The Quebec student protest movement & the power of radical imagination
August 23, 2012
It is precisely against the background of growing uncertainty, despair, diminishing expectations, state violence and the crushing policies of neoliberal austerity that young people in Quebec have organized a protest movement that may be one of the most “powerful challenges to neoliberalism on the continent.”(24) Thousands of students have raised their voices in unprecedented opposition to the ideology, modes of governance and policies of the neoliberal state. The initial cause of the protest movement began in response to an increase in tuition fees announced by the Quebec provincial government in March 2011. The tuition hike was “part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing new fees for public services and raising existing ones.”(25) The government’s proposal included raising tuition by $325 per year over five years with the increased fees going into effect in September 2012. The hike amounted to a 75 percent increase over five years, rising from $2,319 to $3,793 by 2017.
In February 2012, after the government refused to negotiate with organizations representing student interests, the student leaders called for a strike. Tens of thousands of students responded immediately by boycotting their classes. Many of the province’s colleges and universities were shut down as a result.
Mainstream media consistently sided with the Quebec government, downplaying the significance of the tuition increases - even as they pertained to those students who could least afford them and for whom it would have the greatest impact. Critics of the strike repeatedly drew the public’s attention to the fact that, even with the increase, tuition fees in Quebec would be among the lowest in Canada: “Average undergraduate tuition in Canada for 2011-12 is $5,366, but ranges widely from province to province. Quebec has the lowest fees, followed closely by Newfoundland and Labrador. Ontario has the highest average tuition, at $6,640 a year.”(26)However, it soon became apparent that the students viewed the tuition increase as only one symptom of an ailing and unjust social order about which they could no longer be silent.
The students preferred to speak for themselves rather than have others speak abstractly for them and about them, especially when it came to the material conditions of their own educations, their own futures. It is telling and will remain telling, that government officials and newspaper pundits responded with anxious indignation, as if wholly caught off guard by the simple fact that the students can speak - and speak intelligently, passionately and urgently about the most pressing issues facing themselves and their society. In a reversal of roles familiar to anyone who actually works in a classroom, the student also teaches the teacher. The first lesson to be learned from striking students was that the protests were about much more than fee structures. Yet, the government seemed unwilling to learn and its high-handedness touched a nerve in the larger social body of Quebec, activating new forms of dissent and solidarity.
What soon developed was a student strike of unprecedented proportions, involving more than 200,000 students and rallying many additional supporters for a mass demonstration on March 22, 2012. Moreover, as the strike progressed and expanded its base of support, over a quarter of a million joined the demonstrations on a number of occasions, and an estimated half-million people marched in Montreal on May 25, 2012. By July 2012, the Quebec student strike had emerged as not only “the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America,” but also “the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”(27)
The strike, which began as a protest against the provincial government’s plan to increase tuition fees, has developed into a popular uprising with tens of thousands post-secondary students and their supporters marching nightly in the streets of Quebec cities and in solidarity demonstrations across Canada.(28) Now a major broad-based opposition movement against neoliberal austerity measures, the Quebec student strike initiated one of the most powerful, collectively organized challenges to neoliberal ideology, policy and governance that has occurred globally in some time.
The initial phase of the movement focused almost exclusively on higher educational reform. The issues addressed in the early stage of the protests included a rejection of the province’s call for a tuition increase, a sustained critique of the underfunding of post-secondary education, a critical interrogation of the perils facing a generation forced to live on credit and tied to the servitude of debt and the opening up of a new conversation about the meaning and purpose of education - in particular, the kind of educational system that is free and removed from corporate influences and whose mission is defined around issues of justice, equality and support for the broader public good.
Students rejected the tuition hike by arguing that the increase would not only force many working-class students to drop out, but also prevent economically disadvantaged students from gaining access to higher education altogether. Expanding this critique, many students spoke of the tuition increase as symbolic of repressive neoliberal austerity measures that forced them to pay more for their education, while offering them a future of dismal job prospects when they graduated. Situating the protest against tuition hikes within a broader critique of neoliberal austerity measures, students were then able to address the fee hikes as part of the growing burden of suffocating debt, government funding priorities that favor the financial and corporate elite, the ruinous transfer of public funds into the reserves of the military-industrial complex and the imposition of corporate culture and corporate modes of governance on all aspects of daily life.
By stressing debt as an issue rather than focusing exclusively on tuition, students were able to highlight the darker registers of finance capital that increasingly closes off any possibility of a better life for themselves and everyone else in the future. Andrew Gavin Marshall has provided a theoretical service in highlighting the broader effects and politics of the debt crisis. He wrote:
Total student debt now stands at about $20 billion in Canada ($15 billion from Federal Government loans programs and the rest from provincial and commercial bank loans). In Quebec, the average student debt is $15,000, whereas Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have an average student debt of $35,000, British Columbia at nearly $30,000 and Ontario at nearly $27,000. Roughly 70% of new jobs in Canada require a post-secondary education. Half of students in their 20s live at home with their parents, including 73 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 and nearly a third of 25- to 29-year-olds. On average, a four-year degree for a student living at home in Canada costs $55,000 and those costs are expected to increase in coming years at a rate faster than inflation. It has been estimated that in 18 years, a four-year degree for Canadian students will cost $102,000. Defaults on government student loans are at roughly 14%. The Chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students warned in June of 2011 that, “We are on the verge of bankrupting a generation before they even enter the workplace.” The notion, therefore, that Quebec students should not struggle against a bankrupt future is a bankrupted argument.
Connecting student opposition to the tuition hike with the broader issue of debt and the fact that “the average debt for [Canadian] university graduates is around $27,000” helped shift the focus of the strike - viewed by some critics as a narcissistic, collective temper tantrum by whiny students - to a much more public and broader set of considerations. In this instance, what was being implicated by the students calling for higher educational reforms, as Randy Boyagoda pointed out, was “a profound crisis of faith in the socioeconomic frameworks that have structured and advanced societies across North America and Europe since World War II [as well as] a rejection of the premise of the postwar liberal state: that large-scale institutions and elected leaders are capable of creating opportunities for individual citizens to flourish.”(30)
As the spirit of resistance continues to grow in Quebec, I really hope that same defiance spills over to the United States. Especially considering how inflated tuition is & that student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, we really need to take a cue from those fighting austerity measures in Canada.