June 17, 2016
Quebec's wave of resistance: from the Maple Spring to the general strike
by Alain Savard
Quebec, the francophone province of Canada, was recently shaken by a level of social and class struggle unseen in thirty years.1 In less than a decade, we have seen a multiplication of massive protests: The largest and longest student strike in Quebec’s history; the largest single-day public sector workers’ strike since 1972; the creation and consolidation of an important combative network of students and workers; successful grassroots ecological campaigns; the rise in influence of a left-wing think tank (IRIS) as well as a new left-wing website, Ricochet; a sizable movement of solidarity with First Nations’ struggles; and a slow but steady rise of support for the newly created left-wing party Québec solidaire (QS).
Like all struggles, Quebec’s are rich in lessons for socialists. Some fights were won, some lost, and some strategies proved effective while others turned out badly. This is the story of the most recent cycle of struggle in Quebec and what we can learn from it. Because the battles have been so wide and varied, it is impossible to assess them all. The focus of this article will be on the student and union struggle against austerity.
Overview of the resistance
Like most other countries after the 2008 crisis, Canada and its provinces ran up massive deficits to bail out corporations, stimulate the economy, and shore up capitalist profits. And by 2010—as elsewhere—governments across the country used their rising debt as an alibi to impose a new set of neoliberal attacks. In Quebec, this took the form of what the minister of finance called a “cultural revolution.”2 The goal of the governing Liberal Party was to implement and strengthen a user-pay logic for public services. So the provincial government announced a university tuition hike (75 percent over five years), new healthcare fees, and an increase of tariffs for the electricity provided by publicly owned Hydro-Québec.
Anticipating all of this, student associations, labor unions, and community groups created the Red Hand Coalition to coordinate common actions to stop the neoliberal assault.3 On April 1, 2010, the day after the government announced the measures in its budget, several student associations held a one-day strike and the coalition organized a rally that gathered 10,000 people under the slogan “We won’t pay for their crisis.” These actions bolstered the confidence for cross-sector solidarity and action against austerity. It also bolstered the coalition as one of the central spaces for organizing the struggle.
From 2010 to 2012, mobilization focused on stopping the increase of tariffs and tuition. The students and the coalition built small-scale, regional actions during the fall of 2010. By March 12, 2011, the major labor federations joined the struggle and organized a joint rally with the coalition. The opposition to the neoliberal attacks was growing, as more than 35,000 people took the street that day in Montreal.
Meanwhile, students began to discuss plans for a general student strike. In their union membership meetings, known as general assemblies, student activists discussed the international wave of protest across the world as examples to follow. References were made to the Arab Spring unfolding at that moment, but also to the French strikes against pension reforms, the British student movement against tuition hikes, and the Chilean student movement that took place in the summer of 2011.
By the end of that summer, the most radical student federation—Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ)4—was in full mobilization for a general student strike.5 The explicit goal was to stop the tuition hike, but this was embedded in a broader discourse of solidarity with other sectors and a long-term vision of free and accessible public education.
The emergence of the Occupy movement in New York City further amplified the sense of common international struggle. Occupy inspired activists in Quebec to stage action of our own in several cities. In Montreal, the occupation took place in the heart of the finance district. It gathered 3,000 people at its peak, and lasted five weeks.
The growing struggle on university and college campuses bore fruit in February 2012 with a student strike that culminated in a broad social struggle now known as the “Maple Spring.”6 It began rather modestly. In the first week of the movement, about 20,000 students went on strike. But the fire later spread at an unexpected rate. By March 1, 100,000 students were on strike.
By March 22, this number rose to 300,000—about 75 percent of all post-secondary students in Quebec. That day over 200,000 rallied in downtown Montreal. At this point, the student strike made the news every day and sparked a large-scale public debate—not only about tuition fees, but also about the power of strikes and the future and nature of our society.
The effervescence of the movement spilled over into other sectors of Quebec. College and university teachers, labor activists, parents, and retirees created groups and networks to participate in the struggle.7 Rank-and-file members of labor federations tried to push for their unions to go out in a social strike against the government.
Parallel struggles were also bolstered by the student strike, which deepened the sense of solidarity throughout Quebec. For example, ecological groups along with thousands of striking students disrupted the government’s convention for the development of the mining sector. A few days later, Earth Day, April 22, became a broad convergence against the provincial government with about 250,000 hitting the streets in protests.
Threatened by this cresting movement, the government tried to break the student strike with a special bill aimed at restricting the right to protest. But this only poured gasoline on the fire.8 An illegal march, gathering again more than 200,000 students and workers, took place in downtown Montreal. In the following days and nights, people marched out of their homes banging pots and pans and gathered at core intersections in predominantly working class neighborhoods. These marches, called “casseroles,” exploded in a matter of days with tens of thousands walking out of their homes spontaneously every night against the repression directed at the student movement.
Facing a full-scale legitimacy crisis and seeking to quell the movement, the Liberal Party government called for an election in August. It hoped that a presumed silent majority that opposed the ongoing social movement would return it to power with a mandate to repress the students. By contrast, the nationalist opposition party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), incorporated the main demands of the Red Hand Coalition and the ecological groups into its electoral platform.
Supported by the popular anger, the PQ won a minority government, handing the Liberals one of their worst defeats in decades. The province’s left alternative, Québec solidaire (QS), which supported the movement, was unable to gain ground at the ballot box. Voters were swayed by insistent calls for “strategic voting” for the PQ as the most viable means to oust the Liberals. As a result, QS managed to win only one more member of the National Assembly (MNA).
The first acts of the new PQ government were to repeal the tuition hike and the special bill that restricted the right to protest. In a matter of weeks, they also shut down a controversial nuclear power plant and announced their plan to abolish the healthcare fee increase passed in 2010. None of this would have happened without the mass protest that had in effect brought down the Liberal government and imposed its demands on its successor.
But the PQ is no social-democratic party, and it is barely even left wing on some issues. Its left-wing orientation in the 2012 campaign was opportunistic at best. It is not surprising then, that only after a few months in power, the newly elected party announced a new wave of austerity measures. Major labor federations, having traditional links with PQ, did not want to protest it, fearing that would only bring the Liberals back to power. Mobilization thus took a downward turn. The students nevertheless called for rallies and days of strikes, supported by their allies in the Red Hand Coalition. For the first time, governmental cuts were labelled “austerity measures.”
The PQ called for another election in the spring of 2014, hoping to consolidate its power. However, its turn to the right alienated voters. They compounded their adoption of austerity by introducing a xenophobic “Charter of Values,” which among other things promised to ban Muslims from wearing the headscarf at their public sector jobs.
Without the support of the mobilized left that brought them to power in 2012, the PQ was unable to gather enough votes to be reelected. The Liberal Party—which opposed the Charter of Values—came back into power. Less than a month after returning to office, the new premier announced $3.7 billion in cuts in a single year (about 5 percent of total provincial spending).
The Red Hand Coalition snapped into action again. It developed a plan to mobilize against these new austerity measures. Major labor federations created a new coalition of their own—“Refuse Austerity.” On postsecondary campuses, students created “Printemps 2015” (Spring 2015) committees, which aimed to mobilize for a social strike against austerity. By fall 2014, the new agitation against austerity produced another round of impressive mobilizations. Two rallies over two successive months gathered tens of thousands of people in the streets.
At this point, the idea of a social strike seemed more plausible than ever. Not only were the major labor federations actively involved in the struggle, but also public sector unions were in the middle of collective bargaining. On April 1, 2015, the contracts of 500,000 teachers, nurses, civil servants, and blue-collar workers in state-related services would expire simultaneously. This meant that they could gain a legal right to strike a few weeks after that. Inside public sector unions, a disorganized but very active rank-and-file network, bolstered by the 2012 student strike, began pushing for a public sector strike against austerity.
The Red Hand Coalition helped to coordinate the actions of community groups. It launched a public campaign for public investment in community groups, and started planning days of strikes on their own. They too, believed a social strike was not only possible, but also likely.
Motivated by this perspective—and somewhat misinformed about the legal constraint that prevented public sector workers from striking right away—50,000 students went on strike on March 21. The student unions called for a rally on April 2, which drew out 75,000 students and workers. However, the student-led strike fell apart as it became clear that labor unions were not going to join them.
Activists misunderstood the complex nature of the labor laws in Quebec. To make a long story short, the labor code states that workers can legally go on strike three months after their collective agreement has expired. There are normally few restrictions outside this stipulation. Thus, students believed that three months after the end of the public sector contract—April 1, 2015—public workers could go on strike.
Students knew that the leadership of labor federations would not favor a strike right away, but they hoped the more mobilized locals would join. The complication was that another set of laws, unknown to students, added several other constraints, making it impossible for local unions of the public sector to legally strike until the labor federations went through a process of mediation with the government. Thus, the leadership of the labor federations had complete control of the schedule, and local unions could not go on a legal strike before this process was complete, which wouldn’t be until August 2015.
Angry at the labor federation’s leaderships for their timidity in engaging in the anti-austerity struggle and supporting students, rank-and-file college teachers decided to call for a social strike on May Day. The idea spread like wildfire on campuses, as teachers from thirty colleges voted for the one-day strike against austerity9—even when they knew the strike would likely be ruled illegal. Community groups also answered the call, as more than 900 of them decided to close for the day and participate in the rallies.
Under pressure, the labor federations decided to organize a day of action against austerity for May Day. The unprecedented day of convergence was a huge success. Tens of road blockades, bank occupations, and improvised rallies swept the province. However, as impressive as the mobilization was, it was far from what was needed to block the austerity measures. Students that had been on strike in March and April knew this, and, despite the spike in actions, suffered demobilization and disorientation.
Unionized workers at the forefront
The final chapter of this story took place during the fall and winter of 2015–2016. While the attempt to organize a social strike failed in April 2015, some agitated for another try, this time through the public sector unions. Their negotiations during the summer hit a deadlock, with the government demanding major concessions on wages, pensions, and working conditions.
By September, public sector workers had the legal right to strike. The labor federations mobilized for a strike vote, using the anti-austerity discourse that had by then become widespread throughout Quebec. With a public sector strike looming, students and community groups began to mobilize again. One group in particular stood out—a parent-led movement called “I protect my public schools.” They organized human chains in front of their children’s schools on the first day of the month to protests cuts in education funding.
The union leadership of the “Front Commun”10—an alliance grouping unions representing 400,000 public workers—sought a mandate for six days of strikes. Workers voted in favour of their proposal in overwhelming majorities, often by margins of 80 and 90 percent. By the beginning of October, a first rally gathered tens of thousands of public sector employees. It became clear that anger against the government among the union membership was deep and that mobilization could go a lot further than any previous bargaining round in decades.
Yet the leadership of the labor federations never intended to use the full potential of a public sector-wide strike. Rank-and-file workers were trapped in a highly centralized, top-down structure that kept most of the mobilization and bargaining strategy a secret. The most politically perceptive suspected that the union bureaucracy would use as few of the strike days as possible, organize highly orchestrated symbolic rallies, and accept any deal that did not concede too many cut backs.
In this context, labor activists organized in rank-and-file networks such as “Lutte Commune”11 (Common Struggle). The goal was to promote the self-organization of the struggle at the local level, breaking down the barriers between unions, and push for a broader and longer strike that could achieve real gains for public workers and the working class. Even if the success of these initiatives was limited, they nonetheless created the basis for a more permanent and more organized rank-and-file activity and organization.
A teachers union outside the Common Front, the FAE12, staged the first strike on September 30. Soon the Common Front followed suit with a first day of rotating regional strikes at the end of October, followed by two more days in the middle of November. In each case, around 100,000 workers were on strike per day. The sense of collective power was felt throughout Quebec. In the provincial capital, Québec City, entire blocks of public offices were shut down and surrounded by picket lines. College teachers organized neighborhood rallies that visited the picket lines of hospital workers.
On every picket line, public support was palpable. This was confirmed when a public opinion poll showed that the labor unions had two-times more support than the government.13 All the stars of the struggle seemed to be aligning in the run up to the Common Front’s three-day general strike planned for the beginning of December. Students and community groups prepared for walkouts on the same days. It looked like a social strike would shut down Quebec.
But in a last effort to reach a deal with the government, the leadership of the Common Front cancelled the strike. This had the effect of a cold shower on the union membership, and it profoundly disorganized students and community groups. Under pressure from government intransigence above and rank-and-file pressure below, the union officials finally called a one-day general public sector strike on December 9, but it was now out of sync with other sectors. Nevertheless, the strike was the largest in Quebec’s history, with a total of 435,000 workers out on picket lines.
The historic character of the strike was sadly inversely proportional to the quality of the tentative agreement that union leadership accepted a few days later. Announced as a resounding victory, the deal included modest wage increases that barely kept pace with inflation, a concession on pensions, and nothing to prevent the degradation of public services. However, it preserved the status quo on working conditions, which the government had intended to worsen.
Despite an attempt by rank-and-file activists to campaign against the tentative agreement, the bureaucratic machine of the labor federations managed to convince a majority of public sector workers that it was the best possible deal, and that any attempt to get more would be met by back-to-work legislation. Some unions, however, broke with the Common Front. The healthcare labor federation, the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS), rejected the deal. So did the FAE. Representing 135,000 workers, these two federations tried one last stand to improve their conditions. But, isolated and demobilized by the lack of solidarity from the other Common Front unions, they did not mobilize their membership for strikes, and in the end only managed to obtain minor improvements on the deal.
This closed the latest chapter in Quebec’s popular struggles. With the student movement having exhausted itself in a badly timed strike during the spring of 201514 and a labor leadership that limited its own movement to a narrow defensive perspective, there is at the moment no group strong enough to lead a successful anti-austerity struggle. It will take a few years before a new challenge can arise, but the level of mobilization since 2010 is encouraging.
Even if the broader anti-austerity goals were not achieved, the sheer size of the strikes and rallies, and the high level of independent organization in some locals will have decisively raised class-consciousness in Quebec. But in order to achieve real successes in the future, we must look at the strengths and weaknesses of this transitional stage of the struggle and draw lessons. The anti-austerity movement in Quebec stands between old strategies that cannot win in the current period and new ones yet to be adopted on a mass scale that will be necessary to score victories.
Combative student unionism:From marginality to unstable hegemony
A remarkable feature of these events is the preeminent role played by students. The 2012 student strike had a catalyzing effect on all other sectors of Quebec society, introducing the idea of fighting austerity into public discourse and promoting the strategy of a social strike against the government. Such radicalism is not some natural attribute of students, nor the spontaneous product of a new generation of activists.
The capacity of Quebec students to provide such leadership and to organize a large-scale student strike is the result of decades of building institutions for combative student unionism. These have their roots in the Quebec student movement during the 1960s. It is built on three core institutions: the student association, the general assembly, and the strike.
The direct democracy associated with the general assembly builds the legitimacy of student strikes, which consists of a blockade on all academic activities on a campus or a department. Even without legal recognition, those strikes are recognized as legitimate by students because of their democratic character. This enables the reproduction of both the general assembly and the strike over the years. ASSÉ is now the student federation that embodies this practice. It opposes collaboration with the state and bases its strategy on mass mobilization, disruptive action, and unlimited strikes.
However, the practices of combative student unionism have not always been mainstream in Quebec. In the 1990s, they were relegated to marginality as the main student federations promoted lobbying and collaboration. ASSÉ was created with barely 20,000 members in 2001—in the wake of the mobilization against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. It took years of hard work and mobilization to spread combative student unionism across a critical mass of campuses. This work—led by anarchists and socialists—proved to be one of the most important in terms of the building up the politics and capacity of students to fuel broader social struggles.
Since the 2012 strike, pro-collaboration and pro-lobbying student federations have fallen into disarray. However, the newly acquired hegemony of ASSÉ is very unstable. With 80,000 members, it is harder than ever to practice direct democracy and maintain unity in action. Without a major competitor federation to its right, the various radical-left tendencies that used to collaborate inside ASSÉ are now prone to conflict.
This tendency came to a head over the spring 2015 strike. ASSÉ’s leadership and many less active student unions believed it was too soon to attempt a social strike. They favored postponing the student strike to the autumn of 2015 when public sector workers were most likely to strike. But core militant student unions felt that waiting was a mistake that could kill mobilization.
Incapable of winning a majority of associations to their plan during ASSÉ’s congresses, these militants decided to organize in a parallel network—the “Spring 2015” committees. This created tremendous tensions between what was seen as an anarchist-led horizontal network and a socialist-led bureaucratic student federation. The polarization of the conflict exploded when ASSÉ’s leadership wrote a document calling for the suspension of the strike at the beginning of April—an act that led to their impeachment.
ASSÉ has yet to recover from these events, and the radical left has some important introspection to do about how it got into this situation. It shows that sectarian attitudes on the left can have self-destructive effects that threaten the student movement’s mass organization of combative unionism. If we are to build revolutionary power from below, we need to have the collective maturity to manage conflicts and maintain bridges of solidarity despite disagreements.
Building solidarity:The Red Hand Coalition and the community groups
The Red Hand Coalition is the other central actor in this cycle of struggle. Here again, it is a small number of activists close to the radical left that made this coalition possible. Key members of the most combative and progressive organizations spearheaded its formation based on the general idea that broader solidarity and coordination between the movements was necessary to stop the government’s neoliberal attacks. While the initial project of bringing together labor unions, student associations, and community groups was a long shot, the repeated success of the coalition’s actions consolidated its role as a major political actor.
Between 2010 and 2015, the coalition became the center of discussion and coordination between sectors. It provided the basis for active solidarity with the students’ 2012 strike and the public sector workers’ strike that year. It also facilitated the organization of common rallies against fee hikes and austerity.
It must be noted, however, that the Red Hand Coalition’s role was not uncontested. Some large labor federations never joined it, and every time they mobilized on similar issues, they created their own temporary coalition that they could control on their own terms. At every step, the coalition had to fight for its recognition.
In addition to fostering cross-organizational solidarity, the coalition also helped develop the capacity for collective action among community groups. Before its creation, these groups rarely staged coordinated actions and many were apolitical. But the coalition provided them with a space to discuss, plan demonstrations, and reach new heights of consciousness and militancy. For example, the idea of a “community group strike” did not even exist before 2012. But as a result of work in the coalition, they struck three times in 2015, and in November 2015, more than 1,400 groups participated.
The renewal of labor combativeness and the negative impact of labor bureaucracy
The disappointing results of the public sector bargaining round revealed that the trade union bureaucracy—despite its tremendous resources, contacts, and visibility—was far less effective in organizing mass mobilizations and winning victories in comparison to the student movement’s strategies of combative unionism. At the same time, the precedent of the student struggle inspired rank-and-file workers to begin introducing their combative approach within the unions.
Indeed, rank-and-file self-activity rose during the period 2010–2015. The 2012 student strike inspired left-leaning layers of workers to organize networks to support students—such as “Teachers against the hike.”15 But as the student strike came to an end, it became clear to an increasing number that they would have to organize within their own unions to push for more militant strategies and tactics.
Students who had been active in the 2012 strike, new public sector workers, and long-standing radical labor activists converged towards similar ideas: to create a rank-and-file network aimed at pushing a combative and democratizing agenda inside labor unions. These efforts produced a new rank-and-file network of union members in QS called Offensive syndicale as well as the independent formation Lutte Commune. While these have not achieved mature and stable form yet, they have strengthened the informal network of labor activists with a similar vision.
The first large-scale accomplishment of this emergent self-activity was the organization of the illegal May Day strike in 2015. During that winter’s strikes, the informal networks helped to coordinate flying picket lines and rallies independent of the labor federations. They also organized a campaign against the flimsy tentative agreement that had been reached. Overall, they consolidated a critical pole that felt confident enough to publicly criticize the union bureaucracy. The fact that 73 percent of all locals in the largest healthcare federation, FSSS, rejected the deal negotiated by the leadership shows that an important layer of public sector workers are willing to go much further.
The public sector’s contract struggle also exposed the conservative role of the labor federations’ leaderships and the need for even more serious rank-and-file organization. The bureaucracy sabotaged the autonomous 2015 May Day planned by several college teachers unions on the eve of the strike, when they sent a memo to local unions warning them of the “dire” consequences of an illegal strike. While the strike did happen, several locals, unsure of the support from their federation, backed away at the last minute, disorganizing and demobilizing their membership. The cancellation of the three days of general strike in December of 2015 also proved profoundly counterproductive and demobilizing.
It will take much more than a rank-and-file network to strengthen the labor movement. The legal constraints, the neoliberal consensus among the dominant parties, and the repressive tools of the state represent other serious challenges. A new vision of labor unions needs to emerge—one that goes beyond mere resistance and compromises.
It is only through the coherent articulation of such a vision that the radical left will be able to quit its oppositional role and develop real leadership at the base of the unions. However, this cannot be achieved by preaching a ready-made vision learned in textbooks. It must organically emerge through discussion, reflection, and concrete projects led by the informal rank-and-file networks that already exist. To that extent, the consolidation of those networks is a crucial next step in the struggle for combative unionism.
Reaching mainstream audience: IRIS and Ricochet
While not discussed much in this overview of the five-year cycle of resistance, it is important to mention the efforts made by a handful of activists to build organizations dedicated to creating and diffusing a left-wing perspectives to a broader audience.
The first success story here is the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économique (IRIS)16—a left-wing think tank created in 2000. Following a similar path as ASSÉ, IRIS achieved widespread recognition during the period 2010–2015. The strategy of the organization was to stick close to social movements—providing insights and arguments for the struggle with well-documented and accessible research papers.
For example, in the mobilization leading up to the 2012 student strike, IRIS provided several new arguments against tuition hikes, and organized a tour of campuses educating students about how free tuition was a realistic demand. It also produced nine short YouTube videos that debunked the myths about tuition fees. These were watched 50,000 times—a large number for a political video in a province of seven million people.
With such popular recognition, IRIS representatives managed to get invited onto mainstream media programs to comment on current events. It was given a weekly column in the largest printed newspaper in Quebec—the Journal de Montréal. It is now a central intellectual space for Quebec’s left. Most importantly, anticapitalists lead it. Thus, IRIS is not only giving tools to social movements, it is also helping to shift the public discourse towards a class-based revolutionary analysis of the roots of the problems Quebec faces.
The second important project is Ricochet.17 Created in 2014, Ricochet aimed at creating a web-based and professional alternative media site. Gathering about $80,000 through a crowd funding campaign, and supported by student associations and labor unions, this socialist-led initiative did not reach the mainstream audience it initially targeted. Over time, it shifted from day-to-day news coverage and investigative journalism to publishing columns and opinion pieces.
This left-wing platform is reaching a much larger audience than the radical left has before. While the attempt to create a full-fledged media did not succeed, the project is still young, and its participants are learning important lessons to achieve its original goals in the coming years. Other initiatives also created a space for debate inside the left, such as the Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme18 (created in 2009), À babord19 (created in 2003) and Presse-toi à gauche20 (created in 2006).
Even if some activists are suspicious of these good-looking, toned-downed initiatives that seek to disseminate anticapitalist perspectives to a mainstream audience in small doses, it is crucial to recognize the important role of these projects. Their impact might not be visible at first glance, and their discourse might not be as radical as we would like, but they contribute to shifting what is “legitimate” towards the left. This reinforces the capacities of social movements and the radical left, giving them more room to operate in the public sphere.
Quebec solidaire at a crossroad
Another important actor in this process is the left-wing party Québec solidaire.21 It is the Quebec version of the new left parties rising in Europe—similar to Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the NPA in France. Its creation in 2006 was the result of a series of mergers of several smaller socialist, social-democratic, communist, and feminist groups. Since its first election, it increased its popular support from 3.64 percent to 7.64 percent, and is now represented with 3 elected MNAs at the National Assembly.
QS did not play a major role in this cycle of struggle, but as with IRIS and Ricochet, it is part of the developing left-wing ecosystem. The party reinforces the legitimacy of the progressive discourse and in turn benefits from the increasing combativeness of social movements. QS’s MNAs see their role as one of “carrying the voice” of the social movement to the National Assembly and the media.
While they receive little coverage, they play an important role in projecting and legitimizing the movement’s demands. During the 2012 strike, for example, when the government restricted freedom of assembly, QS played a positive role by supporting civil disobedience as a legitimate way of protesting. QS also used electoral campaigns to promote innovative projects—such as their radical plans to end the oil-based economy and to create publicly owned pharmaceutical corporations to reduce dependency on privately manufactured drugs.
QS, however, is at a fork in the road. After ten years, it is unclear how it will make a breakthrough that positions it to win elected control of the provincial government. The party will thus have to make a decision—stay marginal, attempt an innovative change of strategy, or move to the right to reach a broader electorate. Which fork it will take is as yet unclear.
The idea of the “party of the street,” which is part of the culture in QS, is hard to put in practice. If QS gets too involved in struggles, it is accused of interference with the inner workings of movements. If it doesn’t get involved enough, it is called opportunistic and electoralist. Figuring out the right way to be involved and to contribute to struggles while respecting the independence of social movements is an ongoing debate within the party.
Especially with the recent example of Syriza, whose leadership capitulated to the demands of European creditors, the radical left is divided on the way forward and on the value of the party itself. One of the concerns is that the party is mostly focused on electoral strategy rather than a long-term social transformative strategy. Yet that does not mean that a QS government would not be welcomed as a relief and a basis for the consolidation of class power—the anticapitalist left in Quebec is too weak to think of taking power anytime soon anyway. But given the current state of the party’s politics, a QS government would be social democratic at most.
The reconfiguration of the radical left
Socialists and anarchists have been a crucial component in many organizations in this wave of student, union, and social struggle. However, it must be said that anticapitalist organizations in Quebec are small, weak, and short-lived. The main anarcho-communist federation dissolved in 2012 after internal conflicts. Several small socialist and radical environmentalist groups inside QS also merged together in 2012 to create the Ecosocialist Network, hoping to reinvigorate the radical left inside the party.22 Its biggest success yet has been organizing QS labor activists in Montréal and Québec City over the past few months. The Maoist Canadian RCP is stalling since suffering internal conflicts in 2010 and 2011.23
Confronted with a depressing landscape among those organized groups, most anticapitalist activists prefer to work on temporary projects or inside broader organizations such as student associations, trade unions, or QS. The lack of continuity creates gaps in the collective memory of the radical left—so attempts at building new organizations are often marked by the same mistakes, repeated over and over.
Yet, the recent wave of struggle clearly revealed the need for an organized socialist pole of attraction. Without groups able to articulate an alternative program and a global vision for society and social movements, the spontaneous radicalization of participants to social movements is limited. It is in this perspective that several former participants in the 2012 student strike founded the Front d’action socialiste (FAS).24 But the magic recipe to grow beyond a small circle of the already-convinced socialists has yet to be found.
Right now in Quebec, the fastest growing groups on the radical left are the local branches of the IWW.25 Practically absent before 2012, the group now gathers about 200 members. This network has proven effective in organizing solidarity on picket lines and actions on several issues. Yet, it does not seek to go beyond short-term campaigns.
The consolidation of the infrastructure of dissent
If there is one lesson to be retained from this wave of struggle in Quebec, it is the crucial importance of what Alan Sears calls the “infrastructure of dissent.”26 None of these social upheavals were spontaneous—they were based on institutions and practices that took years to create, and that were maintained by a core of dedicated activists collaborating across many sectors. The increasing level of mobilization in Quebec since the end of the 1990s is not only a product of the conjuncture, but it also reflects the consolidation of the infrastructure of dissent.
The rise of combative student unionism, the creation of the Red Hand Coalition, the networking among rank-and-file labor activists, the electoral successes of QS, and the extensive outreach done by IRIS and Ricochet have played a mutually reinforcing role. They are creating the politics, struggles, and organizations for even more explosive struggles in the future. If the path towards a socialist revolution is not clear yet, revolutionaries in Quebec are at least confident that it is possible to build growing class power. The last fifteen years are the proof that they have and will play a decisive role in helping to shape the trajectory of our collective class and social struggle.
1. I would like to thank Benoit Renaud and Philippe de Grosbois for their comments that helped improve this article.
2. Quoted in “Finance Minister Urges Cultural Revolution in Quebec,” The Globe and Mail, February 22, 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/nati....
3. “Community groups” are those that receive public funds and have a social mission but are not part of the government administration. These include tenant associations, women’s groups, popular education groups, unemployed associations, homeless refuges, youth centers, volunteer associations, etc. The complete name of the coalition is the “Coalition opposée à la tarification et la privatisation des services publics.” Since this name is way too long and the logo of the coalition is a red hand, it became more widely known as the “Coalition Main Rouge” or in English, “The Red Hand Coalition.” Website.
4. ASSÉ was founded in 2001 and has been the backbone of radical left student combative unionism since. Website of ASSÉ.
5. The tactic of a general student strike has a long history in Quebec. It was used eight times between 1968 and 2010, with seven of those ending with at least a partial victory. A student strike is a complete shutdown of all courses on campus: no classes, no exams, and no evaluations are to take place while the strike is on. Once the strike is voted in a general assembly and comes into effect, picket lines are erected and classrooms are emptied. Everyone, students and faculty alike, is forced to respect the strike. Universities and colleges affected by the strike see their academic calendars disrupted, and since no classes or grading is allowed to happen, degrees can’t be awarded.
6. Maple trees are a national symbol in Quebec, and the French name for it—”Érable”—sounds a lot like “Arab.” This play on words echoed the Arab Spring and came to symbolize Quebec’s own massive uprising.
7. College and university teachers created a network called “Teachers against the hike.” This proved to have lasting effects. In 2015, the network proved central in the organization of an independent May Day strike.
8. Amir Khadir, the only member of the National Assembly of the young left-wing party Québec solidaire at the time, stated that civil disobedience to this unprecedented law was legitimate. This was the high point of the general orientation of support for the movement from QS. Throughout 2012, its membership doubled, from 7,000 to 14,000—a high point it has as yet to surpass.
9. The “Teachers against the hike” groups created in 2012 proved to be a key network for this purpose.
10. Website of the Front Commun.
11. Website of Lutte Commune.
12. Website of the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE).
13. On November 21, 2015, a poll indicated 51 percent were in support of the unions, while support for the government was only 28 percent. See Guillaume Bourgault Côté, “Les politique Couillard deplaisent,” Le Devoir, November 22, 2015, http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/canada....
14. When Printemps 2015 promoted the idea of a general strike in April 2015, they hoped to spark a much larger movement. Yet, since local labor unions could not legally go on strike, students realized after two weeks of striking that the large movement they hoped for would not happen. This created a great deal of internal conflict between those who wanted to continue and those who wanted to suspend the movement until the fall. But since it is very difficult to organize a general student strike, most activists were exhausted and polarized by the debate, making it difficult to remobilize for another strike.
15. Website of Profs contre la hausse.
16. Website of IRIS.
17. Website of Ricochet.
18. Website of the Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme.
19. Website of À babord
20. Website of Presse-toi à gauche.
21. Website of Québec solidaire.
22. Website of the Réseau Écosocialiste.
23. Website of the RCP.
24. Website of the Front d’action socialiste.
25. Website of the Montréal branch of the IWW.
26. Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2014).
Reprinted with permission of International Socialist Review (Issue 101).
Canada’s wars at home and abroad
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