A dishonest student movement

Not only do striking Quebec students reveal tensions within the province, the action is disingenuous

103! That is the number of mice released into the office of Quebec premier Jean Charest in February 2005. The mice represented the $103-million in student grants that the Charest government had converted into student loans, thereby magnifying debt loads for many of Quebec’s poorest students. The stunt came at the onset of a student strike that lasted for several weeks and at one point counted over 200,000 student participants. The action had the immediate effect of convincing the government to give in. And it seemed that when Quebec students skipped class, the government was sure to listen. In fact, the tuition freeze enjoyed by Quebec residents since 1996, though recently lifted, was itself the result of a three-week student affair with the province’s streets.

Outside of Quebec, the spectacle of students marching in the streets and actually getting what they want, leaves student union activists in the Rest of Canada positively green with envy. Amanda Aziz, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students and former president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union has said that if she’d been a student activist in Quebec things would have been “easier.”

Getting students out to the provincial legislature once a year to bark about tuition is hard enough, but a student strike that lasts for weeks remains an unrequited dream outside of Quebec. Prior to the Ontario election, there were threats of a student strike if tuition wasn’t lowered. However, all that met that unheeded demand was tumbleweeds.

This week, the covetous eyes of student activists in the Rest of Canada will once again turn toward la belle province as student associations across Quebec prepare to strike in protest of the Charest government’s plan to raise tuition $100 a year in each of the next five years. Average tuition in Quebec reached just over $2,000 this year, while out of province students pay over $5,000 a year. In response, there will be three days of demonstrations across the province beginning tomorrow, with Thursday to be the biggest event in downtown Montreal.

But while the Quebec student movement appears united, it is in fact deeply divided. Moreover, the idea of a student strike is more than a little disingenuous.

The Association for Solidarity Among Student Unions(ASSE)has been pushing for action for months and had originally hoped for an unlimited province-wide strike with an initial start date of October 15. However, several ASSE members, particularly its CEGEP members, voted against an unlimited strike arguing the action is ideological, divisive and too soon after the 2005 strike. Though some were in favour of an unlimited strike such as the student association representing social science students at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

Having not met the threshold of student governments representing 25,000 students, which the ASSE had set for itself, the mostly French student government lobby group settled for the tamer three days of “strike.”

“We don’t want to be doing nothing this semester, so we decided to hold a few days of strike,” an ASSE spokesperson told the McGill Daily.

But the ASSE was emboldened last week, when students represented by student governments in favour of a strike grew to over 30,000.

“People just needed something to start the escalation of action,” another ASSE spokesperson told the McGill Daily.

But, that the ASSE is willing to call a three day protest a strike should confuse even the most dedicated of activists. A strike, as it is generally understood, entails picketing until a settlement is reached, not promising to skip school, placards firmly in hand, for a few days. In fact, the only apparent difference between tomorrow’s planned strike and a regular protest is that student governments sought mandates from students, whereas a protest could have been organized without such formalities.

Still, even an unlimited strike would be a misnomer — a weak attempt to link student governments with workers unions.

Whereas a workers’ strike has the potential to place pressure upon employers through the withholding of services, what does a student strike aim to withhold? The pleasure of seeing angry students walking the halls? Or perhaps the insightful commentary first-year students provide in a principles of economics class? Or is it the half-eaten portions of poutine strewn about the cafeteria that will be missed? Could the absence of students compel administrators or the government to enrol “scabs” to replace the truants?

Clearly, choosing to borrow union nomenclature and “going on strike” is meant to give a sense of political weight, a sense of radicalism, and a sense that students who “strike” are somehow more committed to the cause than those who simply “protest.” And that is dishonest. It is also the source of some of the divisions among Quebec student associations.

The ASSE has criticized the Federation of Quebec University Students(FEUQ), a moderate student lobby group, for stalling strike efforts. But, it is the FEUQ that has taken the more genuine approach as they bucked the temptation to call their protest, to take place one week after the ASSE event, a “strike.” Though both events will carry the moniker “day of action.”

And divisions don’t lie only along the political spectrum. There is also tension along linguistic lines. While the ASSE has struggled to get its mostly French-speaking members on board, the “movement” is even further behind in Quebec’s English-speaking universities.

On October 24, a group marched through McGill University carrying a coffin to symbolize the “death of accessible education.” And one protester complained into a megaphone that English students should follow their French counterparts. “Historically, anglophones have been lacking in the student movement in Quebec . . . In this situation, francophone students should serve as an inspiration,” the protester said. According to the McGill Daily “students in the cafeteria ate their lunches and looked on in silence.”

The Student Society of McGill University failed to meet their quorum requirement of 500 students, with at least 250 of those students being from a faculty other than Arts, and could not pass a strike vote on Tuesday. The over 600 students, of which only 218 were not liberal arts students, voted 80 percent in favour of supporting a day of action on Thursday.  Though it is unclear how many students showed up to vote for a strike, or because they have been enticed by a group calling themselves Students Organized Against Protest(SOAP).

SOAP had a number of motions tabled, all centring around William Shatner, and include building a shrine to Shatner and giving McGill buildings Star Trek themed names. All the motions passed.

At Concordia University, things have been following a similar pattern. A strike vote was to be held at a general assembly for the Concordia Students Union last month, but there wasn’t even a chance of meeting quorum, as barely 100 students showed up. While a good many of the paltry 100 were there to support strike action, there was, according to the Link, some dissent: “When I talk to people they don’t care about the $100 increase,”  one engineering student said. “The ‘60s are over, man.”

It is not difficult to see why the movement is languishing in Quebec’s English-speaking universities, as many of their students are from out-of-province, and are not privy to Quebec’s extraordinarily low tuition fees. Around 30 per cent of all first-year students entering McGill in 2005 were from out-of-province, while another 22 per cent were international students. That’s a lot of people to convince that it is in their interest for other students to avoid a $100 increase, while they themselves pay more than double.

While student associations “representing” 30,000 students have agreed to take part in what bored education reporters can only hope will be mayhem in Montreal, it will be interesting to see if students themselves participate in numbers greater than an intro to psych class at McGill. More interesting will be to see how much the support for this week’s events would extend to an unlimited strike.

In fact, stopping to think about it begs the question: are demonstrations such as these even in students’ interests? Students are not being paid to provide a service, they are paying for a service. Is a $100 increase worth missing valuable class time and threatening your grades over?

At best, a student strike could be considered a consumer boycott. But if so, it is a boycott of a very strange variety. Given that the vast majority of students have already paid their fees this boycott is akin to refusing to use your internet service after you’ve already had it installed and paid the bill. You just wouldn’t do it because no one would care. Besides, would you boycott health care because the government allowed the introduction of user fees?

If the demonstrations in 1996 and 2005 were successful, it is because they were successful protests and nothing more. Calling a protest a strike may convince activists that they are indeed being radical, but it doesn’t make it so. It does, however, make it painfully obvious that entrenched within the student movement is dishonesty. Or, if you prefer to give the benefit of the doubt, delusion.