On 16 October, we were honoured to hear Jérémie Bédard-Wien report on the student movement in Quebec as part of a conference organized in Oxford by the Education Activist Network. One of the prominent figures of the Quebecois protests (but not a leader, as he was quick to point out), Jérémie was here to tell us the story of how the movement evolved and to express support for those working to build a popular movement in the UK. With a historic victory behind him, Jérémie set out to give us some advice.
The movement in Quebec began from the structures of governance already present in the universities. At the core were the student unions’ general assemblies, whose decisions are binding for all bodies of the student unions as well as for all students, Jérémie explained. This is a situation very different from Oxford’s, with our JCRs and MCRs uninterested in politics and our Student Union “irrelevant to the average Oxford student” (according to an OUSU officer quoted in The Cherwell).
Comparing Oxford to Canadian universities, Jérémie said, “Our buildings are made of concrete and our admissions processes rather more relaxed.” The existing culture of community and equality seems to have contributed to the protests’ success.
It was at the general assemblies that the decision was taken to begin a strike. The “more radical” campuses went on strike first and got the “less radical” ones to follow them, Jérémie said. From there, it got to the point where 300 000 university students were on strike. As many as half of all enrolled students gathered in the largest mass demonstration. The authorities responded with repression: in May, a new law called Bill 78 effectively banned protests. However, hundreds of thousands still went out and took part in “illegal” demonstrations, creating what Jérémie called “the largest civil disobedience in the history of North America.”
The key was organization and perseverance. “Demonstrations should not be seen as single events,” Jérémie said; “you need escalation, you need strong, sustained action.” It took about six months of continuous action in Quebec. Jérémie also emphasized the importance of strike as a strategy. Disruptions of the state’s normal functioning are powerful forms of action due to their economic significance, he thinks. The students’ actions were causing major capital losses; that is what made the government agree to negotiate with students in the first place, and eventually to fulfil their demands. With protesters disturbing urban transit, keeping universities “out of business” and even blocking the Montreal stock exchange in one direct action, the situation was intolerable for those in power.
After Jérémie’s talk, we discussed the problem of single-issue activism versus building a movement with a broad platform. The audience wanted to know, first, how the Canadian students achieved such a high level of consensus; and also whether it was the specificity of their demands (to stop the raise in tuition fees) that enabled the positive outcome.
Jérémie said that consensus was not an issue: people from all across the Left were able to work together. The General Assemblies were composed of “anarchists who would engage in direct action, socialists who would do planning, and social democrats who tweet.” It may sound like a joke of the “three Lefties walk into a bar” type – but Jérémie’s is a powerful lesson in solidarity.
The Quebecoise movement was also not a single-issue affair, Jérémie emphasized. Having a broader platform is not a problem – indeed, it is what keeps people engaged and keeps the movement going. This spring in Canada was about much more than tuition fees. The real success, Jérémie said, was that “we managed to reverse the course of neoliberalism.” And the hundreds of thousands of students were not united just around the single demand of lowering fees; Jérémie explained that, in the occupied campuses, radical thinking and imagining were taking place. “Free schools were set up. Assemblies began to discuss overarching issues, capitalism itself.” He added, “It was a very fruitful time, politically.” Quebec’s example shows that the choice between “one demand”-type activism and a broad ideological platform is a nonissue. We need both.
After Jérémie, Elizabeth Meadows spoke. The mother of a young student almost killed by the police came to Oxford to urge us to go out and protest. Ms. Meadows, it turns out, was often in the streets of London, just like her son. Undeterred by the police brutality that, for her, came so close to home, she now supports protest in the UK all the more passionately. Elizabeth Meadows told us how she approached a riot police officer once and asked him why he chose this job. “Protest never works,” he told her. And she came here to say that it does. Like Jérémie and the majority of students in Quebec have showed, protest works.