Le Québécois Libre, April
15, 2015, No 331
This Year's Student 'Strike' in Quebec | Print Version
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,
“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?”
“Isn’t that more like
“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
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
“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.
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
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
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.