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Québec Student Strike: Occupy 2.0

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Giving birth to a new world
Giving birth to a new world

The front page of Maclean’s Magazine encapsulates a myth that is rife in the Anglophone Canadian media.


Myth: “Spoiled” and “entitled” Québec students have been throwing a tantrum for the past 100 days, taking Québec society hostage because they don’t want to pay a $325 tuition increase next year.


But stop reading Maclean’s for a second, and look at what is actually happening on the ground.


Reality: A student strike over the Québec government’s five-year plan to increase tuition by $1625 has given birth to a popular social movement that takes occupy to the next level.


Not everybody supports the student strike, but the government’s claim to have the support of a “silent majority” for its draconian Bill 78, which severely limits freedom of assembly and freedom of association in the name of law and order, is based on some very questionable polling results.


Realistically (and more reliable polling methods bear this out) Québec politics are becoming increasingly polarized over the pro-business austerity agenda being put forward by the Liberal Party of Québec (PLQ) and an alternative vision that is slowly developing from the ground-up.


It started as a student strike over tuition fees. The government thought it could wait out the protest from its bunker, protected by lines of heavily armed riot cops. But, even after being tear gassed and shot at with plastic bullets (some of which have caused severe injuries), and even after being forced to put academic pursuits and careers on hold, students have held firm.


Now those students, hardened by battle, will not be placated with a temporary moratorium on tuition increases. (This blatant fact means that students can no longer be called “spoiled” or “entitled” in the Québec media. “Radical,” and “violent” yes, but no longer spoiled.)


This is no longer about tuition fees. This is about the privatization of education, healthcare and other social services. It is about the introduction of user fees (our so-called “fair share”) to pay for the tax breaks of the 1%. And it is about the plunder of ecosystems and native communities for the benefit of mining and gas corporations.


In more concrete terms than the occupy movement, the student strike has started a discussion about an alternative vision of society where education is not a commodity, but a public good and a human right. Allies of the student movement are making similar points about clean water, healthcare, food and housing.


All this has Québec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand very frustrated. He’s complained publicly about the “upset of the Montréal economy by groups of anti-capitalists and Marxists. It’s got nothing to do with tuition.”


The student strikers and their allies have overflowed the boundaries of legitimate protest by questioning the fundamentals of neoliberal capitalism. They are calling on us all to rethink a system that allows the 1% to enrich itself while the rest of us must accept austerity measures.


The PLQ’s position is weakened by revelations of corruption. Popular outrage has forced the government to call an inquiry into corruption in the construction industry that is just now getting under way. Soon, it will be bringing to light a system of PLQ financing involving construction and engineering firms and organized crime hoping to profit from government contracts.


In a desperate attempt to douse the flames of the student strike and the broader social movement, the PLQ introduced the draconian Bill 78, but the measure has only fuelled popular outrage. Now, Argentinean-style pot-banging protests can be heard in urban centres across the province. It doesn’t matter if the protests are illegal. The repressive apparatus of the state is too overloaded to process the mothers, fathers, children and grandparents clanging their support in the streets and from porches and balconies.


Given the failure of Bill 78, Premier Jean Charest is in full crisis mode. He has called on a former Chief of Staff (who had left Charest’s employ to lobby the Québec government on behalf of the gas industry) to bring some order to the situation. But it is unlikely that any amount of PR or behind-the-scenes negotiations will resolve things at this point.


A number of factors have come together to produce a perfect storm where anything is possible, even another world.


David Bernans is a Québec-based writer and translator. Follow him on twitter @dbernans.

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