April 15, 2015 • No 331 | Archives | Search QL | Subscribe



This Year's Student Strike in Quebec
by Larry Deck

When you live with a situation day in and day out, you gradually lose any sense of its peculiarity, no matter how strange it may be. If you live in Quebec and you’ve lost sight of the unique absurdity of our political culture, I recommend the following exercise: Try to explain the student “strike” movement to someone from out-of-province—an American, if possible.

“In the spring of 2012,” you might begin, “students from several universities and colleges went on strike in protest against proposed tuition increases. The increases would have left Quebec with the lowest tuition in the country, about a tenth of the tuition at an American school, but it would have hurt some people, no doubt. The student associations led massive protests and made effective use of the media. The Liberal government of Jean Charest, scandal-ridden and near the end of its term, was ineffectual in responding to them, attempting to silence the protests with an unpopular ‘special law’ against public assemblies that only succeeded in throwing popular support behind the students. The opposition Parti Québécois supported the demand for a freeze on tuition increases and defeated the Liberals in the election held that fall. They kept their word about tuition but also cut funding to the universities. Now the Liberals are back in power and some of the students, but not as many, are striking against the government’s policies of austerity, and, uh, pipelines...”

“Back up,” your interlocutor might say. “Did you say the students went on strike? What do you mean? How can students go on strike?”

“Well…” you might answer, “I guess it’s not technically a strike, but that’s what they call it, and, uh, yeah, I guess in a sense it’s a strike because the student organizations take a vote to decide on it.”

“But what is a student strike? Like, they skip classes?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“Isn’t that more like a boycott?”

“I thought so too, but they block the entrances sometimes, like a picket, to prevent students who don’t join in from going to classes, and they seem to think that they can do that because it’s not a boycott, it’s a strike, so they don’t have to convince anybody who won’t go along—it was decided democratically, so that’s that.”

“That sucks for the students who don’t go along.”

“I guess, but it is democratic, I think…”

“But... so what? Who cares if they skip classes? Can’t they just fail them and move on?”

“Uh, I guess if enough of them do it, it’s inconvenient…?”

Because you live in Quebec, you see daily news stories about the student “strike” and you start to think of what the students are doing as a “strike,” because that’s what people call it. It’s not a strike, but people call it a strike, so you naturally slide into that usage along with everyone else, until someone asks the simple question: But is it a strike? Do the student organizations have the right to strike, and does that right include, as they assert, the right to prevent other students from attending classes?

By now the question has been posed repeatedly in courts of law and the answer has always been the same: No, the students who claim to be on strike do not have the right to prevent other students from attending classes.

Most recently, on the 1st of April, Quebec’s Superior Court ruled in favour of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) administration’s decision to bring an injunction against the student organizations that had blocked all access to the university two days prior.

“Even if Quebec law recognized the students’ right to strike—which is not the case—such a right would not extend to the perpetration of the actions in question,” wrote judge Robert Mongeon.


“Because you live in Quebec, you see daily news stories about the student strike and you start to think of what the students are doing as a strike, because that’s what people call it. It’s not a strike, but people call it a strike, so you naturally slide into that usage along with everyone else, until someone asks the simple question: But is it a strike?”


Nevertheless, the student groups in question, and a substantial part of the province’s media, are under the impression that the students have the right to strike, to picket, and even to block access. And incredibly, some university administrators and politicians think the time has come to recognize that putative right:

Within 12 hours of a nasty confrontation between police and anti-austerity protesters at the Université du Québec à Montréal [...] the university’s rector, Robert Proulx, was pleading publicly with Quebec City to consider establishing strike legislation for student associations that would mirror the laws for labour unions. Within a few hours of Proulx’s comments, Parti Québécois interim leader Stéphane Bédard was backing him up, telling reporters that the time has come for a legal framework for student votes.

Proulx’s craven gesture was not nearly enough for a joint panel of students and teaching staff, who were busy calling for his resignation. Nothing but immediate and total surrender is acceptable, apparently.

But surrender to what? In 2012, the demands of the student movement were clear and simple. Although a dedicated core of activists actually insisted that Quebec should move to a system of “free” (fully subsidized) university education, the 2012 protesters demanded only the abandonment of the proposed tuition increase.

This year they demand an end to the government’s policies of “austerity.” Few among the rank and file seem able to articulate what exactly those policies might be, and as a result interviews with the protesters are often quite comical. Nevertheless, the organizers and militants clearly have in mind a grab-bag of cuts (or not-large-enough increases) in government spending on education, the environment, social services and culture, many of which they say hurt students disproportionately.

What would it mean for the government to acquiesce to their demands? How would we know that they had done so? Presumably we would know because the government would increase spending on the sorts of things the students like. At whose expense? What about the debt? Not a problem, one of the federated groups assures us: People and groups like the Montreal Economic Institute are exaggerating it. Is the Finance Department exaggerating when they calculate the net debt-to-GDP ratio at 50% (the highest in Canada)? Probably not, but then, whom can you trust?

And what would the students like, finally? “Free” education, certainly, along the lines of Germany, or better yet Denmark where people are paid to go to school. Ridiculous? I would say so, but then I don’t think students skipping classes are actually on strike, either. Once you accept that they are, as the provost of UQAM and the interim leader of the Parti Québécois suggest you should, you might begin to wonder: If they can strike, are they not workers? If they are workers, should they not be paid?

A chorus has risen in recent years to denounce unpaid internships for essentially the same reasons.

“Interns are paid in experience and professional connections,” you might argue. “They’re paid with recommendations that help them get jobs that pay money.”

“Nonsense!” the critics reply. “Only the rich can afford to work for no money and therefore nobody should be allowed to do so.”

A federal contest to design a logo for Canada’s 150th birthday sparked a furious online protest under the slogan “My Time Has Value.” The winner of the contest would have received $5,000 and a certain amount of valuable exposure, but the losers would not have won anything, in spite of having worked for some period of time, and that, according to the protesters, is unacceptable.

Similar online campaigns attempt to shame anyone who would ask a musician to perform at an event without offering decent monetary compensation. No, we are told, “exposure” is not compensation. Can’t the musician make that determination? No, and it’s wrong even to ask.

I’m sometimes told that I go too far afield in drawing these comparisons. Sure, a minority of students want to be paid to go to school, but in 2012 they were protesting a tuition increase and now they’re protesting “austerity” and that’s it—there’s no point reading more into it.

But the same could have been said, only a few years ago, about the very idea of a “student strike”—ask someone from outside Quebec!—whereas now it’s becoming commonplace. The leader of the opposition wants it to be formalized in law. A change in terminology becomes a legislative change before you know it.

If we don’t fight this pernicious tendency now, we might very well come to regret it later.


Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.


From the same author

Bixi Gets Saved Again
(no 327 – December 15, 2014)

Uber Über Alles: The Internet Is Killing Regulated Business
(no 323 – June 15, 2014)

The Luddite Fallacy Is Alive and Well
(no 317 – December 15, 2013)

The Pros and Cons of Discrimination
(no 316 – November 15, 2013)

Amazon: The Bad, the Ugly, and the Good
(no 315 – October 15, 2013)



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