The spring 2015 student strike has begun, and with it, the sequel to the bitter debates that roiled campuses during the Printemps érable in 2012.
To the Liberal government, a student’s individual right to study is paramount and should not be obstructed under any circumstances, not even by student assemblies voting democratically in favour of a strike. This argument is akin to the “right to work” pushed by union-busters in the United States, and ultimately serves to dismantle student democracy.
In support of their position, both the Liberals and the carrés verts – the handful of students who sought injunctions from the courts in 2012 when they lost (or at times failed to attend) the votes in their assemblies – point to the fact that there exists no explicit right to strike for students under Québec law.
In fact, the letter of the law neither grants nor forbids students the right to strike – although the spirit of the law, arguably at least, does deliberately encourage it. In 1982, the decades-long parallel between the labour union and student movements was entrenched in law by the Lévesque government’s Act respecting the accreditation and financing of student associations. The Act granted student associations a monopoly of representation, deemed their democratic structures (like their general assemblies) their highest decision-making authorities, and forced administrations to recognize them and levy obligatory fees from students on their behalf. This structure of student representation, unique in the world, was modelled directly on the Rand Formula found in the Labour Act.
To claim that student strikes are “illegal,” as the Education Minister has suggested and the carrés verts have explicitly done, is effectively to ignore decades of precedence whereby the legitimacy and democratic nature of student strikes was accepted by governments of all political stripes. Since the birth of the student movement in the 1960s, student strikes have become culturally institutionalized in this province and become a de facto acquired right.
To claim that they are suddenly “illegal,” therefore, is effectively to claim that some of the most transformative acts in our history were illegal as well. In 1968, the first student strike swept through campuses and lasted two weeks, resulting in the tuition freeze and the creation of the Université du Québec network along with Montreal’s second French-language institution, UQÀM. The student leaders were named Gilles Duceppe, Louise Harel and Claude Charron.
In short, the student movement helped build modern Québec, and for decades students were respected as key partners in our collective development. That understanding held until 2012, when the Liberal government replaced respect with contempt and invoked the word “boycott” for the very first time to refer to a student mobilization.
In now denying students’ historic right to strike, both the Liberals and their apt pupils in the student ranks are perpetrating a violence against our collective memory. Whether through amnesiatic abandon or deliberate destruction, they are bulldozing through the half-century of social progress, achieved since the Quiet Revolution, that has made Québec the most egalitarian society in North America.
They are aiming to — and at present, are succeeding — in transforming our ideal of education from a social institution to a service industry like any other. And instead of forming citizens who question power and defend a vision of society, the neoliberal university will form individual consumers who defend only their private investments and their competitive positioning within the marketplace.
The fact of this discourse’s resonance is admittedly a sign of how far the commercialist culture has come over the decades of corporate ascendance, here and across the world. But it should not blind us to our history and the values that built it, nor prevent us from engaging in this debate with open eyes.