The Québec student strike and social crisis – a view from a Québec law professor

Friday, August 24, 2012

Professor Annie Rochette
The Québec student strike and social crisis –
a view from a Québec law Professor

Two days ago, I marched along thousands of students, professors, teachers, and fed-up citizens in the 6th national demonstration against the tuition fee hike. Every 22nd of the month, since March 22nd, there have been official national marches, but every night since the beginning of this social crisis, people, students and ordinary citizens have taken the streets to protest against the neoliberal agenda of this government. The student strike and nightly demonstrations have lasted over 6 months because the government of Québec, headed by the Liberal party of Québec, has refused to back down on a drastic tuition fee increase for higher education or even to negotiate (and not just pretend to do so) with the three principal federations of student associations. Instead, the liberal government passed an unprecedented law denying the fundamental freedoms of association, expression and political thought to force students AND teachers back to class. All this, Charest argued, in the name of the right to education. Of course, he is referring to the rights of individual students who voted against striking but constituted a minority within their associations to sit in a classroom and “receive” their education.

As if education is something that is simply transferred from a teacher to a student.

In order to understand the student strike, it is important to put it in a historical context. In the 1960s, under the leadership of a newly elected government of Jean Lesage, Québec was coming out of a long dictatorship-type government under Maurice Duplessis, where, with the help of the Catholic church, francophone québécois were kept undereducated and underpaid, and working for industries and companies owned mostly by wealthy anglophones. This is the story of the Quiet Revolution of Québec, where it was decided that accessible education was the key to the empowerment of the francophone and undereducated majority. The CEGEP system was created and a freeze on university tuition fees was adopted, to enable the poor francophones to attend university. Historically, therefore, accessibility to higher education has been a pillar of Québec society. There have been periodic increases to tuition fees under different governments (for example, when I was a law student in the early 1990s), but nothing as drastic as this liberal government hike.

It’s also important to note that in Québec, salaries are in general lower than in other Canadian provinces (except maybe in the maritimes) and that we have higher income tax rates than in most other provinces, because historically, Québec has always adhered to socialist values of having universally accessible social services such as health and education. With the neoliberal agenda, these values have been in danger. In the university setting, this has meant the application of managerialism to higher education, where students are considered consumers (“clientele”) paying for the product that is education, knowledge and research as commodified goods, professors as entrepreneurs. This is a trend that most of us in higher education are trying to resist. And this is exactly what the students are protesting against, as is eloquently demonstrated in their manifesto.

At my university, next week we start the catch up semester for the winter 2012 semester. I won’t even go into the absurd nature of the catch-up schedule, which expects teachers and students to cram into 5 weeks an almost-entire semester, but let me instead give a portrait of what this will look like because of Bill 78 (Law 12) for numerous teachers and students. In those faculties where student associations have voted to continue the strike (the student association in my faculty have voted to go back to class for now), professors are required under the law to teach no matter what. If you have one student present in a class of 80, you are required by the law to teach to that one student. If there is an illegal picket line, you are still required to teach your class. If students are arguing or even physically assaulting each other in your classroom (this actually happened in law classes in the spring), you are still required to teach your class after you have called security. The only exception is if your physical integrity is threatened, in which case you are covered by another law for health and safety and you can refuse to teach. If you refuse to teach your class in these less than ideal conditions, you can pay fines from $1000 to $5000 per class, and these can double for every class you refuse to teach. Oh, and the administration of the university is required under the law to report this to the Ministry or the university is subject to heavy fines. Thankfully, my union recognized that teaching under these circumstances is not teaching and that our academic and political freedoms are sacred. Yesterday, we adopted a proposition that basically says we will defy the law if normal conditions do not exist. By adopting this proposition, we are taking a collective stand against the special law and our sister union (CSN) will cover the expenses of the fines, civil suits, etc… that we are subject to by not teaching under these circumstances. The “Profs contre la hausse” movement of university and CEGEP teachers in support of the student strike has powerfully denounced the effects of the special law in a manifesto signed by professors and teachers all over the world.

The student strike and its portrayal in the mainstream media and by the liberal government have profoundly shaken my beliefs about higher education. I chose to be a law professor so that I could do my part in changing this world, in making it a more ecological and just one. In the last ten years, the face of higher education has changed and words like “clientele”, and “efficiency” are now commonly used by university administrations and colleagues. I am expected to apply for research grants from agencies that are regarding fundamental research as less and less important and applied research as the only knowledge production that matters. I am expected to keep students happy even though I find that a good number of them hold instrumental views of their education because that is what society has been telling them since they were in first grade. The student strike and the impetus behind it, the creativity and intelligence of the student movement, the eloquence of its leaders, the resilience and determination of students in the face of police brutality and violence and government repression, have renewed my hope for the future of higher education and Québec society.

Jean Charest even used the student strike as an excuse to launch us into provincial elections (when we all know the real reason is to avoid the Charbonneau Commission on corruption and collusion). Yet, during this campaign, all parties except for Françoise David’s Québec Solidaire party have avoided talking about issues concerning higher education.

Annie Rochette is a Professor at the Département des sciences juridiques, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Designed by Rachel Gold.