3. Chronicle of the strike

Lead-up

In 2010 and 2011, several months before the strike, student unions were very active. They were encouraged to hold general assemblies to discuss the tuition hike and to take a position. Even though it was clear from the beginning that nothing less than an unlimited general strike would have any chance of effectively blocking the hike, many protests and actions were organized as part of an escalation of tactics.

On December 6th 2010, students protested against a government “consultation” of education sector groups (students, labor unions, administrations, etc.) about the tuition hike which was obviously skewed in favor of the policy. There was an attempt to storm the conference floor but it didn’t succeed.

In March 2011, the tuition hike was announced: it would come into effect in September 2012. Small, localized protests happened almost every day over a period of two weeks following the announcement. On the 20th, a meeting of the youth wing of the Liberal party (one of the groups pushing for the tuition hike) was disrupted. An occupation was organized with over 100 students in a finance ministry building on the 24th. On the 31st, student unions stage a one-day strike with a 3000-strong protest and an occupation of the offices of the university administrator’s lobby (also one of the groups pushing for the tuition hike).

Overall, the plan of action was simple: get people on board, launch a massive information campaign, stage a one-day general strike with a big demo and then put out a formal call for an unlimited general strike.

In 2010 and 2011, we focused on smaller-scale protests, training camps and other events with the objective of involving as many students as possible in their student union and in the committees formed around ASSE. By the end of 2011, not only were ASSE’s commitees packed, but cores of activists had gathered around many student unions.

In September 2011, we launched a massive information campaign on campuses under the slogan “Stop the hike”1. All kinds of material was put out during that period: flyers, leaflets, posters, a website, video clips, research papers, etc. The goal was to get as much of this material into the hands of students as possible and get them thinking and talking about the upcoming tuition hike.

A one-day general strike was planned for November 10th, with a big rally in Montreal. For weeks, the date was stressed as a vital step in the campaign and as a means of building pressure against the government. On many campuses, that strike vote was framed as an ultimatum: a negative response from the government after that day would automatically trigger formal organizing efforts towards an unlimited general strike. In other words, even though talk of an unlimited general strike was widespread among activists at that moment, the November rally was considered as a kind of stepping-stone.

With 200,000 students on strike that day and 30,000 marching in Montreal, November 10th was a resounding success. Never before had so many student unions simultaneously gone on a one-day strike; expectations were blown away.

The rally also led to the very first media coverage of the student campaign to block the hike. Immediately, the government responded with its own pro-hike media campaign. A dedicated website along with radio ads promoted the hike as being essential to maintaining a quality education and claimed the lie that the hike, along with modest increases in student financial aid, wouldn’t hurt accessibility. This government reaction generated lots of anger among students : a storm was brewing.

As the threat of a student strike began to materialize, several opportunist groups in the mainstream left lent official support to the student movement. Chief among them was the Parti Québécois2, which declared its opposition to the tuition hike and promised to abolish it if elected. As the party foresaw a possible student strike on the horizon, it sought to score political points with this move, even though ideologically-speaking, the party wasn’t opposed to tuition hikes in general, as its vote in favor of the first wave of tuition hikes in 2007 very clearly showed. Big labor federations also extended public support at this moment.

Strategic planning

During December 2011, we drew up plans for how we would start the unlimited general strike based on the experience of the 2005 strike. To ensure success, the launch of the strike was thought out as a succession of three “waves”.

In the first wave, the most active and radical student unions would hold their strike general assemblies and votes before all other student unions. The motions put to a vote included a conditional component, whereas the strike would only become effective as soon as a total of seven student unions representing at least 20,000 students would adopt similar motions. Right on the heels of this first wave, a second wave consisting mainly of progressive and well-established student unions would hold their own general assemblies. Lastly, weaker student unions with fewer activists or with unconvinced student bodies would try to join the strike in a third wave.

Starting the strike in such a progressive fashion provides some key advantages. First, it allows activists to focus their efforts on fewer student unions at a time. SInce the hardest part of the strike is to get it going, this is a major advantage. Once the ball is rolling, energies can be focused on other unions which aren’t on strike. Secondly, on campuses where the strike is effective, many students suddenly have much more free time which can be invested in mobilizing the student bodies of other campuses. And thirdly, a certain “mass effect” is created as soon as a critical number of students are on unlimited strike. As information starts trickling through media outlets, as journalists turn their attention to student organizing, and striking students discuss the issues with their friends, the strike can quickly snowball into a large and powerful movement.

In order to harness these benefits, the planning of the strike’s launch calendar needed to be centralized. Unions who planned to join the strike would consult with the provincial executive in order to work out an appropriate date for a strike general assembly. As the beginning of any such strike is fragile, failed votes in the first days and weeks can undermine morale and hurt the chances of launching the strike. Consequently, the pressure is very high on the first few student unions who consult their membership on strike action.

At this point, we also drafted our strategy for the strike itself, based on past experiences. Here’s how we thought it would play out, more or less:

[ul][li]The strike would begin in mid-February and grow in numbers until mid-March[/li]
[li]Our goal was for 100 000 students to be on strike at that time;[/li]
[li]The government would maneuver to isolate CLASSE as a “radical faction” and negotiate with FECQ and FEUQ behind closed doors[/li]
[li]These negotiations would happen around mid-March;[/li]
[li]The FECQ and FEUQ would capitalize on a one-week strike strategy in March culminating with a big unitary student demonstration on the 22nd;[/li]
[li]After this show of force they would cut a flimsy deal with the government, near the first week of April as the academic semester started becoming threatened;[/li]
[li]Our goal was to shoot down this agreement in general assemblies and convince our fellow students to press on[/li]
[li]If the movement maintained its strength for one or two weeks after that, we thought the government would make bigger concessions to end the strike and avoid a disaster with semesters[/li][/ul]

In short, according to our best hopes, the strike would last between 6 to 9 weeks.

Launch

The weeks before the strike were incredibly hectic. As province-wide flyering squads were organized, every available effort was put into mobilizing students in anticipation of the first strike votes. Often from 8 AM to 6 PM, activists were on campuses having conversations with students about the upcoming vote, their union, general assemblies and related topics. Each conversation would typically take about 5 to 10 minutes and focus on addressing common misconceptions about the tuition hike and the strike itself.

As the first general assemblies took place, the overwhelmingly positive results quickly pushed us over the tipping point of 20,000 students with a strike mandate. By February 9th, most general assemblies in the first wave had voted in favor of striking. On Monday, February 13th (a week before it was anticipated), the unlimited general strike was launched.

Up until March 7th, the rhythm of the strike was rather typical: more and more student unions holding votes on the strike, strike committees getting organized on campuses, and students joining flying mobilization teams to go around the province and help spread the strike to other student unions.

On March 5th, we reached 125,000 students on strike, which was much faster than expected. But although the strike itself was growing substantially and one or two big rallies were happening every week, there were still very few direct actions aimed at disrupting business as usual. At the same time, the leaders of FECQ and FEUQ were meeting the press and — almost apologetically — promising to put their striking students on voluntary community work…1

A turning point was reached on March 7th, when over a thousand students surrounded and blockaded the Loto-Québec2 building in downtown Montreal, and nearly two hundred stormed the ground floor and forced a shutdown. While the event was impressive in its number of participants, it remained entirely nonviolent: no windows broken, no rocks thrown around, etc. The mere presence of protesters was sufficient to significantly disrupt the routine of this government institution.

For the striking students occupying the building and protesting outside, the action was entirely legitimate and warranted by the goal to block the tuition hike. When people were asked to leave, no one moved… until riot police started moving in on students with batons blazing. During this brutal attempt to disperse the crowd and clear out the building, pepper spray was used profusely and flashbang grenades were thrown into the lot, severely injuring one student and causing him to lose an eye.

As a first encounter with riot police and the violence of the state, the episode was rich in lessons for the students participating, the vast majority obviously having had little previous experience in facing all-out repression. Encountering the police force’s insults, abuse and brutality opened the eyes of many who held the belief that officers always acted reasonably and in good faith. Not only did the event strengthen our resolve to continue the struggle, but students were now much more distrustful of police and willing to consider self-defence tactics during demonstrations and direct actions. Furthermore, the next day, public statements by several business leaders and city officials pressing the government to sit down and negotiate with students gave credibility to the argument that direct action gets the goods.

Direct action

At this point, it’s important to clarify the concept of direct action in the context of the strike.

In essence, direct action is about students themselves being the main actors of their struggle, as opposed to representatives. As such, it’s the counterpart to the direct democracy of student unions. Direct action is also about refusing mediation of the conflict by groups or individuals who often empower themselves at the expense of those on whose behalf they claim to speak, forcing them, explicitly or not, into roles of mere spectators. The “acceptable” political channels such as mass media and closed-door dialogue under the guise of “solution-building” are always primarily aimed at the pacification of conflicts and are thus incompatible with direct action. The aim is to build the struggle outside, and often in opposition to, the official political process.

Although direct action is never bounded by the limits of legality, we must reject the notion that direct action necessarily involves property destruction or violence against individuals. Those who insist on this aspect misunderstand the philosophy of direct action; the idea isn’t to replace politicians with a radical fringe. On the contrary, direct actions must strive to be, as much as possible, mass actions. Within the student movement, this can only arise when those with the initiative of direct actions are in relationship with general assemblies and take cues from them about the appropriate tactics to deploy.

While the strike owed much to CLASSE as a formal, centralised organization, the movement’s strength–its ability to disrupt business as usual–also derived from autonomy and decentralisation, without which direct action can’t exist. Individuals or groups could lead initiatives outside the union structures without systematically being labelled as nefarious splinter groups. As long as they were not isolated from student assemblies, and discussion about strategy and tactics was encouraged, they could empower each other instead of viewing one another with constant suspicion.

On the ground, CLASSE itself mostly organized large rallies and demonstrations while direct actions such as blockades and occupations were often undertaken by affinity groups close to local student unions. Would-be participants could consult an open calendar on CLASSE’s website where most of the upcoming actions were recorded. These were divided into three categories based on which type of group was behind each action: CLASSE, local student unions or individuals.

The nature of autonomous actions varied quite a bit and while their timings, targets or means weren’t always strategic, CLASSE’s role was not to police nor condemn them. This was most important as spokespersons interviewed by the media were often invited – and sometimes pressed – to condemn “violent” or “unacceptable” actions by students such as blocking roads. Internally, they were expected maintain a distance by stating that a particular action wasn’t organized by CLASSE, but otherwise, to put it in context and justify its legitimacy.

Of course, an important consequence of encouraging direct action is the repression that often follows. The movement dealt with this in a variety of ways. To better prepare students, workshops on safety in demonstrations, legal defence and security culture were organised on campuses. To deal with arrests and charges, a legal committee comprised of fully accredited lawyers and helpers (mostly law students) was put together and available on-call 24/7. And to ensure the long-term legal defence of the accused, efforts were put into building a fund through fundraising events and solicitation of labor unions and other groups. All these resources were made available by CLASSE to anyone who participated in any action in support of the strike, regardless of their status as a student or affiliation to any particular student union.1

Expansion

After March 7th, direct actions became more frequent and yet despite widespread condemnation of the violent tactics which resulted in a young man losing an eye, the police response was increasingly vicious. Confrontations became more common.

Then came March 15th, the International Day Against Police Brutality. For the last ten years or so, a few hundred would take to the streets in Montreal annually on that date to highlight the problem of police brutality. That year, this demonstration was much bigger than ever before. As expected, the march was only tolerated for a very short time until riot squads moved in and attacked the crowd. Scenes of chaos across downtown were witnessed as the squads attempted to chase down groups of protesters who refused to disperse and, in some cases, vandalised police cruisers which occupied almost every street corner.

As the big student rally planned for March 22nd approached, the government’s response to the strike was more defiant than we had expected. For weeks it consistently rejected growing calls for negotiation with student groups, while at the same time reiterating ad nauseam its justifications for the tuition hike.

On the other hand, the momentum for the strike vastly surpassed our expectations. By mid-March more than 200,000 student were on strike, much higher than we hoped to reach during the entire length of the campaign. We realised then, almost in disbelief, that we were on track to shatter the record of the largest student strike in the history of the province.

Over 300,000 students were on strike on March 22nd, which is about 75% of all CEGEP (college) and university students in Quebec. Buses converged from all corners of the province into Montreal for the rally, which was in the making for months. It’s estimated that 200,000 people participated, easily making it the biggest protest ever seen in the province.

This huge protest and the sheer number of students on strike, combined with the fact that more and more students were drawn into organising and participating in direct actions, made us recognize that we had more leverage than ever over the government.

Still, faced with an unequivocal adversary, we still had to keep building up the pressure. After the protest on the 22nd and lots of discussion in general assemblies, CLASSE called on students to organise a “week of economic disruption”. Autonomous student groups massively answered the call, and for the following weeks, up to three major direct actions were happening every day. Ministry buildings, office towers, government institutions, highways and even the Port of Montreal became the targets of blockades and actions of disruption. As autonomous initiatives multiplied, some buildings like the Ministry of Education in Montreal were even targeted repeatedly.

Injunctions

At the beginning of April, with the strike going strong for a seventh week, a right-wing minority opposing the strike started organizing and making itself heard. Without much surprise, we learned early on that some of these students had links with the Liberal party.

Because they knew they couldn’t convince general assemblies to end the strike, they turned to the courts to obtain injunctions allowing them to resume their classes. Though CLASSE fought them on legal grounds, judges granted them one after the other, mainly on the grounds that a student strike had no legal basis and that the continued picketing of campuses would bring these students immediate and irreparable harm. Since these injunctions were only granted on an individual basis, it took a lot of time, money and effort for opponents of the strike to obtain them. Nonetheless, a month later, over 100 injunctions were in effect across the province.

The first injunction had a shockwave effect across the movement. To all intents and purposes, it meant that a minority of (mainly wealthy, well-connected) students could get a court order to circumvent the student union’s democratic decision-making, effectively transposing an eminently political issue into a legal one. Obviously, this angered a huge number of students, including those who were opposed to the strike but considered the general assemblies’ decisions legitimate. The movement’s internal legitimacy was so strong that it easily superseded the legitimacy of the justice system which had revealed its conservative and reactionary nature.

Despite the threat of arrest and imprisonment1, the injunctions were met with massive challenges on all campuses where they came into effect. In the case of the very first individual who had obtained one, students formed a huge “corridor of shame” leading to the anthropology class where the teacher waited to give an open-door lecture on “conflict management”! Other campuses were picketed by large groups of masked students prepared to face security guards and police and in yet other instances, classes resumed by such court orders were disrupted by groups of students.

Administrations responded by appealing for calm and pleading for the injunctions to be respected. Yet in most places, when faced with students determined to enforce their strike, they backed down. There was no way classes could resume in normal conditions short of triggering big confrontations on their campuses and having dozens, even hundreds of their own students arrested. Teachers, who were numerous to support the strike, were also scandalised by the injunctions and resisted demands to resume classes.

Unfortunately, some administrations did decide to test the students’ resistance by ordering security guards and/or law enforcement to clear out picket lines. Where these attempts weren’t quickly abandoned, situations degenerated in all-out confrontation. In a cegep north of Montreal, provincial police fired tear gas on campus to clear out picket lines which included parents and teachers. At Université de Montréal, when students learned that administrators were ordering faculty to lecture empty classes, a huge protest of nearly a thousand students rampaged on campus towards the administration building, sabotaging classroom furniture on their way. After a serious attempt to force the principal’s office door using a battering ram, they too backed down.

Negotiations

While injunctions were spreading, prompting the movement’s rank-and-file to become increasingly restless, the government was steadfast in its rejection of any form of compromise or negotiation. By mid-April, the total number of students on strike was stabilizing, but in many general assemblies, the voting numbers gap between for and against the strike was shrinking. We feared that if a few major student unions stopped the strike, it could trigger a trend that would collapse the strike. In all likeliness, this is what the government was hoping for.

However, at the same time, the movement was radicalizing itself. Several factors were at play, notably the absence of any dialogue on the part of authorities for such a long time after the beginning of the strike. The government was at pains to maintain its image of being “of the people and for the people” rather than “of the rich and for their businesses”.

Actions in the streets grew more brazen and defiance of police and riot squads was increasingly widespread. In parallel, assemblies took bold steps to signify their intention to persevere by deciding to suspend their regular continuation votes and commit to only reconsider the strike if and when the government made an offer. This trend of “eternal strikes”, as they became known, started in a single cegep known for its radical politics but quickly spread across the strike movement. Within a few weeks, over 100,000 students were on this type of strike.

Finally, on April 15, the education minister announced it was ready to engage in talks with the students union leaders, but on one condition: that they all publicly condemn violence. FECQ and FEUQ obliged all too happily, yet CLASSE, invoking the need to first consult its general assemblies, didn’t follow suit. As such, the government hoped to isolate CLASSE under the pretext that it could never negotiate with apologists of violence and thus hold negotiations with only the moderate federations at the bargaining table.

This plan was frustrated when FEUQ announced its refusal to participate in any negotiations from which CLASSE would be excluded. This unprecedented show of basic solidarity from an organisation most previously known for its contempt of ASSÉ could be explained by two main reasons. First, because at this point the strike movement was associated with CLASSE more than any other organization, through the mainstream media as well as its grassroots mobilising efforts on campuses. FEUQ wanted to avoid making such a strongly divisive move that would have outraged masses of already angry students. Second, because it was going through an internal crisis where member unions threatened to defederate if FEUQ accepted negotiation without CLASSE. Many within the federation were keen to avoid a scenario similar to the one that played out during the 2005 general student strike.

Within CLASSE, the issue of violence was referred to general assemblies and the congress. The next week, the congress adopted a resolution condemning the “deliberate violence against individuals unless in legitimate defense”. Student unions refused to condemn radical tactics and direct actions such as blockades and occupations, which is what the government was seeking by using the blanket word of violence. Obviously, the right-wing accused CLASSE of wordplay, and insisted that an organisation condoning vandalism and destruction should be dealt with through law enforcement and not politics. In the end however, the move was largely perceived as an act of good faith and the education minister reluctantly agreed to convene all three student groups to negotiations.

First meetings between the two parties were held on April 23 and 24. While FECQ and FEUQ were represented by each federation’s president, CLASSE sent the members of its negotiations committee elected explicitly to this function. Ostensibly, the government’s strategy was undermined by the presence of CLASSE delegates. In typical negotiation scenarios such as with unions for example, representatives are free to put forward alternative proposals and strike agreements that fall short of the demands or goals of the movement. Most often, this mediation role played by the movement’s leadership can make conflicts shorter, but at the expense of helping to push through scant offers against the membership’s will. The CLASSE negotiations committee had no such mandate, however. It could neither propose a compromise to the government nor recommend any offer to students: its function was strictly limited to communicating the demands of general assemblies and report back with the government’s offers.

Shortly after breaking off negotiations, the government made a public offer through a media statement. To say it fell short of reversing the tuition hike is an understatement. The offer was so pathetic that the very same evening, a spontaneous night demonstration of several thousand marched against it, chanting “it’s not an offer, it’s an insult, our answer: demonstrations every night until victory!” Predictably, in the following days, the offer was massively rejected by general assemblies.

The Battle of Victoriaville

The climate of social crisis reached a climax on May 4th. A coalition of community groups, environmentalists, and labor unions bussed in protesters from across the province to Victoriaville, a small, quiet town east of Montreal, where the ruling Liberal party was holding its annual convention. Upon reaching the hotel hosting the convention, the crowd of about 3000-strong quickly overwhelmed the small barriers intended to keep everyone clear of the hotel grounds. As people approached the windows and entrances, tensions flared and riot police moved in to push the protest back using massive amounts of tear gas and plastic bullets. This continued for hours in the area around the hotel, with a number of protesters attempting to slow down the advance of police lines by throwing back rocks and tear gas canisters. Students and their allies suffered some of the worst injuries of the entire student strike during this confrontation, mainly owing to the provincial police’s extensive and dangerous use of plastic bullets, also known as “plastic baton rounds”. Several buses on the return trip were also intercepted by law enforcement and searched.

Although the news of chaos and confrontation were not welcomed in the media or the general public, the government was widely regarded as the party responsible for these events. The prime minister appeared inept to deal with the conflict.

The next day, a new round of negotiations were announced. This time, labor leaders were brought in as mediators, to “facilitate” the discussions between the government and student negotiators. Meetings went on uninterrupted for nearly 24 hours, leaving little time for students to rest and the CLASSE negotiations committee to confer. Labor leaders, for their part, with their paternalistic attitude towards students and their urging them to get along and sign an agreement, did not show themselves to be allies of the movement.

Finally, a tentative agreement was signed. Irrespective of the settlement terms it offered, it proved highly controversial among CLASSE activists: the document contained provisions that the negotiations committee had no authority to accept, such as a commitment not to organize any demonstration linked to the agreement. The CLASSE negotiations committee cited the role of labor leaders, the dynamics of the meetings, and exhaustion as reasons for the error and an apology was made.

Nonetheless, the government, confident the exercise would signal the end of the strike, declared the conflict over.

The Maple Spring

As politicians and media pundits emphasised an imagined dichotomy between “honest taxpayers” and “egoist students”, the movement sought to express solidarity with struggles outside the scope of the education system. Through its public appearances, CLASSE began to more explicitly frame the conflict as part of a broader struggle against neoliberalism. The slogan “The students are on strike, but the people are in struggle” was used on banners and publications and the expression “Maple Spring”, a play on words tying our struggle to the “Arab Spring”, came into use. Although several attempts were made to break the limits of the student strike and generalize the struggle, for example by organizing joint demonstrations with workers on strike, this proved very difficult.

The unfolding of two events, which occurred at the end of April seemed to reveal some success, however. The first was a government convention to promote Plan Nord, a plan to exploit natural resources in northern Quebec, and the second was the Earth Day rally. While unconnected to the student strike, the context in which they took place produced unexpected effects.

On April 20th, CLASSE organized a demonstration to disrupt the Plan Nord convention in Montreal. Though the government plan was heavily criticized by ecologist and native groups, CLASSE’s primary intent wasn’t an ecological one. Rather, it was an opportunity for action, like many others before it, aimed at disrupting business as usual and putting more pressure on the government. After entering the convention building, a few dozen demonstrators were confronted by riot police guarding the entrance to the hall and were violently evicted. As they rejoined other demonstrators outside, comprised mainly of students, worker’s unions, and native groups, the police attacked the crowd with tear gas. For the next few hours, police and protesters battled it out on the usually dull downtown streets. The prime minister was embarrassed and the protests raised awareness about Plan Nord, which suddenly became a controversial issue for students. In a way, CLASSE became environmentalist by association.

Two days later, on April 22nd, an Earth Day march took place, also in Montreal. It’s estimated that over 200,000 thousand people took part, and judging from the chants and placards, a huge number of students also participated. Several previously isolated issues like the environment, native rights and the right to education seemed to converge and all become part of the movement.

In many ways, the 2012 student strike was breaking new ground. All the government’s attempts to contain or break the strike proved ineffective: settlement offers, playing student unions against one another, injunctions, heavy-handed policing, etc. As massive nightly demonstrations happening on a daily basis gathered thousands, tens of thousands even, police were unable to keep order on the streets. The usual dispersal tactics were incapable of ending these rowdy protests, as people kept on regrouping even as riot squads charged the dense crowds. Provincial police in riot gear and surveillance helicopters were brought in and became a common sight in Montreal for days. The government appeared to be in total loss of control in the face of the movement.

Towards bill 78

But it was badly mistaken. The agreement offered no compromise on tuition fees and instead, commissioned the creation of a review-board of sorts which would seek to uncover funds in university budgets which eventually could, possibly, be used to partially offset the tuition fee hike. General assemblies, after reviewing the content of the proposal along with the flawed process that produced it, unanimously rejected it. The government was, in a way, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The strike showed some signs of wavering, but over 150,000 students were still on strike and seemed determined to do what was necessary and follow the struggle through to the end. The mood in assemblies was resolved: the only acceptable proposal was to scrap the tuition hike. After so many weeks of protesting and enduring repression, the stakes were higher than ever.

On the other hand, the government didn’t appear to be giving up either. It still had support among the public, so by conceding or compromising it risked losing a huge amount of credibility. If we take into account the global context, with France, England, Greece, Chile as examples, in the past years and months uprisings there gradually faded without making any significant headway, while governments held their ground. It’s likely that Quebec didn’t want to set a precedent.

As special legislation designed to break the strike was rumored to be in the works, the education minister resigned, probably because she opposed it. But the resignation of the minister who had been the face of the state’s intransigence was a bittersweet victory. A few days later, the Liberal Party introduced Bill 78 in parliament. The emergency law, officially titled “An act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend”, was adopted in haste after an hours-long marathon session.

The law immediately suspended the semester of every institution on strike, postponing the remaining classes until August. It introduced heavy fines for any individual, union or organization enforcing a student strike from that moment forward. It also restricted protests across the province by declaring illegal any gathering of 50 persons or more unless the event’s date, time, itinerary and other details are pre-approved by police. Anyone advocating or urging defiance of this law could also be subject to stiff penalties.

May 22nd and the "casseroles"

The law’s severity came as a big shock for striking students and supporters of the strike. Few of us had predicted such harsh, unprecedented measures. It even prompted a number of groups outside the movement such as the Quebec Human Rights Commission and the Bar of Quebec to condemn the legislation on the grounds that it violated fundamental charter rights.

But like other attempts to beat the movement into submission, the law failed to break the momentum of the strike. The night of the law’s adoption, a huge riot broke out in downtown Montreal, with several improvised barricades set on fire. Subsequent nightly demonstrations saw renewed fierceness and vitality. Instead, it caused anti-government outrage to spill over, of which the May 22nd rally was a testament.

In a press conference two days before the rally, CLASSE publicly announced that it wouldn’t provide the itinerary of the march to police1 in overt defiance of the emergency law and calling for acts of civil disobedience against it. While FECQ and FEUQ promised to challenge the law in the courts, the CLASSE student delegates, meeting in a congress just days before, agreed to face it head-on, in the streets, even if it brought with it the possibility of arrests of its officials or crippling fines. The entire organisation was put on the line: if the government wants to destroy CLASSE, better to go down in flames than submit.

The May 22nd rally, in which more than 200,000 took part, was labelled the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Quebec. Although it was illegal in regards to the emergency law, the Montreal police spokesperson declared that the march would be tolerated as long as no criminal acts or misdemeanors were committed. Aside from a smaller break-away group that targeted a few banks and storefronts along their own route, the main demonstration remained entirely non-violent.

The event also highlighted the obsessively law-abiding strategies of the leaderships of the FECQ, FEUQ and labor unions. While the context cried out for action against the new emergency law, they all acted separately from CLASSE and provided a route to police in advance (as they always did before, anyway) and led their own groups away from the “illegal” main protest. With only a few hundred following in the footsteps of these usually well-organized and disciplined processions, the initiative was an obvious failure. The events of the following days would demonstrate: masses of people were ready and willing to defy the emergency law on the streets.

This, of course, was a most exciting development. Up until then, the state, with its vast security apparatus, had again proven its ability to endure bunches of activists symbolically attacking property and confronting riot police. But against vast numbers of people refusing to acknowledge the law-making authority of the state, and prepared to take action, albeit peacefully, its options were likely more limited. In our view, the government was pushed into an even trickier situation, with seemingly shifting odds.

Its problem of legitimacy worsened in the following days and weeks with what became known as the “casserole movement”. The original idea, launched as a call-out on social media, was for people to bang pots and pans on their front door every day at 8PM, for twenty minutes, as a sign of opposition to bill 78. Early on, people began occupying sidewalks, parks and street corners with these very loud and noisy casserole rallies, eventually turning into improvised and illegal marches on neighborhood streets. On every street, upon hearing the rally passing in front, residents would come out and bang their pots and pans in concert with the protesters. These marches became so prevalent across the city that the mayor publicly asked for people not to take part in them, and instead stay in their homes to bang pots and pans. Of course, the demand went unheeded.

It was hard to predict the police’s reaction to these protests, but it soon became clear that it wouldn’t enforce the protest-restricting aspect of bill 78: not only would this mean arresting thousands of people in many different points in the city, with all that would entail, but aside from the police’s great difficulty in directing and routing these marches, they were mostly peaceful and not big a threat to public order.

In Montreal, these small and numerous neighborhood protests often continued late into the evening. They would merge together and eventually converge into nightly 9PM rallies in the downtown area, forming a single gigantic and often deafening demonstration. While the movement was centered in Montreal, suburbs and small towns also saw their own pots and pans rallies, with several similar events also appearing in cities across Canada and the US.

This period also marked the birth of several autonomous neighborhood assemblies in Montreal, which aimed to consolidate the struggle outside of campuses by tapping into the enthusiasm of the pots and pans movement and the community it created among residents. Although there was little coordination between the neighborhood assemblies themselves, many set out to work on related matters such as mobilising in favor of a “social strike”, providing support for the arrestees of the strike and organising popular education and teach-ins.

Summer

Meanwhile, the official suspension of the semester in the 14 CEGEPS and 11 universities still on strike imposed a lull in the struggle. In a sense, the government was locking-out student unions from campuses for the summer, in order to “ease off tensions”, as officials put it. Having no strike renewal votes to organise, most local unions stopped organising general assemblies, while those which maintained them saw numbers of student participation plummet.

Long months of constant struggle and repression also began to bear heavily. With the advent of the summer months, large portions of students turned their attention to holidays or temp work. The severe requirements of modern life, which, for many of us, means having to work during the holiday season to pay for food and housing, soon caught up. Networks of relief and mutual aid, which could perhaps have helped maintain the strike community, were for the most part nonexistent until after the strike was over.

Nevertheless, many students still considered themselves as being on strike and took part in various protests during the summer. Notably, efforts to disrupt events surrounding the Formula-1 racing event in Montreal, while spearheaded by anti-capitalist groups, became linked with the student struggle as one local student union’s assembly decided to organise protests aimed at cancelling the race altogether. With security reinforced and repression hitting hard on the weekend’s rallies, these efforts were largely unsuccessful.

As the weeks passed by, while the pots and pans protests had nearly completely faded away, rumors of elections grew.

Elections

On August 1st, the ruling Liberal party dissolved the government and launched an early election campaign, barely two weeks before the semesters starting up again for striking students. Betting that the strike was over and that students would choose to return to class, the party hoped to win back some support by arguing that Bill 78 had effectively brought back peace and order on campuses. The Parti Quebecois, on the other hand, which led the polls from the first day of the campaign, promised to cancel the tuition hike and repeal Bill 78. Many students interpreted this as victory being close at hand.

FECQ and FEUQ launched campaigns to boost youth participation in the elections and work against the Liberal party’s campaign. For them, the strike was already over. FECQ’s former-president-turned-PQ-candidate called for an “electoral truce” — a call echoed by many in the Left — in which student unions would suspend the strike to give the new government a chance. Furthermore, FECQ’s new president told media that continuing the strike would be “academically disastrous” for students.

CLASSE, in its case, mostly stayed away from playing a part in electoral politics, sticking to a slogan broadly condemning neoliberalism, ambiguously calling for voting against the three main more-or-less right-wing parties. Instead, it hammered the message that the strike was not over and the assemblies were the ones deciding if the strike was over or not. Among the student groups and activists in local unions, opinions were divided on the option of continuing the strike. Some thought that striking during an election made no sense (the government being dissolved) and that if the PQ wasn’t elected or if it reneged on its promises, the strike could be revived after elections.

In the week of August 13th, virtually all local student unions voted down the strike by large majorities. Despite passionate defenses of the strike and little anti-strike arguments at the assemblies themselves, the strike collapsed.

Arguably, most students didn’t realize what more could be gained by continuing the strike that the PQ’s probable election victory couldn’t bring. They weren’t ready to risk what was left of their semester, just in case the PQ didn’t win at the polls.

The PQ went on to win, by a small margin, the elections held on September 4th. It ensured this outcome by federating the Left and nationalist votes on a platform which included, apart from the promise aimed at ending the student conflict, increasing taxes of the the richest, abolishing a regressive health tax and implementing several environmentally-friendly policies. On September 19th, a decree officially abolished the tuition hike.