Le printemps érable ("The Maple Spring")

On September 5, after nine months of protests by students and their supporters, Le Conseil exécutif du Québec ("the Québec cabinet"), declared a freeze on tuition fee increases. This decision did not come from the benevolence of the new cabinet, led by Pauline Marois of Parti Québécois. Nor did it just come from the simple fact of a large number of people engaged in protest over time. In a period where victories such as these are less common, it is necessary to understand what happened in Québec that was different, so that lessons can be learned and perhaps replicated.

The campaign began with the proposal by the cabinet, by Jean Charest of the Parti libéral du Québec, to raise tuition fees by almost 75% between 2012 and 2017, or over 125% from the relaxation of tuition fees from 2007. Students responded quickly, The first National Day of Action scheduled on November 10th, 2011. Social science students at the Université Laval went strike on February 13, followed by some at Université du Québec à Montréal. Over the next two months, the number of striking students rose to at least 180,000, but with over 200,000 attending a protest on March 22. By this stage the protests had the support of the major student organisations, especially Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), and increasingly members of the community.

It was quite clear by this stage the protest had reached major proportions. Certainly, it also had dramatic moments. Around one hundred student protesters were arrested on March 20, after demonstrators blocked a bridge with concrete blocks. On May 6, protesters were attacked when outsiders (and possibly agents provocateurs) started throwing projectiles into the crowd. In the reaction that followed, and with clashes between the police and protesters, ten were injured, and two seriously, one losing and eye and another a skull fracture.

Forced to the negotiating table, the government made appeals to the students and their allies. They claimed that Québec students were already paying very low tuition fees relative to other provinces (Ontario, the highest, is at an average $6,640pa compared to Québec's $2,519pa). They claimed that the fee increases were necessary to properly fund tuition costs. They offered to extend the transition period of the increases from five to seven years. These were rejected by the students, but so was the proposals by the students for other sources of finance. On May 14 the Education Minister and Deputy Premier, Line Beauchamp, resigned and was replaced by Michelle Courchesne in both positions.

Whilst brining a conservative deputy premier and minister to the point of resignation may be considered a victory, the greater point here was ideological. The student advocates successfully argued, in the public if not always to the government, that an educated population has benefits as well as some individual benefits and therefore requires substantial initial public investment to bring future gains. Thus the sector requires significant subsidies. However because authoritative education standards are required, a monopolistic situation arises where, left to pure market forces, overcharging would become inevitable as would inequalities of access. The result is that tuition fees become a matter of public choice resource allocation and equity; the students argued that even the total funding of Québec's universities (c$400 million) was less than half of the tax cuts introduced by the government in 2007, primarily for the wealthy.

This is just a partial illustration of a wider problem. Governments, nominally democratic, around the world are engaging in a starvation of public wealth by removing elements of redistributive social justice from their finances. Tax cuts for the wealthy, followed by austerity budgets targeting social welfare, are a form of class warfare and one which benefits the wealthiest members of the capitalist and landlord classes. In the late 2000s the Ontario government proudly proclaimed that it has delivered twelve billion in tax cuts over a mere three years; in British Colombia there was a 25% reduction in income tax, off-set by a new sales tax, again giving a massive advantage to the already well-off. As an example for minor contrast, in Australia the federal government has tripled the tax-free threshold, providing significant benefits for the lowest income earners, whilst increasing income from a levy on mining resources and carbon emissions.

The next few days after the inauguration of the new education minister sharpened the debate. Clearly in no mood for further negotiations the government passed "Bill 78" on May 18, an emergency law which seriously restricted public protest and especially that at universities. This was immediately followed by protests and conflict, with scores of demonstrators arrested in Montréal, police firing rubber bullet and using tear-gas, whereas some protesters responded with projectiles and molotov cocktails. On March 22 some 400,000 people marched in Montreal, correctly referred by organisers as "The single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history." Unsurprisingly, the bill had the support of Conseil du patronat du Québec (Quebec Council of Employers), if there was any doubt in whose interests the government was acting on.

Now the issue had expanded beyond one of student protests over tuition fee increases and had become an issue of freedom of assembly and expression. Already sympathetic to the student's protests, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) described the law as "violating fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression", with its president calling it "a terrible act of mass repression", with even the government's own agency for human rights (CDPDJ) engaging in serious criticism, along with the bar association and specialist academics. A Laval University law professor, Louis-Philippe Lampron commented, "Read it. Stunned. Can't believe that a democratic government can adopt such a law." One remarkable and illustrative effect of the changing debate was that the protests against Bill 78 included many of those who actually supported tuition fee increases witnessed by the wearing cloth squares of varying colours to express their position.

With protests continuing documents leaked from the Parti libéral du Québec suggests that an early general election would called on August 4 to take place on September 4. This proved to be accurate, with the protests, Bill 78, and the tuition fee increases taking a prominent role in the campaign. With over forty percent of eligible voters not turning out, and notoriously higher among young voters, the political landscape was facing for a potential shake-up. Dogged by protests throughout the campaign, the Parti libéral du Québec languished in the polls, but with much of its vote share being taken by the Coalition Avenir Québec, a centre-right party which supported Bill 78 and the tuition fee increase. "The law [raising the fees] is there and laws are to be obeyed", party leader François Legault said.

As it turned out, Parti Québécois gained a plurality in the election with 54 seats, a gain in seats (+7) even with a decline in their vote (31.95%, -3.22%). For the conservatives, the Liberal's won 50 seats (-14), with significant decline in their vote (31.20%, -10.88%), almost entirely taken up by CAQ, as expected (19 seats, up 10, 27.05%, up +10.68%). From the left, Québec Solidaire gained a seat and increased their vote by over a third (6.03%, +2.25%). In Laval-des-Rapides, former student movement leader Léo Bureau-Blouin defeated a government cabinet minister as a Parti Québécois candidate. In a press conference the following morning after the election, the new premier Pauline Marois declared the tuition fee increases and Bill 78 were abolished and that an education summit would be held to discuss funding options for the university sector.

Important lessons from these enormously successful events can be discerned for future political actions. Firstly, was the effectiveness of mass industrial action. Protest itself against the tuition fee hikes would have been utterly insufficient, even of a larger scale, would have been insufficient to generate the sort of effects these events have had. Secondly, the student movement won the ideological argument by arguing that the relative advantage of Québec students was an example to be emulated and expanded for the purpose of accessibility, and that there were alternative means of raising public income instead of austerity measures. This was a necessary, but certainly not sufficient, part of the campaign. Thirdly, the mass movements showed no fear in protesting when demonstrations were made illegal, acting on a principle that an unjust law is not worthy of following. Finally, the mass democratic organisations eschewed sectarianism when the political debate expanded. When Bill 78 was introduced the possibility of limiting protests to those who opposed the fee hikes was certainly there; but the leadership was wise enough to realise that a wider number of people supported freedom of assembly regardless of their actual position on tuition fees. These lessons must be remembered as the government is forced to the negotiating table.

Also published in Mass Strike

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I have been reminded to point out that the Parti libéral du Québec are actually a centre-right party in the Canadian spectrum, rather than a centrist party in their federal namesake.