Quebec Students Victory on Tuition Hikes, Fight for Free Education Continues

In Quebec, a provincial election has been held. A new government has been elected. They promised they would end the planned tuition hike that helped lead to the defeat Jean Charest, the leader of the Liberal Party.


Now joining us to talk about the election and where the student movement is at is Jérémie Bédard-Wien. He’s a CEGEP student based in Montreal—and for those who don’t know the Quebec system, CEGEP is kind of a community college. He’s a student organizer for the student organization CLASSE. He’s on their executive. And he joins us now from Montreal. Thank you very much for joining us, Jérémie.


JAY: So, first of all, to what extent do you think the tuition issue and the student uprising, which, for those who haven’t followed the story, was massive—there were demonstrations at times in the hundreds of thousands—how much did that contribute to the downfall of Charest and the Liberal—or some people call neoliberal—government?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Oh, it contributed hugely. It’s kind of the elephant in the room. In fact, I think it contributed in two major ways. First of all, prior to the election, of course, the strike movement made those issues—the issue of the tuition hike, but also deeper issues around education, notably free education and the corporatization of our postsecondary system, were put on the forefront. And so the parties had to react. The PQ, which has been elected, of course, in a bid to gain student votes, wore the red square for a little while and promised to end this tuition hike.

Now, we also raised—continued to raise those issues during the summer as we went on a tour of 30 Quebec cities. CLASSE has not played a direct role in the election proper, but as you can see from the participation rates, this election was very much a huge deal, especially as students voted more and more than prior elections. So in effect they did contribute to the downfall of the Liberal government.

JAY: So the strike—there was a vote whether to keep the strike going. For those who, again, haven’t followed this, and if I have it correctly, the semester—sort of make-up semester began. There was a—just a few—couple of weeks ago there was a vote amongst Quebec students whether to continue the strike, and quite a large majority voted not to continue the strike, or at least to suspend it, pending the elections. But 10,000 students voted to continue the strike and are still on strike. So where is the strike at, now there’s a new government that’s promised not to raise tuitions?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, the strike—as you said, we had several strike votes in early August following the continuation of the suspended semester. This was in an election period, and as you noted, most students chose to wait for the electoral results. Now, several did continue the strike, and we saw a lot of episodes of police repression, even within the campuses, not only at University de Montréal, where the police barged in and even, you know, arrested professors for taking photographs, kettled students inside our classrooms as they were having a general assembly—unreal scenes.

But now the students, those students who are still on strike will go back in their general assemblies, following the election result yesterday, today, tomorrow. I would have to say that most are ending the strike, but there’s still a very high possibility that they will go back on strike if the PQ does not follow up on their promises to cancel the tuition hike.

JAY: Now, is—what’s the perception of things in Quebec? We’ve been looking at some of the Quebec press, and there seems to be some people at least trying to suggest, well, the student movement really didn’t have that much to do with this, this Liberal government was already unpopular anyway. What is public opinion in Quebec? Do they see this as a victory for the students?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Oh, I definitely think they see it as a victory for the students. And certainly we praise it as a victory for the student movement. It’s very important to note that the victory is not the PQ’s. If there had not been such a strong strike movement in the spring, the PQ would have never ever promised to end this tuition hike. Their vision of education is as neoliberal as they come. It’s very close, actually, to the vision defended by the Jean Charest Liberals.

And this shift to the left and to answering the demands of the students was made possible by the intense amount of popular pressure on them throughout the strike and during the election campaign, as well as a fear that the students go back on strike, on a full-scale strike, if they do not answer those demands. So in effect we have managed to make that government, that newly elected government, bulge just a few days after the election.

JAY: And for those who don’t know the PQ, Parti Québecois, it’s traditionally been a—sort of considered a sort of social democratic party, somewhat left of center, in theory at least. But it’s had a nationalist mandate. But within the PQ, there’s always been a left and a right wing within the PQ. Do you think the current politics, especially the public support for the students, does that in some way push the PQ a little bit more to the left? Even if it’s just to garner votes, does it create some space for a somewhat less neoliberal PQ?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Oh. Well, I would hope so. I actually hope that their government will be somewhat less neoliberal than the previous government. But the PQ is kind of a lesser evil. What’s important to know is that throughout history the PQ has been much quicker to answer the demands of social movements, as they answer to such pressure groups as social movements. In 1996, for instance, Pauline Marois, who was minister of education in a PQ government, she proposed to raise tuition at that time. She was met with an unlimited general strike, and in two weeks she receded on the tuition hike. This is entirely different from the attitude we’ve come to expect from the Liberals, of course, which have waited weeks and weeks before negotiating.

The PQ is very afraid of social movements, and we certainly hope for more victories in the coming few weeks, as they have promised to hold a summit, an education summit, which will decide the future of education in Quebec. Now, we will see what this summit is composed of. If it gives more place to corporations, for instance, I don’t expect us to participate. But if it is set on fair terms, we will surely push for our core demand, the core demand of the student movement since 1969, which is free education, free education accessible to all and free education free of corporate influence.

JAY: And that was always a big piece of this struggle, that this was not just about one set of tuition hikes, it’s about a broader vision for what kind of society Quebec is. So you have the summit, and as you say, you may be going to it if you think it’s a fairly organized summit. But what is the next steps for the student movement in terms of pushing this broader vision?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, our broader vision was always about free education first and foremost. And if we have won on the tuition increase, we can certainly expect student associations—although I would not presume of the general assemblies, I expect that those student associations will now move towards a more combative stance on the issue of free education, push it further now that we’ve won our first gain, our first victory, on the tuition hike. And that position will be defended at the summit. It will be defended in further demonstrations. We’ve already got one coming up on 22 September. And, of course, in the short term our priority will be to make sure this tuition hike is canceled and to further radicalize our allies in the union sector, for instance, in preparation for the summit.

JAY: Now, the election was actually very close. As I mentioned off the top, it’s a minority PQ government. You know, practically half the voters did vote for the Liberals. There were a few other smaller parties. But the Liberals actually didn’t do that badly; they just lost the majority of seats. That means a lot of people supported Charest. Where is your sort of fight in terms of public opinion? And what do you make of the sort of division in Quebec? Much of that division must have been over the student issue. If you kind of take credit for it one way, you’ve got to take it on the other side as well.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, I wouldn’t interpret it that way. I’m not sure this was about the student issue dividing the Quebec population. And, in fact, if it had been, I’m not sure the PQ would have been elected. This strategy of Charest to push—to say that law and order—they’re the only party that are able to defend law and order has clearly failed, as students have continued to mobilize throughout the election campaign without much incidents on the polls or on the final results, especially our demonstration on 22 August.

The Charest Liberals can count on support, a fixed support from certain communities, notably Anglophone communities. Most anglophone newspapers have backed his government, as well as many Francophone newspapers. He has a very strong electoral machine to get out the vote there, and he redesigned the electoral map ahead of this election. There are many, many parameters that we have to take into account in explaining why the Charest Liberals had such strong results that weren’t predicted by polls previously. Now, of course, we can be satisfied that Charest himself lost his seat in Sherbrooke.

JAY: And is now sitting down as leader of the Liberal Party.

BÉDARD-WIEN: That’s right.

JAY: Now, one final question. Traditionally, over the last decades, the student movement has been very associated with the sovereigntist movement, the movement for Quebec independence. How much is that still an issue in the student movement and in terms of CLASSE and its vision of what it’s fighting for? Where is the issue of sovereignty?

BÉDARD-WIEN: It’s certainly not an issue for CLASSE itself. We’ve striven not to discuss the nation but, rather, discuss how to best extend our struggle for free education, extend our struggle for accessible quality education outside of the borders of Quebec. Throughout the summer we’ve done several tours, notably in Ontario, and reaching out to other community, other activists outside of Quebec. And so the tendency within CLASSE right now is more to the internationalization of our struggle and of the ideas that we defend. And this is something we will keep up over the fall, as we’ve been invited in many cities throughout the United States, but also throughout the world.

JAY: Great. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Jérémie.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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