Squarely in the Red

Dispatches from the 2012 Quebec Student Strike

Squarely in the Red
Dispatches from the 2012 Québec Student Strike
Élise Thorburn
In the winter of 2012, students across the province of Québec walked out on strike over a proposed tuition increase by the provincial government. The strike – predicted by many to last just a few weeks – ended up stretching into the summer and grew from what was understood as a student movement against tuition increases. Students and their supporters held huge daytime rallies on the 22nd of each month and marches each evening at dusk, meeting at Emile Gamelin Park next to the Université de Québec à Montréal. In early May, angry students followed the ruling Liberal Party to Victoriaville, where the party faithful had assembled – fleeing from downtown Montréal to a small city in Central Québec – in an attempt to hide from the student protesters. The protest turned violent as riot police attacked student demonstrators, spraying tear gas, firing rubber bullets, hospitalizing one young demonstrator, and arresting several more. The scenes of violence in Victoriaville upset many Québeckers and mobilized others to take to the streets.
Soon after, in an effort to quell dissent and break the strike, the Québec government passed Law 78 (later called Law 12) which criminalized any gathering of more than 50 people in a public space unless organizers sent official notification and details of the march route to police beforehand. The law also put limits on protestors’ proximity to universities and prohibited demonstrators from blocking access to classes. Finally, it cancelled the spring semester in April, promising a return to classes in mid-August to complete unfinished courses.
The creation of Law 78 mobilized the student movement beyond the confines of the university and gave rise to a proliferation of neighbourhood assemblies across Montréal, and the nightly casseroles demonstrations – spontaneous manifestations where Montréal residents took to the street at 8:30pm each evening, banging pots and pans and often marching from their neighbourhood towards the downtown, meeting with others along the way and eventually joining with the regular night marches.
In an effort to quell the growing discontent, the ruling Liberal government called an election just as classes were to return in August, effectively taking the wind out of the strike and demobilising most of the strikers’ activities. Many students and student federations – primarily the more centrist and reformist Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) and Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) – threw their political energies into the elections. Strike votes held on the eve of many campuses re-opening in mid-August failed. Many students said they wanted to keep the strike on hold until after the outcome of the elections; others felt that the strike had gone on long enough. The election call mobilized a rightwing core of students who opposed the strike from the beginning and were able to bring out enough numbers to vote the strike down. However, the draconian measures by the government and universitites also impacted the energy of the strike. With Law 78 passed, individual students and associations faced huge fines for those who organized demonstrations. Some universities refused to cancel classes, so students who voted to continue the strike faced failing grades and possible academic sanctions or explusion. With so many young people’s future immediately on the line, it became difficult to maintain a focus on the longer horizon, on the fight for free and accessible quality education for everyone.
On September fourth, the Liberals were removed from office in Québec’s provincial election, superceded by the separatist Parti Québecois. The new government immediately overturned the tuition increases and Law 78, thus decisively ending the student strike of 2012 that had brought many into the streets and emboldened not only the political culture of Québec but, it must be said, all of Canada. What comes next is uncertain, but for the first time in at least a decade some sense of hope has returned to activism in Canada, some sense of immanent possibility imbues what we feel we can do when we are organized.


Élise Thorburn spoke with organizers and radicals in Quebec in the Spring and Summer of 2012. At that time, the strike was still gathering momentum, with regular nightly demos and high levels of police repression. In the months between these interviews and their publication, much has changed, and much has seemingly returned to normal on campuses across the province. Ideas about the struggle, its lessons, and how to move forward may have changed; despite this, we present the following interviews, which serve as a snapshot of a movement underway and provide us with some detail about the political landscape of the radical Left in Québec during those heated moments of 2012.
Reflecting on these narratives as they existed in the moment, no matter how opinions may have changed, is important because their insights offer lessons for those of us organizing throughout the rest of Canada and beyond.The interviewees represent a broad cross-section of the strike movement. Elise spoke with francophone, anglophone, and bilingual students. She spoke with those directly involved in organizing in their departments and universities, and those who organized from the outside, in neighbourhoods and communities. In the end she chose six interviewees who provide broad perspectives and analysis on the strike. They focus on a range of important issues in the movement: the history of struggle in Québec universities, the role of nationalism, language, and race in the current moment, the difficulties of the directly democratic assembly process, and the role of media in a digitally saturated world. Themes and conflicts arise alongside visions of how a movement can progress.
These interviews demonstrate the radical education that many received over the months of striking in Québec. They offer challenges to our collective struggles. As the last year made evident, the most powerful form of solidarity we can show our comrades in Québec is to mobilize our own struggles alongside theirs, take the lessons they have learned, and push the movement beyond its current limitations.
BENOIT MARSAN is a graduate student in the History Department at Sherbrooke University, which went on a partial strike in the spring of 2012. In 2000-2001 Benoit helped found L’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (l’ASSÉ), the militant organization whose philosophy and membership guide La Coalition large de l’ASSÉ (CLASSE), the coalition that is the organizational backbone of the Québec student movement today.
In the 1960s, a lot of the inspiration for the Québec student movement came from France. Québec students went to France and adopted the ideas about students as intellectual workers. This became the main theoretical and ideological foundation of our organizing. The theory is that students are workers and therefore have same rights that workers have: the right to associate, to organize, and to militate.
The principles of the student as worker were adopted by the Left student movement in Québec in 1961 and formed the basis of the principles of student unionism in Québec. This explains why CLASSE, l’ASSÉ, and their earlier manifestations like Le Mouvement pour le Droit à l’Education (Right to Education/MDE) and Association nationale des étudiants et des étudiantes du Québec (ANEEQ), are organized with the same structures as the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), Québec’s second largest union.
Before l’ASSÉ in the 2000s, there was MDE. MDE was the organization behind the 1996 student general strike, and I served on its executive council. By 2000 MDE was dying, a process that was accelerated by internal criticism of the movement’s structure and organizational problems. MDE was a hybrid group, somewhere between a student union and an organization for people wanting to defend the right to organize. Student union locals could become members, but so could individual students, and non-students. Because of this, serious clashes sometimes developed between the student unions and non-union members.
With the demise of MDE, some radical student union locals – particularly at the Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP) level – worried that moderate, reformist, and conservative student unions would fill the vacuum.
Officially, l’ASSÉ was founded during the winter of 2001, just before the Summit of the Americas in Québec City. It was in the context of the anti-globalization movement and the energy this movement inspired that l’ASSÉ emerged. The initial demands of l’ASSÉ were the same as those of left student unions in Québec since the 1960s: the democratization of education, the democratic administration of schools by students, free education on all levels, and the end of student debt by converting loans into bursaries.
It would be a mistake to argue that the student movement is existentially linked to the national question in Québec. The nationalist struggle in Québec is not necessarily a leftist struggle. At various times in our history, most especially in the 1970s, it has leaned towards the left; but in the early 20th century nationalists were often even more conservative than the Catholic Church and sometimes explicitly fascist. We have to remember that radicals in Canada have lived everywhere. Before the Second World War most Canadian radicals were in the West: in Winnipeg with the General Strike and out West with the On To Ottawa trek and the strikes in labour camps. As an historian, I find the assertion that this struggle is only possible in Québec or particular to the Québecois mesmerizing. That construction is false, historically speaking.

ROSALIND HAMPTON a proud parent and member of Students of Colour Montréal, a collective of university and CEGEP students and activists who work together on anti-colonial and anti-racist initiatives.She has worked for over two decades as a youth and family worker and as an art educator. She is working on her doctorate in Educational Studies and was active in the student strike.
For me, participating in the student movement has been a really powerful, layered experience. I’ve been involved in organizing and activism through university and am also a member of Students of Colour Montréal. The Québec student movement has been justifiably criticized because it lacks an anti-colonial and anti-racist analysis and because of the racist incidents that have occurred, including a couple of incidents of blackface by student demonstrators. However, my experience within the student movement has not involved a greater frequency of encounters with racism than my experiences outside of the movement. I have learned a lot through participating in student/activist workshops and various private and public conversations about race, class, and gender in relation to social activism in general and the current movement in Québec specifically. I think that anti-colonial and anti-racist critiques are really important in our organizing. I am especially interested in the ways that popular education and the learning that happens in and through movements can advance the development of that critique. There should be more of these conversations across differences, between activists and the communities with which we identify, to push this critique and organize this movement further.
Organizing a movement that involves racialized communities and does not tokenize their participation requires a conscious long-term commitment. Rather than thinking about strategies of how to make white patriarchal movements more appealing to women and people of colour, the goal should be to build a diverse and inclusive movement that engages ongoing feminist and anti-colonial critique. This means the involvement of people of colour, women, queer/gender non-conforming, and working class people from the very beginning. A mobilization campaign with a diverse core is much more likely to develop and grow organically into a socially inclusive movement. Members of marginalized communities are more likely to recognize oppressive practices and policies as they emerge, and committed and critically minded activists of all backgrounds can then work reflexively and across differences to root out problems. A diverse membership also equips a movement to speak and act from a greater number of perspectives informed by lived experience, and increases the potential for cross-sector, inter-community organizing and solidarity.

WILL PROSPER is a co-founder and spokesperson of Montréal Nord Republik (MNR), a collective that denounces economic and social injustice in the neighbourhood of Montréal North. Prosper is an activist and community member of the neighbourhood. He helped to form MNR following the death of Fredy Villaneuva, an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by police in broad daylight in 2008. Prosoper is also a documentary filmmaker and was a candidate for Québec Solidaire in Montréal North.
My role in the student movement is trying to involve neighbourhoods – in particular, the mostly immigrant communities on the periphery of the downtown where we hold mini-marches, casseroles, and assemblies. These communities have been very disconnected from what is going on in downtown Montréal, including the student strike. Our goal is to organize events and information that help explain what the student strike is, why it is happening, and how it – and tuition increases – affect us in North Montréal.
Some people in our neighbourhood don’t even know what the casseroles are, so when we organized pots and pans rallies here they didn’t know what was going on. It’s funny because the casseroles received a lot of attention from the media, but when your focus is on the struggle to survive, to makes ends meet and pay your rent, you don’t have time to pay attention to fights that don’t seem to involve you.
A lot of people are being forgotten by the movement. Students don’t just live in Hochelaga or Outremont; they live up here too. The Haitian community, for instance, is being particularly affected by the tuition fee increases because we are not a particularly rich community. There are a lot of drop-outs in the Haitian community, and we try to encourage kids to continue their education. The tuition fee increases will make that more difficult. But the FECQ, FEUQ, and CLASSE are not reaching out to us in Montréal North or in other immigrant neighbourhoods. So I am trying to reach out to them.
In particular, we are trying to bridge that gap by having assemblies with people in the student movement, community activists, leaders in the Haitian community, and other ethnic groups from the neighbourhood. We try to talk about why we feel disconnected from the strike: when we look at the news about the strike, we don’t see ourselves reflected in its spokespeople. It’s how human beings are – we need to see someone who looks like us in order to feel a part of something.
What often happens is that these movements create anti-racist, pro-feminist policies and proposals, but do little to act on them. It is never too late to make the changes that will allow us to work together, to feel a part of this movement, to build a stronger movement. This is something that I have been trying to point out through my own organizing and interventions. When CLASSE hosted a march and some students brought out a giant paper maché head of Charest wearing black face, I intervened. I told them that this imagery was offensive and didn’t make sense.
Most of my interventions are met with apologies, which doesn’t really deal with the issue. It is easy to say or write something, but difficult to apply it; I want to know what happens after the apology. Different people with different views are necessary to strengthen the movement. This is what we are trying to do with MNR and our participation in the student movement.
It is not only the communities of colour that this movement seems to have left aside; it is also the Anglophone community. There is a strong social movement among anglophone Québeckers here, but you don’t see this community represented in the student movement either. This is a problem because the struggle we are engaged in is not only a struggle of the white Francophone.
I think the student movement is important; even with my criticisms, I continue to support it. That being said, if it continues to exclude so many people and sees itself as a fight for just one group of people – that would scare me. It frustrates me that I am perceived as an obstacle, someone trying to divert attention from the main issues, when I raise these concerns. The problems that I am outlining need to be taken into consideration and dealt with in order to build a stronger movement.
Québec has a history of radical activism that is strong and, in some ways, very recent. The sovereigntist movement in Québec built activism into the culture. This history of struggle means that a lot of people know how to organize a movement, which is why there are so many Québec nationalists present in this struggle.
My father was a Québec nationalist, an independiste. Both he and my mother worked with René Lévesque and fought for the independence of Québec. They understood the struggle for national sovereignty because they came from a country with a history of a national liberation struggle. Haitian slaves threw off the French colonisers and ended slavery in the 19th century, becoming the first free Black country. This knowledge of our history made it easy for my parents to associate themselves and their history with an independence struggle in Québec.
My mother told a story of how she’d go to Eaton’s in downtown Montréal and they would tell her, when she spoke French, to “speak white.” It was through experiences like this that she understood the importance of Québec sovereignty. In 1995, when Premier Parizeau said that the sovereignty referendum was lost because of “money and the ethnic vote,” that really killed my dad. He said, “you are blaming me, but we fought alongside you.”
This shows that some of those people just never took other communities into account. Instead of looking at the history of the various immigrant communities in Québec, they see these communities as a hurdle to be cleared on the way to sovereignty. It would be so easy to connect together the struggles of the Haitians and the Algerians – all these histories of national liberation could be connected. Instead, the sovereigntists pushed away immigrant communities, and the nationalist movement suffered.
If other provinces, or states, want to organize campaigns like a student strike, it will be important to take lessons from the past and from the current movement. This means seeing the failings of these movements and working not to repeat them. This means being active in involving the whole community – all communities – in a student struggle. It means contacting leaders and activists in minority communities and inquiring about what support they need. It means finding out what the issues are in their communities with regard to education. What are the drop-out rates? What kind of struggle would resonate most? What can a movement do to work in support and solidarity with them? What can we do to help each other, to build a stronger movement? I would suggest trying to build these connections right now, before a strike gets underway.
If you do this – if you begin to organize together, across all kinds of differences, ethnicities, and communities – you have the foundations for a new society. Getting immigrant kids, kids of colour, minority kids involved in the struggle will mean that even if you lose, you have a whole new bunch of kids who are rugged, tested, and who can go out there next time prepared for the struggle. You are helping develop people who will understand struggle and will be ready to organize, fight, and struggle again. Right now the movement is just developing expertise in the same old people: white militants who are already-constituted activists. Everyone else is disconnected. This is exactly what the capitalists do – they create specialists, they valorise expertise, and they keep everyone else out. The activist community has to expand and give more people the experience of struggle to broaden the movement.

NASTASSIA WILLIAMS is currently completing her Masters in Political Science at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). She was involved in mobilizing students at UQAM and in her department, and was an elected member of AECSSP, the Political Science Graduate Student Association. She was a delegate to CLASSE congresses several times and maintains a commitment to direct democracy.
UQAM has always been a radical school, and my department has been very politically active. My faculty is a member of CLASSE and we have tried to collectively organize ourselves and maintain a culture of direct democracy. In joining CLASSE, we began organizing with people for whom this radical culture was not deeply ingrained, and sometimes that was hard. Because we operate on the principles of direct democracy, sometimes our meetings are long and difficult, sometimes questions or resolutions or proposals do not get resolved in one day. We have to spend a lot of time discussing and sometimes, in the end, we have to abstain from a vote.
One of the major issues that CLASSE faced this spring centred on the question of violence in street demonstrations. The government said it would not include us in negotiations unless we denounced violence. This was a contentious issue, and the debate took a very long time. We finally came to the position that we do denounce violence, but that we do not believe that vandalism or self defense constitute violence. We denounce conscious violence against people. In this way, we could condemn the violence of the police officers while not turning on our comrades who may have broken a window. It was a hard position to agree upon because CLASSE is a very broad coalition. Within the organization there are pacifists, Maoists, anarchists, and all sorts of people.
It is important to remember that CLASSE is not a radical organization. There are radical wings within it, but the coalition itself is not radical. L’ASSÉ is more radical, but still has reformists within it. The move from 40,000 ASSÉ members to around 100,000 CLASSE members meant the entry of a lot of new students and new politics, which created some clashes – most notably around process. I have argued with people because they vote their own position and not that of their assembly. This is a problem because the directly democratic assembly model is the foundation of the movement and using direct democratic models for decision making was a condition of becoming a member of CLASSE.
The main difficulty with this model centres on participation. In the midst of the strike there are so many assemblies each week, and they can be boring and difficult. People miss assemblies or stop attending, assuming that someone else will come in their place. It is so much easier to go and vote in a referendum but then there is no discussion, no exchange and debate. Instead, people internalize the decision and their position and it is not part of a collective process.
There are problems with people who work or who have kids being able to attend so many meetings. We are using strategies to ensure equitable participation at the microphone, and we have always encouraged people to bring their children with them if they need to because we can provide childcare. We also move around the dates and times of assemblies to accommodate people’s work schedules. At the end of the day, though, you simply have to come and participate in the discussions in order to vote. This is the only way of ensuring meaningful votes. The criticisms of this have mostly come from people opposing the strike altogether.
LAITH MAROUF AND LAURA KNEALE were Community University Television’s (CUTV) program manager and station manager, respectively, during the strike. Their innovative leadership turned the station from a video studio to a functioning online television news program that broadcast much of the strike live. Recording everything from student and neighbourhood assemblies, to casseroles and community events, to demonstrations, CUTV was integral in spreading the news of the student strike outside of Québec. The embeddedness of CUTV volunteers within the movement enabled the program to shed critical light on the police violence that student and community activists faced, with CUTV volunteer reporters often bearing the brunt of that violence. The station became known around the world; their footage was used by major news providers like Al Jazeera and the BBC, and they collectively envisioned new ways for activists to think about broadcasting, radical media, and critical surveillance.
Laith: Founded in 1969, CUTV is the country’s oldest community campus television station. It wasn’t until about two years ago – when we hired actual staff and built a budget – that we were able to change the production focus from supporting student film and renting out video equipment, to doing actual television work. Although we are a campus station, almost half of our members are not actually students. Our name is now Community University Television, not Concordia University Television.

Laura: Prior to 2010, CUTV was a very disorganized space. It was mostly a site for people to edit film and video and rent equipment. We were awarded a higher student levy in November 2009, which doubled the budget and allowed us to hire a new station manager. I was hired as station manager and I wrote the first budget that spring. We hired Laith as program director. Together we coordinated and opened up discussions with our membership to talk about the direction of the station, and also looked for as many subsidies as possible so that we could hire more people.
One of the big differences between community television and other community media is the fact that television necessitates very strong structures and more hours of labour – volunteer or paid – because it is such a complex type of media. Video editing is a skill that can take years to hone. Then there’s all the work of outreach and coordination, just getting people out there with the equipment and creating content. We involved our membership in consultations and little by little we created the structures and policies to really direct the station and help it grow in a beneficial way. We started the live stream, initially, in an attempt to politicize the campus around the Concordia Student Union. We filmed council meetings and streamed them to the internet. This helped us gain legitimacy on campus, because Concordia has a very thriving and competitive media scene – two newspapers, a radio station, and a TV station. Only the student newspapers bothered with the council meetings, and we thought this might be an important place for us to begin to intervene.

Laith: We had our ear to the ground. The strikes didn’t arise from thin air – they are the product of at least two years of organizing. We are part of and embedded in the student community, and we worked to make ourselves ready for the strikes. We decided to invest in purchasing high definition livestreaming capabilities and eventually leased a Live U – a system that broadcasts high definition video over 3G and 4G networks. The hardware is carried in a backpack, which is connected by a firewire to a shoulder-mounted video camera. The hardware sends the video data through cellphone signals to different networks and uploads it to our livestream channel. We chose to invest in Live U hardware, which is considerably more expensive than simply live streaming from a laptop webcam, because we are trying to do something different than a lot of other film and autonomous media collectives are trying to do. We are not just trying to document things with high quality imaging, like some film collectives do, nor do we think it’s enough to just be there when action happens, like some media activists do. We are trying to create television quality production with an explicit bias towards people’s movements, so that we offer a high quality, produced alternative to both the public and the private sectors.
It is very clear that the private and the public arms of the fourth estate are not going to give any sort of support or even equitable voice to the students and their objectives. But our mandate is different from public or private media. We are not beholden to shareholders, profits, or the state. We are here to represent communities that otherwise lack representation or are misrepresented in the mainstream media – and this extends from cultural and artistic communities to ethnic and political communities. We exist to give those voices a platform – a high quality, well produced platform that can offer a challenge to the 24-hour production cycle of huge TV stations and the quality of footage they produce. While citizen produced media is very important and worthwhile, carrying a laptop or filming with a cellphone isn’t going to cut it for us.
Aside from the technology, productions such as ours require a group of amazing members doing all kinds of work on a voluntary basis – they are willing to go out for six or eight hours and run through the streets in demos with the students. There were tactical decisions made when we decided what kind of technology we should invest in, and in the end it paid off.

Laura: Livestreaming is important because it gives people immediate access to information about what is going on in the streets and why. Organizers are presented as their real selves, not as caricatures. When people see this, they begin to feel empowered by the media; it doesn’t have to focus solely on criticism and vandalism. CUTV’s live streaming coverage really popularized the movement and it also forced the mainstream media to improve their coverage.
The implementation of Law 78 had a direct impact on us. We have come to be recognized as an actor in the Québec uprising – what some are calling the Québec Spring – and a lot of the mainstream media began saying, “CUTV are sort of on the edge of journalism because they invite people out to demonstrations, they encourage people to go.” It’s true – we encourage people to go to the marches and demos and we are very proud of doing that. Law 78 criminalises the intent to organize marches and demonstrations of more than 50 people without prior police notice, which includes inviting people to attend. I feel that the implementation of this law is a direct attack on the impact that we had on expanding the movement from a student strike to a broader movement. Of course, we aren’t the only people who have done this, but we have played a role.

Laith: The implementation of Law 78 – now Law 12 – certainly contributed to the increase in police violence toward CUTV livestream teams. Early on in the strike, the police were not used to us – they didn’t understand what we were doing and didn’t really have a plan for how to deal with us. Nor did the Charest government. For example, we followed a demo of about 200 people one morning and the police kettled the students. I watched – and filmed – the police beat on these kids even though they held their hands in the air.
The cops turned around and saw me filming. They didn’t like that. They started pushing me back for half a block, while I argued my right to be there and told them that they were interfering with my work. And then, live on air, they arrested me, charging me with interfering with their work. I don’t think they knew what to do. They were very unaccustomed to having a camera record their actions like that, and they didn’t seem to understand that it was live.
From then on, the cops began straight up attacking us. In the beginning it was with pepper spray; but after Victoriaville – where one student lost his eye – and after Law 78 was passed, the police just went wild in the streets. They attacked our team four times in a row, very clearly targeting the camera. One cop hit the lens with a baton, cracking the metal casing that holds the lens. The camera kept filming, but another cop hit the sound equipment and broke it. They separated the team and then they attacked me again and broke two of my ribs. But this is what’s great about the live broadcasting: the reporters and me were on the ground, speaking as we are feeling. We were expressing our emotions and speaking directly to the cops, demanding answers from them. It really gives people an inside look at the way police behave and calls into question their legitimacy.
At the same time, the footage is streaming live at the police station, and the major media outlets have all told us that their editorial rooms stream our broadcasts. We do have to be careful who and what we film. But still, I see it as very important that we continue doing what we are doing. Most people in opposition to the status quo, to structures of power, are demonized, criminalized, humiliated, and shamed by mainstream media. This makes people afraid to be on camera, afraid to speak on camera. But we’ve been in the street so much, we wear the red squares, and many of us are students. Our bias is clear, and we will offer a platform to those whose voices are otherwise unheard.

Laura: It is important to mention that we recognize the technologies we are using are not accessible to a lot of community media, or to independent journalists. I see a fine balance between the mandate of making media accessible and our attempts to make and broadcast quality productions. Our experience has taught us that, even without the expensive and advanced technology, we can give people the tools to make a huge impact. The technology is important, but not more important than being in tune with the community we are representing, and being there in the streets, really giving people the opportunity to represent themselves.
The Live U equipment, though, has given us an edge in terms of viewership – our live viewership has reached as high as 10,000, with viewers from all over the world. Our video content has been shared thousands of times. This is one of the ways I see us having a huge impact on the strike. CUTV wouldn’t be where it is right now if the members who made the first videos, the first streams, weren’t able to share them online. The accessibility of content via the internet has played an important role in CUTV’s growth, but also the growth and expansion of the student movement. H