25 May 2012

Statement of Canadian and International Solidarity with the Quebec Student Strike


Please click here to sign the pledge

For more than 100 days, hundreds of thousands of Quebec university and college students, backed by dozens of student unions and associations, have held hundreds of daytime and dozens of nighttime demonstrations to affirm that education is a right. They are also expressing a complete rejection of measures that are designed to fundamentally reorient society toward increased privatization of public services, the commodification of education, and the enclosure of public space. The Canadian public has a stake in this struggle, just as Quebec taxpayers have funded university education only to see their public investment increasingly siphoned off by private/corporate interests which are now threatening to divest the public even more. All this has taken place without any public debate, which is essential in a society that committed itself to free public education as part of a hard won social contract.

Indeed, one of the reasons that Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada is due to the fact that for the last forty years, Quebec students have stood up to governments every time that they tried to renege on this goal of working toward free higher education. Regardless of the party in power, technocrats have always tried to “balance the books” on the back of students, and generation after generation of students have taken to the street and said “no”. The difference between Quebec tuition fees and those in other parts of Canada and North America is the product of this sustained vigilance and activism by students, since 1968. The current government saw this historical legacy of social movements as a potential for the growth of its income. If the government has its way, it plans to wipe out the historical material gains of the student movement within five years, and will call it “catching up” with the neighbours.

Faced with calls from students, professors, trade unions, and many others across the country for a reasoned public consultation and negotiation, the ruling Liberal Party under Premier Jean Charest responded first with silence, then with denunciations, mockery, half-hearted attempts at limited talks, and all the while meeting students in the streets with violence. Most recently, the Charest government has sought to criminalize dissent, passing Public Law 78 which severely curtails basic democratic rights to freedom of expression and public assembly and is reminiscent of the War Measures Act of the 1970s when then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau blatantly infringed on people’s civil liberties. It also needs to be understood as a law in line with legislation passed with increasing frequency around the world as elites, under the banner of “austerity,” attempt to facilitate a new round of accumulation by dispossession, bankrupting social support systems and engaging in an historically unprecedented transfer of public wealth into private hands in an effort to rescue global capitalism. The criminalization of dissent is an elite strategy aimed at stifling the popular rage generated as a result of this dispossession. The passing of this law has had the reverse effect intended, actually increasing the strikers’ resolve and galvanizing new people to join in condemning this draconian measure. This law has also been vigorously criticized as a violation of citizens’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the Quebec Bar Association, and denounced by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, La Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d'université (FQPPU), and a dozen or more faculty unions in the province.

The blame for the current mass political conflict in Quebec lies at the feet of the government itself. Indeed, its actions have transformed the university into a frontline for social struggle. The university, in accordance with government initiatives, has increasingly become an institution ruled in an arbitrary, profit-motivated manner by elites drawn from the corporate world (some with ties to the weapons industry and others with ties to despotic regimes). As tuition fees have increased and academic labour made more precarious, university administrations have swollen in both size and cost while dramatically reducing student representation in some universities’ governing bodies. University administrations and boards of governors – bodies charged with acting as stewards for publicly-funded and supposedly accountable institutions dedicated to critical research and education – have come to increasingly resemble corporate board rooms, with compensation packages to match. All of this has come at the expense not only of funds devoted to teaching and research but of the mandate of the university itself which is being transformed into little more than an appendage for corporate profiteering.

Youth and students are the future of any society and yet this fact is of no concern for political and economic elites intent on enriching themselves by dispossessing the vast majority of their capacity to live with dignity. To the elite demand that they shoulder their “fair share” of this betrayal, youth and students are responding with a resounding “no” to their own marginalisation. The Charest government has adopted these recent measures as a direct attack on the student movement itself which has a long history in Quebec of vigorously defending the principal of publicly-funded education. The older generation of elites who themselves benefitted from Quebec’s low cost and nearly free education are denying the same open access to the current generation of youth and students, while opportunistically attacking vulnerable members of society such as women, workers, immigrants and refugees, and the poor of all ages.

The brutality of police forces – condemned by Amnesty International – has only increased the movement’s resolve. Police violence has involved the use of tear gas, pepper spray, other chemical irritants, various types of concussion and sound grenades, severe beatings with batons, and agents provocateurs, badly injuring many dozens of students. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested and each is now threatened with thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time. The government has handed the police the power to pronounce the legality – or lack thereof – of any given protest, linked to the student strike or not. Despite this, the streets continue to swell with students and their diverse allies exercising their collective power in a determined struggle for a public, accessible, democratic, and critical education system and a society commensurate with it.

Therefore:
·     We publicly declare our solidarity with the Quebec student strikers and their struggle for free, democratic, and critical education.
·      Furthermore, we support calls for initiating a broad, democratic assembly to analyze, debate, and come up with fair solutions that brings politics back to support those social sectors most in need.
·      In addition, we call for a suspension of any planned increase in student fees and for the abolition of tuition fees and student debt.
·      We also demand that Public Law 78 be repealed and that the Government of Quebec commit itself to respecting the rights of students, and to avoid the mass use of indiscriminate force against citizens who practice their right to free expression and peaceful assembly.
·      We thus remind Canada, as one of the states that ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and that it committed itself, without reservation, to Article 13.2(c) (“higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”). We also urge the government of Quebec to respect the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, particularly Article 3 on the freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, and Article 40 on the right to a free public education.

Education is a right!


Since the protests began, at least 2,500 demonstrators have been arrested, a tally which was published after this statement was produced.

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