Je me souviens: I’ll remember the Quebec student strike

  • August 18, 2012

People & Protest

I will remember all that happened here; I will remember what we are capable of; I will learn from past mistakes; and I will push for a better future.

August 17, 1:24 PM (13:24)

After months of militancy in the streets of Montréal, the student strikers now must face off with their biggest foe yet. Yes, the SPVM (Montréal Police) and the SQ (Provincial Police) were known for their brutality against any protester. And yes, there have been major sacrifices by the students, including three of them losing an eye and one being bludgeoned to the point of going comatose. But the hardest force to fight against the student strike has shown its ugly face — the electoral process; the system’s innate ability to take the fight from the streets and use it as a political strong point.

We have seen cases like this before in Canada, the health care struggle being the most infamous. The Liberals took away the accomplishment of the people in the streets and used it for their own political gain. History books look back seeing the Liberals as those who pushed for the healthcare we all love, ensuring their own victory for years to come, and diminishing the power that comes from radical mobilization in the streets. Once again, we see the same technique being used in Montréal and Québec.

This system is a difficult one to fight. It does not drown out anti-systemic action, but rather incorporates the fight into a political selling point. The movement then dies, believing that the victory was in the acceptance of popular beliefs of the people by the system. But where is the victory if the memory of said victory is forever on the side of the system which was against the epoch of the people in the first place? Once this is done, it is not you who has changed the system, but the system which has changed the views of your actions and thus all that you are.

Currently, there is a provincial election — called at the most opportune time by the political elite to dismantle the solidarity of the students. For the past week there have been votes in every University and Cegep in Québec to see if the student population will continue its strike or await the results of the election. If Charest is elected once again, the strike will erupt like never before. But, the much larger possibility is that another party, the PQ, will win based on its mandate to freeze tuition fees. This could harm the movement beyond repair for some time- a movement whose original strike mandate was that they would not stop striking until the possibility of free tuition was perceived on the horizon.

To many people, the possibility of allowing others to continue the fight is a beautiful act. They can go back to school. They can avoid further injuries and serious psychological issues from the consistent police brutality. The hope of our representative democracy is one that many non-radicalized students still aspire to. But this hope comes with a loss of understanding of the larger implications of this student strike. When battles occurred, people — young and old — would lean out of their balcony and yell “get those fuckers!” to those fighting against the police. It would give courage to those going into all-out war. This is a courage that cannot come from any other source aside from the solidarity and mutual aid of the people. It shows that this is not just a student problem but a problem in society as a whole. To take the fight out of the hands of the strikers and their supporters now is to destroy that very connection.

Yesterday, August 17th, a group of us Ontarians travelled from one Cegep to the next showing our support to all those who are voting to continue the strike. Our sign says it all; “Etudiants Ontariens en solidarité avec la grève”, or “Ontario students in solidarity with the strike”. We get the nods of approval, thumb ups, and the occasional fist of solidarity from passers-by, but as we wait and sit for the General Assemblies to finish, our anxiousness fills the air. Small, half-hearted conversations break out in order to cover the deafening silence as time itself seems to slow down. The clouds and chilled temperature epitomizes the emotions felt by all the supporters outside the Cegeps. It seems Montréal is the only stronghold of schools still willing to continue the strike. The rest of Québec has all voted against continuing the strike — at least until the end of the elections.

But still we wait with hope and solidarity in our hearts. This is a major battle for the students and their supporters, but no matter what happens in the coming weeks there is one thing that I know for sure: je me souviens — I will remember. This small sentence is on every license plate in Québec and now more than ever it will be a reminder of the necessity to remember the power the students held in the streets and the possibility of change from the people.

August 17, 3:48 PM (15:48)

The long wait is over.

The strike mandate will not be renewed by the most militant Cegep in Montréal — the last stronghold of the student strike of all the Cegeps. Cheers and clapping erupted when the votes were counted, but there was a sense of despair for all supporters who were hoping they could continue. It seemed that the threats and intimidation tactics by the police, government, and administration won the vote — the latest of which was an e-mail from the administration threatening to fail students who went on strike.

The universities are still currently on strike and will be back in school on the 27th, but this is a major blow to the student movement that had brought with it hope and inspiration to a country which seemed to have none. There are rumours that at least one of the universities may re-vote on the strike mandate after they return. This may very well be the beginning of the end of the student movement branded with the now infamous ‘carré rouge’, or red square.

Our heads hung low at hearing this news. Holding back tears, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just witnessed a death. It is truly a sad day. But, there are still lessons to be learnt — something I believe we must all understand in order to continue forward.

This movement was a reactionary movement from the get-go, so the beginning may have been the end of this beautiful revolutionary moment. The provincial government had implemented a tuition hike of 75 percent within three years, and while there has been a growth in mobilization beforehand, and a long history of student strikes, this was the main reason that much of the students took to the streets.

This, coupled with a fascist law which would see any protester arrested with massive fees for striking and possible jail time, made it become a very defensively militant movement, especially once this special law was passed in May. To crush it, then, was a simple task: get rid of the tuition hike and call an election to give the opportunity to change the face of the system (a brilliant move, if I can say so myself).

So what can we learn from this? It’s simple: a reactionary movement will die the instant the action which provoked its emergence is taken back. The people will be appeased and the ‘normalcy’ of the system can be re-implemented. The only thing we can take from this is that we need to be proactive in our mobilization and direct action. Rather than mobilizing after a decision by the elite, we need to take to the streets before things get worse.

Though it may sound simple, this is an incredibly difficult task. Many people will not risk their lives, future, and livelihoods for what is yet to come. Most will only take the streets in reaction to a clearly perceived and immediately experienced problem. And, of course, this is understandable. Yet we need to be blatant and give examples of moments in which the power of the people actually has changed things. Québec is, once again, the perfect example.

Yes, the the students of Québec could have kept fighting, with public support and mobilization at all-time highs; they could easily have achieved free education for all and continued fighting for workers, migrants, and the general population afterwards. But they were still able to get rid of a nefarious policy and change the course of government simply by showing up in massive numbers and forcing the elite to listen. They were heard. They were feared. You can see this simply by the creation of the special law banning protest. This is a victory, no one can deny that.

The next step, in Canada especially, is for the mobilization of students outside of Québec through a simple platform: “look what Québec could do; let us do the same and achieve greatness!” The demand needs to be radical — free education for all! — but Québec has shown that it is possible. The student protesters achieved a victory on their original demand, and we can too. It will be difficult, especially with the strike nearing its end, but it is doable.

This struggle has become about much more than the students of Québec alone. This is more than just another student movement. We owe it to the ideals and successes of this movement, and all those who have injured themselves participating in it, to stand up.

Je me souviens. I will remember all that has happened here. I will remember all that we are capable of. I will learn from the mistakes of the past and I will push for a better future. This is the lesson we all must learn. Here in Canada. In North America. And the world.

Nadim Fetaih

Nadim Fetaih is a writer, activist and documentary filmmaker. His first film is A Tale of Two Revolutions.

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