Montreal's student strike, the longest in North American history, is inseparable from Quebec's larger history of struggle. The so-called "Maple Spring" is the 11th such strike in Quebec since 1968. This history of struggle and students' aspirational demand for free higher education as a human right has secured massive concessions from an oppositional government: the formation of the entire Universite du Quebec and UQAM system, increased higher educational access for Francophone and working class students, and a 22 year tuition freeze despite attempts at neo-liberal tuition hikes.
In this context, when the Quebec Premier Jean Charest's Liberal government announced a 75% tuition raise in March of 2011, many predicted a grève générale illimitée (unlimited general strike) would result. When 20,000 students marched on Charest's Montreal office in November 2011, as part of a two day strike, it was but a precursor of the austerity-driven social crisis to come.
After a year of the Charest administration's refusal to negotiate with students, Classe (Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante) had come to represent roughly 50% of the students on strike. Classe's "confrontational syndicalism" believes policy makers subservient to corporate interests are "by definition opposed to [students'] interests." Therefore the student coalition works to build "leverage through an escalation of pressure, in order to coerce our political antagonists into negotiations."
In the context of Charest's refusal to negotiate, Classe's political philosophy played out through a series of direct actions and major mobilizations during Quebec's Maple Spring: 36,000 students walked out of classes through clouds of SPVM (Montreal Police) pepper spray on February 17th. Three days later thousands of students blockaded the Jacques Cartier Bridge for twenty minutes, (a tactic utilized during a previous 2005 student strike), only be subjugated again by the SPVM and their pepper spray. In another confrontation on March 8th, 22-year-old Cégep student Francis Grenier's retina was detached by an SPVM stun grenade. On March 20th, busloads of students closed down the Champlain Bridge. Two days later, in what would be the first of a monthly series of such mobilizations, a 50-block-long march of an estimated 400,000 people paralyzed Montreal's financial center.
By April, Charest was at the negotiating table, albeit offering a larger, 80% tuition increase over the course of seven rather than five years. Charest's government, in a quick succession of contentious moves, tried to exclude Classe from negotiations, break off the talks altogether, and suffer the resignation of Charest's Education Minister Line Beauchamp.
On the May 4th anniversary of the Kent State massacre, police crackdown on a protest in Victoriaville ended with a protester losing an eye, and another receiving a fractured skull from police officers' rubber bullets. In mid-May, Charest attempted to use riot police and court injunctions to break the strike, but few students crossed the picket lines; those that did had their classes disrupted so as to preserve the strike.
Charest then criminalized dissent by imposing controversial Special Law 78: amongst the law’s many provisions, the government imposed a face-saving labor-lockout of sorts, and will attempt to restart the semester in August. In addition, students could be fined up to $125,000, and student unions could be defunded for participating in protests – or even promoting them on Facebook. In the six days following the imposition of Law 78, support for Charest's proposed tuition increase dropped from 68% to 27%, and much of civil society poured into the streets to support the student strikers with the now iconic casseroles, where marchers parade down the city streets banging pots and pans.
<It is a student strike, and a popular struggle>
As with previous social movements, iconic graffiti prefigures the aspirations of Montreal's "unlimited student strike." Though it's made of concrete, the underpass walls marching north from Place Émilie-Gamelin on Rue Berri between Rue Ontario and Sherbrooke reverberates regularly with chants as nightly marches pass through it. Ten stories above, students regularly wave massive red flags from apartment windows. Nearby graffiti reads <Charest! You're fired! We'll get you a job in the north!> It's a reference to what the Globe and Mail referred to this as Charest's Marie Antoinette moment. In an April 20th keynote address, as police unleashed mass quantities of tear gas and truncheons in the streets, Jean Charest told a crowd of business elites at a Plan Nord "Salon," “We could offer the [student protesters] a job in the North, as far (north) as possible.”
So many playful transgressions such as this, Anarchopanda and many more, bring a level of theatricality and joie de vivre to the Maple Spring. This playful defiance and the police's inability to enforce Law 78 expose a regime with a rapidly-deflating mandate. In what has become the most prolonged civil disobedience in Canadian history, the multigenerational protests nightly chant: "Ta loi speciale, on s'en calisse!" (your special law, we don't give a #%$^).
<Law 78 = War>
May 27th: According to the outsized crowd which assembles nightly at Place Émilie-Gamelin, and now throughout the city in defiance of Law 78, Charest's criminalization of dissent was but one of many tone deaf missteps. The backfiring of his administration’s policies toward the activists can be measured by the increased and demographically diverse participation in the Maple Spring. As the graffiti on Avenue de l'Esplanade reads, "Sometimes it takes a calamity to live in the present."
Many in Montreal draw a direct correlation between their own student-led strike and the historic French student-led strike of May 1968, which destabilized the government of Charles De Gaulle. The lower May '68 poster, showing a silhouette of de Gaulle covering a youth's mouth with his hand, has been re-appropriated multiple times by Maple Spring student organizers.
May 31st: The Charest government broke off "negotiations" after a mere 22 hours and having – with a straight face – proposed an even larger tuition increase (an 80% increase over seven years instead of the already controversial 75% increase over five years). In response, the streets of Montreal were transformed into an open sea of carre rouge protesters peacefully marching and occupying intersections of Montreal's downtown; another tone-deaf misstep by the embattled government, another swell in the social movement.
June 2nd: Following the overreach of Law 78, just as additional sectors of society have plugged into the social movement, demands from protesters have expanded from student debt to broader transformations of Quebec society. This in turn has caused other democratic aspirations to flower including a rejection of other neo-liberal projects such as Plan Nord and new health care user fees, a rejection of bank bailouts, protests against corruption, and demands that Charest step down.
These bartenders support the protest with a casserole and a cheeky sign reading: "just drown your anger." Throughout the nightly marches – in defiance of Law 78 – the potential for a larger social strike hovers over the city. This potential is evidenced not only by the casseroles and marches in many neighborhoods, but also through employees suspending work to join the protest. For brief periods of time business as usual is put on pause as employees transform the social space of restaurants, bars and construction sites into windows of what could be next for the Maple Spring.
The changed social fabric of the Maple Spring has brought a new ethos of solidarity to relationships between students. Concordia University's "People’s Potato" moved their free soup kitchen outside so students would have to cross the strike line to be fed. Many carre rouge protesters report a new found sense of community, a new found ability to dive into conversation with a stranger based solely on seeing the ubiquitous felt red square.
June 8th: The carre rouge protestors chant “Police are everywhere, justice is nowhere.” Gone is the relative calm which appeared after civil society poured into the streets with their now iconic pots and pans to reject not only controversial Law 78, but the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. This calm was shattered in early June by a flurry of batons and pepper spray clouds, as SPVM police turned Montreal into so many green and red zones during the publicly-financed spectacle of the Formula 1 car race.
June 22nd: As with the 22nd of each month since March, June has seen seen "manifestacións" draw historic crowds to take to the streets around Quebec. Other sectors of Quebec society (workers, professors, seniors, families and more) participated in even larger degrees in simultaneous marches: 100,000 in Montreal and a record 5,000 to 10,000 in Quebec City. These ongoing mass mobilizations in conjunction with neighborhood assemblies highlight the potential of the student strike growing into a larger social strike.
Jonathan Leavitt is a community organizer and journalist, living and teaching college classes about social movements in Burlington, Vermont.