In Quebec, Canada, an impressive student struggle, connected to protests against attacks on civil liberties has ended in a partial, but nevertheless important, victory. There is reason to learn lessons, but also to celebrate and to be inspired. Let's shout it from the rooftops, as a sign of more to come.
For months, students in Quebec fought against a Draconian college fee rise that the Chares government tried to impose. They struck in great numbers, organized themselves through a system of assemblies where they decided about the strike, what forms the actions woud take and so on. And they demonstrated, in actions that led to militant confrontations with the police. The goverment answer: repression, with in total 3.000 arrests. In May, the government introduced Bill 78, quickly turned into the hated Law 12. That law prohibited, among other things, demonstrations that were not announced to the authorities beforehand, and imposed stiff penalties on íllegal'demostrators and especially organizers. Within days, a massive demonstration in Montreal – illegal accoording to the new law – showed the anger. Organizers talked about "the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history". The number of demonstrators was estimated as somewhere between 75.000 and 225.000 people.
Not only students , but all kinds of people, opposed the attack on freedom the law represented, mostly by demonstrating repeatedly, insistently, militantly. Pots and pans protests in the evening became a common feature in many Quebec cities. The movement spread to places in Canada outside Quebec. What started as a fight against college fees has turned in a much broader struggle, against neoliberalism and repressive government. The story can be followed on an article on Libcom with a long thread of updates; an article by Cindy Milstein on ZCommunications helps to get the feel of the struggle; the inner dynamics of the struggle, and of CLASSE, the coalition coordinating especially the more militant wing of the movement, becomes much more clear by reading "Snapshots of the student movement in Montreal" , also on Libcom.
What has got much less attention in revolutionary / anarchist circles is, astonishingly enough, the result. The movement ended in victory! Not an unlimited victory, not a victory without problems, but victory nevertheless. First, the protests went on and on, with another big demonstration on August 22, and still 43.000 students on strike according to CLASSE. Yes, where were signs that the strike was crumbling in september. But the demonstrations went on. It was clear that support in society, both for the college fees and for law 12, was severely challenged and undermined by the wave of resistance that just would not go away.
In september, there were elections, and the ruling government lost. One of the first acts of the new government: skipping the college fees, and skipping at least the most offensive parts of law 12 as well. This is how two CLASSE spokespeople:
If the PQ yelded to some of our demands, it is because we organized a strike movement whose support was popular and broad, which allowed people of all ages and walks of life to exopress their grievances about our political and economic struggle, and which helped defeat the Charest government.
In other words: broad based, yet militant struggle did the trick. Direct action, connected to broad mobilisations, expressing anger against fee rise but connecting to a much deeper discontent, was victorious.
Yes, it was through elections that the shift in the balance became visible – a shift just enough, so that politicians withdrew the fee rise and Law 12. That may not always be easy to handle by us, anarchists and suchlike : ) But elections just registered – distortedly – what happened in society. Law 12 had proved unenforcable. Elections did not make it happen. The college fees had provoked a revolt that threatened to become chronic and uncontrollable (ask the Greek government how something like that feels). The struggle no doubt contributed to the government's electoral defeat. Above all, the struggle put pressure upon whatever government to make serious concessions, or else. The victory was expressed through electoral channels. But it was not a victory reached by means of elections. It was a victory reached on the streets, and in the faculties.
Yes, the victory is limited. The new govermnent will come with other ways to impose costs on students, by sneakily rising fees through other mechanisms. The battle is not over. But their frontal government attack has failed, for now, and that is encouraging. It is a victory rightly celebrated by the CLASSE spokespersons I already quoted. Anti authoritarian revolutionaries should celebrate with them – be inspired, and learn the relevant lessons.