Canadian Dimension: Quiet Streets, Emboldened Hearts - Québec organizers reflect on the student strike, one year later
Canadian Dimension Magazine
Quiet Streets, Emboldened Hearts: Québec organizers reflect on the student strike, one year later
by Aaron Lakoff
I’m standing with Francis Grenier in downtown Montreal, just blocks away from the spot where his life took a drastic turn. On March 7, 2012, Grenier, a 23-year-old visual arts student at Cégep de Saint-Jérôme, was attending one of his first demonstrations of his life, part of the growing Québec Student Strike. Without warning, riot police rushed in to disperse Grenier and his fellow students, who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in outside a university administration office. One police officer threw a sound grenade that exploded just above Grenier’s head. A piece of shrapnel tore into his eye, creating permanent damage. It would become the first of many serious injuries caused by police during the Québec student strike, the largest of its kind in North American history.
“I’ve been seen 5 or 6 doctors, and none of them has found a solution. I basically see nothing with my right eye,” Grenier says with a sombre look on his face. In September 2012, he filed a lawsuit with the city of Montreal and the Montreal police service for $350 000 in damages, alleging that the police misused their tools of dispersal. He is still awaiting a date for a hearing at the Quebec superior court.
“Because of my experience with police brutality during the strike, today I don’t see a police officer as a trustworthy person,” Grenier continues. “I see them as an armed person. A person who can be potentially dangerous.”
One year after the ending of the historic student strike that shook the fabric of Québec society and inspired people across Canada and around the world, many students, including Grenier, are still living with the scars of an intense mass movement, quite literally.
Much has changed since the September 2012 provincial elections that ousted the Liberal Jean Charest government and brought a minority Parti Québécois (PQ) government under Pauline Marois, effectively killing the student strike. During the election campaign, the PQ campaigned on the premise that it was the party closest to the student movement’s interests. Marois and other high level PQ members donned the emblematic red square of support for the student movement in the National Assembly, and attended some of the demonstrations.
One of the very first acts of the PQ government in power was to repeal Charest’s 75 per cent tuition hike, as well as the infamous Bill 78, which many saw as a major curtailment on the right to protest. However, in February, 2013, the new government held a summit on higher education, at which point they announced they would continue to index tuition fees to the cost of inflation, amounting to roughly a 3 per cent increase every year.
Needless to say, debate continuous at a furious pace within Québec’s youthful and radical student movement. Some elements of the movement see the election of the PQ government and the lesser tuition increase as a significant victory, while others don’t see much change between the new government and the old one.
“On the surface, nothing much has changed,” says Jeremie Bedard-Wien, sipping a coffee on a patio in downtown Montreal. Bedard-Wien is a student at University of Québec in Montreal (UQAM), and the former spokesperson of the student federation ASSE during the strike. “The same cronies are in the National Assembly, but this time they say ‘sorry’ when they cut into people’s livelihood or raise tuition.”
Student protest in the province has been relatively slow since last year’s elections, which Bedard-Wien attributes to the movement taking a much-needed break for reflection. “The student movement is undergoing a period of re-structuring,” he says. “We as a movement have reached the upper-limits of what we could do regarding the tuition increase by the Liberals. What that means is that for the next year, you won’t see us that much. There won’t be periods of great mobilizations.
But that is not to say all hope is lost.
“It’s simply a period of looking back, learning from what we’ve done during the strike, making adjustments, consolidating our bases on campuses, and making ASSE a stronger vehicle to be prepared for the next great moment of mobilization.”
One major factor that has led to the calming of the student movement since last year’s strike is a Montreal municipal bylaw known as P-6. Many see P-6 as very similar to Bill 78, the provincial anti-protest legislation which was struck down by Marois. In a sense, P-6 has ensured that the effects of Bill 78 are still carried out on a municipal level. While P-6 has been on the books since 2001, former Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay added new clauses at the hight of the student strike. These new powers include demanding that protest organizers submit their route to the police before any demonstration, banning the wearing of masks during demonstrations, and hiking the fines for the bylaw infraction from $100 to over $600 after fees. Between March and May 2013, over 1500 arrests were made using the P-6 bylaw in Montreal. In most cases, the arrests were made by kettling protestors before the demonstration had even began, or before any laws were broken. Even the spectre of P-6 has been a major discouragement for social movements in the city, as people can’t afford to risk nearly the amount of one month’s rent in fines in order to take the streets.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was one of the most visible characters of the student movement. As the spokesperson for ASSE during most of the strike, the University of Montreal student’s face was splashed across the front page of nearly every major newspaper in Québec on a regular basis. Even as we meet up in a neighbourhood cafe in Montreal for an interview, people interrupt us to come thank him for his contribution to the student strike.
Nadeau-Dubois contends that the current period of calm within the movement is totally normal. “We cannot ask the student movement to always be at the top level of mobilization. We have to be really realistic about that. A lot of people aren’t stressed that the energy has gone down. People don’t want to be in the streets 12 months of the year, every year.”
However, on the success of last year’s movement, he doesn’t mince words. “We have to say that the movement was a victory. We were up against a 75% increase to tuition fees. In terms of accessibility to education, this would have been horrible. But we blocked that increase. Because of the strike, thousands more young people in Québec will be able to attend university.”
Other student activists in Montreal agree that while the movement may have lost the battle to stop tuition increases, many positive things came out of the strike. Sarah Thibault is an anarchist student activist who was involved in the student union of Cégep du Vieux Montreal during the strike.
“The movement is detached, and people are working more in small groups than bigger movements. There are more autonomous initiatives happening,” says Thibault of the student movement one year after the strike with a sense of optimism in her voice. Among some optimistic initiatives borne from the strike, she cites the new anarchist social centre Le Deferle, and several radical francophone journals springing up.
Another positive element to have sprung from the student strike is a renewed sense of neighbourhood-level direct democracy. Following the passage of Bill 78 in late May, 2012, the anger and discontent that had been brewing amongst a large segment of society against the Charest government spilled beyond the walls of the education system. People began taking to the streets in nightly demonstrations banging pots and pans in several neighbourhoods across Montreal and around Quebec. These “casserole” marches gave way to autonomous neighbourhood assemblies (known by their French acronym “APAQ’s”), which would bring together upwards of hundreds of people at a time in leaderless meetings to organize on bringing the student strike into different sectors of society.
The student strike may be long over now, but several of the APAQ’s are still active in Montreal, holding regular meetings and planning events around a range of different issues including gentrification, police repression, and migrant rights. On September 4th, a coalition of different APAQ’s held a boisterous casserole march to mark the one-year anniversary of Marois’ election and their discontent with her policies. And in early September, that same coalition held a public assembly with the hopes of re-igniting some of the energy from the Maple Spring. From their continued actions, the APAQ’s are keeping the spirit of the student strike alive in the hearts of many communities across the island of Montreal.
One legacy of the student strike that most people I speak to agree on is the police repression—it is a dark cloud that hangs over much of the movement today, as thousands are still awaiting trials and hearings for strike-related charges, and others like Grenier are still living with the scars of brutality. And to add insult to injury, activists from last year’s strike movement lost a huge pillar of support in July of this year when Denis Poitras, one of the main progressive criminal lawyers in Montreal, was forced to declare bankruptcy, and was subsequently dis-barred and lost his right to practice.
“I was functioning as a robot during the student strike,” Poitras told Canadian Dimension, between long drags of a cigarette in his home-turned-office in Montreal. “I can’t work 15 hour days like I used to when I finished law school.” During the strike, the impassioned veteran lawyer took on hours upon hours of pro-bono work, representing thousands clients who had been charged during student demos. Calling him busy would be an understatement. Before losing his license, his work schedule was filled up until February 2015. For over a decade, activists in Montreal have been scrawling his phone number on their arms in permanent marker in case of arrest during demos. As a one-man activist legal defence operation, and unable to hire a book-keeper, Poitras’s back taxes eventually piled up to over $350,000, forcing him to finally declare bankruptcy. But while his thousands of clients are now scrambling to find other lawyers or figure out strategies for collective defence, Poitras hasn’t yet thrown in the towel.
Shortly after his bankruptcy, several prominent organizers from the student strike banded together to launch the fundraising website www.aidonsdenispoitras.org (“help denis Poitras”). In a matter of days, they had raised over $16,000 in online donations, and at the time of publication were up to over $33,000. Poitras himself was hoping to raise only $15,000 in order to make an offer to his creditors to pay off his debt and regain his legal license. The speed and willingness that people donated to help out this lawyer is a testament to the spirit and networks of solidarity that were bonded during the student strike.
With the right to protest in Montreal severely limited, and the fact that tuition fees are still on the rise, the efforts of last year’s student strike might seem to have been in vain. Certainly, an uneasy feeling of calm and tranquility has returned to Montreal’s streets, quite a contrast from last year’s nightly and often confrontational demonstrations. But like with legacy of any major mass movement, the outcome of the student strike might be too early to describe, even one year later. Social movements in Quebec have not been known to throw in the towel so easily. The thousands of young people who became radicalized through their first experiences of direct democracy, vibrant street demonstrations, and yes, even beatings from the police is now a political force to be reckoned with. The networks of mobilization which were born during the strike may be dormant now, but could re-awaken the next time they are stirred by anti-social government policies.
Aaron Lakoff is the community news coordinator at CKUT radio, 90.3 FM in Montreal. In his free time, he is also a DJ, community organizer, and freelance journalist trying to map the constellations between reggae, soul, and a liberated world.