization that it’s less glamorous to be a boycotter than a striker.
Why should that be the case, though? The impressive history of boycott actions in the American Civil Rights movement and elsewhere shows how effective real nonviolent protests can be. Why don’t the students quietly insist on the moral superiority of their message instead of trying to physically interfere with people who don’t agree with them?
The short answer, I suppose, is that they don’t have the time or the patience. But they also don’t have the culture; the core of the strike movement is made up of comically superannuated leftists who are gripped by nostalgia for revolutionary uprisings that happened before they were born and that they don’t seem to understand very well in the first place. Agree or disagree with particular resistance movements, but suffice it to say that it’s one thing to do violence when you think you’re about to overthrow capitalism, and another thing entirely to do it when you just want the government to give you more money.
Should the universities call the police every time a group of students illegally blocks a classroom? No, of course not. Escalating tension in that way has already lead to one incident in which police hurt protesters, which in turn fueled a violent and destructive protest against police brutality. There is no need for heavy-handed interventions when time will do the same job without injury.
The students are getting the message: give up soon or risk losing your semester. For the militant core group who have always had their eyes fixed on a bigger goal ‒ "free" education ‒ this is not necessarily a problem. But for the vast majority, who have gone along with the strike in the straightforwardly economic hope of keeping their tuition the cheapest in Canada, the prospect of having to pay for another semester must be sobering.
Meanwhile, the spring general election in Alberta has that province’s Liberal Party feeling generous enough to promise "free" tuition if they win. Some take this to be a sign of the kind of largesse that is realistic in an oil-rich province, but more likely it’s a sign of utopian irrelevance in the platform of a party that will be lucky to win a seat in the provincial legislature. A fresh and libertarianish party looks to sweep to victory with a much more realistic and, apparently, attractive agenda. Partisans of the dream of unlimited state-funded education should probably think twice before moving to Alberta to join the Liberal revolution.
* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.