Columns

Lattanzi-Silveus ’14: The Quebec student strike: Why not here?

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Last spring, the Canadian province of Quebec erupted in a wave of mass protests and the largest student strike in Quebec’s history. The cause: a tuition hike of about $1,600 called for by the government. On its largest day of protest, between 300,000 and 400,000 people marched in actions led by the student unions. Three-quarters of Quebec’s student population refused to go to class. Classes and exams were canceled, the entire education system in Quebec came grinding to a halt.

The government, for its part, responded by attempting to repress the students. Aside from the usual tactic of unleashing the police to round up, beat up or brutalize the protesters, legislators also enacted the draconian Law 12, formerly known as Bill 78. This law slaps a fine of up to $5,000 on people participating in any demonstration not pre-approved by the government, which also reserves the right to change the place of the protest in the interest of “public security.” And the fine for any participating student organization is up to $125,000. Fortunately, the law has had the opposite of its desired effect – students and unions have continued to demonstrate in numbers so high that Law 12 has been impossible to enforce.

As of this writing, it seems likely that the students have won real concessions. The party that just won the most votes in the recent election, the Parti Québécois, has publicly declared that it will repeal both the tuition hike and Law 12. But many, including CLASSE ­- the student union that organized the protests – say they will fight for higher education to be a free public good.

Such a stunning show of force from students that are closer to us geographically than Washington, D.C. begs the question of whether the same pushback might be possible in the U.S. After all, we have more cause to be frustrated with our system of higher education than Canadian students do. We have to deal with a lack of transparency at many institutions, including our own, a decrease in faculty tenure, low numbers of students and faculty of color, the inaccessibility of good higher education and, of course, skyrocketing tuition and student debt. In fact, student debt in the U.S. is now more than $1 trillion, surpassing both credit card debt and auto loans.

So I’m sure most of us balked at the seemingly small tuition increase that the Quebec students are fighting against. After all, what is $1,600 next to the more than $40,000 of tuition we have to pay per year? And even with that increase, students in Quebec will still only have to pay about $3,800 annually. Why are they the ones in the streets, and not us?

Maybe we feel we’re getting our money’s worth? And yet, McGill University in Quebec is ranked 17th in the world by U.S. News and World Report, whereas Brown comes in 39th. Or maybe it’s that we’re at a private institution rather than a public one like McGill? But even public tuition in the U.S. far outpaces Quebec’s – the average cost is more than $8,000 for in-state tuition and more than $20,000 for out of state. So again – why are they in the streets, and not us? The real difference between here and there is the existence in Quebec of strong student unions, such as CLASSE, that are able to organize and mobilize quickly in response to an attack on education.

So how did they do it?

In an interview with Socialist Worker newspaper two of the leaders of CLASSE, Guillaume Legault – who will come to speak at Brown Sept. 25 – and Guillaume Vézina, noted two keys to their success. The first was the international context, as the Arab Spring and our very own Occupy movement inspired them and showed them that such mass protest is possible. The second was that they “built a huge national team of volunteers, organized the campuses, laid the groundwork and built general assemblies to prepare for the strike.” In other words, they built cross-campus connections, and they built highly democratic decision-making bodies in which students could collectively decide to strike.

We in the United States have much more to fight back against. Tuition is increasing steadily and will continue to increase until few but the wealthy will be able to become educated without taking on crippling debt. In fact, we are arguably already at this point. As the Quebec students drew inspiration from the Occupy movement, we should draw inspiration from them, taking home the lesson that students can and should have the power to fight for changes in higher education.

 

 

Luke Lattanzi-Silveus ’14 is a proud member of the International Socialist Organization and can be reached at luke_lattanzi-silveus@brown.edu. 

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