Quebec students are teaching us all an important lesson
"Those who struggle may fail. Those who do not struggle have already failed."
- Bertolt Brecht
Quebec's students are teaching, or re-teaching, an important lesson to all of us.
Canada, and here in British Columbia, decades of neo-liberalism have
rolled back our public services. Even more damaging, perhaps, has been
the way these years have rolled back our public imagination.
The There Is No Alternative (TINA) doctrine, popularized by Margaret
Thatcher's Conservative rule in the U.K., still holds sway over much of
our political discourse. Official policy debates are too often just a
matter of opposing views on how to tinker around the edges.
But in Quebec, the student movement is pointing right at the heart of
the matter. Faced with a 75 per cent tuition increase, they have fought
back - hard. Holding out on strike for well over three months now, they
have displayed remarkable unity and creativity.
In addition to putting up a fight for their own right to an accessible education, they have appealed to the wider society, calling for a ‘social strike' against Quebec's Charest government. As in B.C., Quebec's government is Liberal by name, but in reality is a coalition that represents right-wing corporate interests.
Earlier this month, the Charest government announced it had a tentative ‘deal' with the students. But when this ‘offer', which did not in fact do anything to cut the proposed tuition increase, was discussed democratically by the student unions, it was overwhelmingly rejected.
Faced with this collective defiance by the students, the Charest government has turned to some incredibly draconian legislation. Rushed through in an all-night session of the National Assembly, Loi [Law] 78 puts onerous restrictions on the right to assemble and threatens students who continue the strike with heavy fines. CLASSE, one of the student organizations leading the strike, had anticipated this type of action by the government in an earlier appeal:
"Let us stop fearing the laws that fetter our discontent, let us collectively disobey and go together into the streets of Quebec. Alone, this disobedience will be marginalized and repressed by the government. But if all sectors of Quebec society act together, the government will be unable to rely on the courts."
Opponents of Quebec's student strike often bring up the history of Paris in 1968 as a sort of 'bogeyman' of wild, radical students.
Let's not concede the spirit of '68 to their ahistorical scaremongering. Paris 1968 was part of a worldwide uprising that dared to dream of a better world.
The bold actions of the young French students sparked a general strike across the country that nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle. The example reverberated on campuses around the world.
All movements for greater social justice sometimes need a spark from the young, from the generations that are not weighed down by past defeats and disappointments.
In 1968, the Parisian students shouted, 'Sous les pavés, la plage!' (under the paving stones, the beach!) conjuring the imagination of a just and truly free society.
Today, the Quebec students speak of a 'grève générale illimitée' (unlimited general strike) or, in a playful twist, 'rêve général illimité.'
Quebec's student strike, and the utopian energies and slogans it has unleashed, should not be sneered at or cynically dismissed by anyone concerned about changing the dismal state of politics in Canada and British Columbia.
The global financial crisis, and the inspiration provided by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, has weakened TINA but it's proving a stubborn acronym and doctrine to kill off. Here in North America, the Quebec student strike is the most important challenge to TINA we've seen in a long time.
So let us all take a moment and show some solidarity. It's the right thing to do, and we might just learn some things that we can apply in the rest of Canada too.