In February 2012, after two years of protests, petitions, and occupations, students across Quebec voted to go on general unlimited strike against the Liberal government’s plan to increase tuition fees. The months following the strike declaration have been the most politically intense time in Quebec or Canada in recent memory as the students’ demand for a moratorium on tuition fees has for many become merely representative of a broader struggle against neoliberal policies, the failed logic of austerity, and the weakening of democratic institutions. This social movement declared itself le printemps érable (or Maple Spring) in reference to the democratic uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 and as part of a global resurgence of leftist resistance. As of June 25, the strike will have endured for 134 days, making it the longest student strike in Quebec history.
The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s in Quebec included a commitment to accessible French language higher education, the creation of a tuition-free system of preparatory colleges (CEGEPs), and a shared understanding of the important role of cultural and educational institutions in defending and preserving Quebec culture within a predominantly English-speaking Canada. The university tuition introduced in the 1960s was initially qualified as being a temporary measure for the sake of the rapid expansion of universities. Canada is a signatory to a UNESCO pact, which upholds free education as a goal. There is also a long history of student strikes in Quebec that has laid the foundations for the current mobilization. This brief chronology of the strike describes the events that have resulted in a resurgence of solidarity and defiance on the part of Quebec society.
2010–11: pre-strike organizing
In early 2010, the Parti Liberal du Québec (PLQ) led by premier Jean Charest announces its intention to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years beginning in 2012. This would result in a total increase of $1625 that would bring Quebec’s tuition to a similar level as that found in other Canadian provinces. The government explains the increase as Quebec students needing to pay their “fair share” of education costs. The early response on the part of students to this proposal is a petition signed by 30,000 against the hikes as well as a series of one-day strikes and demonstrations that attract tens of thousands. These massive days of action are accompanied by a number of smaller protests in cities across the province and occupations of campus buildings throughout 2010–11. The government’s response to this widespread dissatisfaction is a consistent refusal to meet with student representatives and negotiate the terms of the increase.
2012: the strike begins
On February 13, in light of the government’s failure to acknowledge student demands, students vote in favour of a general unlimited strike. This tactic has been used in the province eight times over the past four decades and has proven effective for maintaining Quebec’s comparatively low tuition rates. At its peak, 175,000 joined the strike, that is, over half of Quebec’s 342,000 post-secondary students. The three major student associations that represent the striking students include the Fédération Étudiantes Universitaires du Québec (FEUQ), the Fédération Étudiantes Collégiales du Québec (FECQ) and l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ). For the duration of the most recent strike, ASSÉ has formed a temporary coalition, La Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), which is considered the most radical of the student groups and represents half of the striking students. What distinguishes CLASSE from its more moderate counterparts is its commitment to the principle of free post-secondary education as well as its organizational structure, which is based on direct democratic decision making in weekly meetings rather than delegated executive powers. Instead of representatives, CLASSE has spokespeople who relay the decisions of its membership to the government and the public. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has become the most visible face of the student strike as a particularly articulate spokesperson of CLASSE.
While the minimal demand of the striking students is a moratorium on the tuition increase, the...