Three years after staging the largest student protest in Canadian history, students in Quebec are gearing up for another one. Various media outlets may have threatened the same thing last year, and the year before, but the protests planned for the upcoming weeks are larger in scale than anything the province has seen since 2012.
As of this writing, 24 student organizations in Quebec, representing over 30,000 students at six university and CÉGEP campuses, have voted to strike as part of a protest against the Liberal government's austerity measures. Student organizations representing another 110,000 students are scheduled to carry out strike votes. The first accompanying protests will be held on March 21 and carry on until May 1, at which point organizers are hoping for a "social strike" that will incorporate support from unions, other left-wing organizations, and the public at large.
Whether or not you agree with the strike, you have to admit: students in Quebec know how to cause a fucking ruckus.
While Quebeckers tend to be more progressive than English Canadians in general, students in La Belle Province are also much more likely to take to the streets if they feel like they're getting a bad deal. The so-called "protest culture" on French campuses can also be attributed to the mobilization efforts of Quebec's radical student organizations. While the rhetoric of these groups tends to border on self-parody (particularly their calls for a "popular struggle"), they can also be very effective. Even when strikes aren't in full swing, student activist groups maintain an aggressive presence, such as the disruption of a presentation by assistant deputy minister Frank Des Rosier this January, or a protest last year that resulted in six arrests.
The Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), which played a major role in organizing both the "Maple Spring" of 2012 and the upcoming "Printemps 2015" movement, are regularly referred to as "militant" in the media. It's a description that they themselves encourage, which would be pretty much unthinkable for an English Canadian student group that represents 80,000 members. "We've been described as one of the most radical student groups in the province, and I think it's one of our strengths" says ASSÉ spokesperson Camille Godbout, who attributes the "militant" label to the "diversity of tactics" the group uses to make its message heard.
Granted, there are people in Quebec who are upset by the "disruptive" campus culture, and the English-language media has no problem finding them. There's David McLaughlin, the UQAM law student who took his student association to court in an effort to stop the strike, or the 14 political science instructors who wrote a letter complaining about the "intimidation, harassment, shoving, vandalism, looting and repeated strikes" of various activists. But on the whole, it's remarkable how effective groups like ASSÉ are at getting students on their side. Even if Quebec doesn't experience another full-fledged Maple Spring this year, the 30,000 students who are currently planning to strike will probably give a migraine to someone in the provincial government.
While student unions in English Canada are similarly concerned with social justice, their appeals for action tend to fall on a rather apathetic student populace. Even in Montreal, students from the English-language universities lack a similar awareness of social movements. "At McGill especially, there isn't the same culture of political activism," says Amina Moustaqim-Barrette, a vice president of McGill University's student society who is hoping to gather support for the strike from the University's various departmental associations.
"You go to UQÀM and that's what everyone's talking about and everyone's involved; that's not the case at McGill."
As of this writing, no student associations from any Quebec's three English language universities have yet agreed to join the impending strike (although a number of associations from Concordia are scheduled to vote on the matter soon).
For student activists in the rest of Canada, the student protests of 2012 must have felt like something out of the 1960s. In Quebec, where tuition was already almost half the price it was in the rest of Canada, students actually cared enough to do something about a tuition hike. Moustaqim-Barrette considers the protests a success—an example of "mass mobilization affecting policy and decisions being made [from the] top down." By certain measures, she's right. The protests contributed to the Liberal Party's loss in the fall election and lead directly to a temporary tuition freeze that Parti Québécois premier Pauline Marois announced a day after taking office.
But by other measures, like the actual effect they had on student life, the protests were unsuccessful. In early 2013 the Marois government announced a tuition hike that angered the same student leaders they marched with months earlier. Fatigue prevented another widespread protest, but two years and one ill-received fist-pump later and Quebec finds itself with another austerity-driven Liberal government. "Whether it's PQ or [Liberal], it doesn't matter for us," says Godbout, who mentions cuts to social services that were made by Parti Québécois, "We're going to be in the streets and we're going to fight back against the austerity measures."
Even without a specific tuition-hike to protest, student leaders can point to the impending cuts in education as something that will affect student experience. Though it's unlikely that general budget cuts will motivate students to campaign in a months-long protest, ASSÉ and other Printemps 2015 organizers are also hoping to gain the support of Quebec's unions and community groups to oppose cuts to healthcare and other public services. So perhaps it's not too unreasonable for Quebec students to call for another strike. After all, that would be the militant thing to do.
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