Putting the Quebec Student Strikes in Context

17 Mar

Written in response to a thread on CRIT-GEOG-FORUM@JISCMAIL.AC.UK discussing the Quebec student strikes. Since it is a geography listserv I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some broader reflections on the place/space/identity of the movement. The thread at the bottom of the page.

Susan has done a good job of simplifying a complex situation.  As a student involved in this strike, I would agree that this is more a fight “for” a principle than “against” a tuition increase, although most of the rhetoric in protests and pamphlets is focused on opposing the hikes specifically.    This single issue has also been expressed in positive terms as a fight “for accessible education”. However, the student strikes in Quebec are not limited to the specific monetary amount that tuition will be raised, but the entire system of values that accompany it.  While I hesitate to throw around the word “neoliberalism”, it really is the term that best encapsulates what we as students are opposing.   Tuition increases are one aspect, but there are also concerns about incentives to increase private funding of research, increasing the marketing portion of the budget, defining “quality” of education in terms of the number of graduates, etc…

Some context of the Quebec situation is important in understanding what is happening here. For those not familiar with Canadian history/current events, Quebec is a province which considers itself a “distinct society”. Many Canadians assume this is limited to a difference in language-of-operation, and otherwise QuébecoisEs share with us common modern values. This would be inaccurate. The specific history of Quebec, within which language plays a crucial role, has resulted in a population with cultural values very different from those of Anglophone Canada. (I will continue to use anglophone/francophone as shorthand for the cultural differences between these populations, but as already noted language is only one factor in these differences). The results of the last Canadian election is a good example of the contrast between Quebecois values and the rest of the country, even when it is not a specifically “québecois” party they are supporting. It is difficult for me to articulate exactly what this culture is “for” or “against”, but based on my experiences/observations I would note that this is a culture where people are more important than the market.  The consequence is that today Quebec is a point of resistance against neoliberal projects.

For example, Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada. This point is often held against strikers, who are told they are spoiled and must pay more. But the reason tuition rates are this low is because over the last 40 years students have repeatedly mobilized to defend it.  This is the 9th time students in Quebec have gone on strike since 1968; the current strike is the fourth time since 1990. It should be noted that until this year none of the student strikes in Quebec have involved anglophone institutions.

Susan proposed that “in Canada, at least, the sentiment among students is that the hike is unnecessary.”  My instinct is to disagree with this statement, however, it has been years since I been a student anywhere other than Quebec. I would argue that in anglophone Canada, we have been taught that using public services is a burden on society, and that we should be proud to pay more.  I am speaking from a particular protestant upbringing which values upward mobility and considers lower/working class characteristics shameful — but I have the impression that this is consistent with anglophone culture in general today.  My experiences in anglophone Montreal have shown me these ideas are alive and well in Quebec as well, and have contributed to the lack of mobilization from anglophone student groups.

There are two anglophone universities in Montreal, Concordia and McGill, and five francophone universities. Concordia has a history as a community college, while McGill is considered Ivy League (in the very loose, Canadian sense of the term). Many of the students at these two universities are out-of-province or international students (ironically this is often to benefit from the relatively low tuition, despite the fact that tuition rates are higher for non-residents).  This week McGill undergraduate students voted down their proposed strike mandate.  I believe Concordia was able to pass their strike mandate due to the inspiration and example set by the francophone universities. This includes organizational techniques that have not traditionally been used in anglophone universities.  The most well organized and successful francophone university, Université de Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), organize on a departmental level through frequent General Assemblies.  We adopted this idea at Concordia prior to any action from the larger student union; by the time the undergraduate student union went to vote on a mandate, at least 5 department level associations were already on strike. Department level General Assemblies allow for more discussion, more representation, and an opportunity for the mandate to be designed collectively through direct democracy.  We are still new to this whole process at Concordia, but we are learning with experience.  I have now participated in 4 department level GAs and can testify that things are improving.

I sense this is getting a bit long, so I will leave it here. I would be happy to address any questions you might have from a student strike organizer perspective.  You can also check out the blog that we have been using to keep other students up to date: http://geographyonstrike.wordpress.com/

All the best,
Kiley Goyette
Human Environment / Urban Studies undergrad at Concordia University


On Thu, 3/15/12, Susan R***** wrote:

From: Susan R***** <*******>
Subject: Re: Concordia Geography Chair interferes with student politics, sends chilling memo
To: CRIT-GEOG-FORUM@JISCMAIL.AC.UK
Date: Thursday, March 15, 2012, 11:46 AM

By UK standards, yes it is small but, no, it’s not a misprint. 

The chair of geography at Concordia issued a statement on March 12 that he has “no choice but to accept that the tactic of stopping classroom instruction represents the collective, and thoroughly discussed, decision of our students…. it would be unacceptable to me if a member of our community, whose political action was sanctioned by a truly democratic assembly, were to seriously suffer for that action.”  See   http://geograds.wordpress.com/  

My sense is that for the students who are striking it is a question of fighting *for* a principle rather than *against* an unbearable hardship (that said, it is no small thing for students from low income families to be graduating with $25000 debt from undergraduate, and it skews against those in the humanities or anything that does not have the immediate promise of employment …)   

But it’s also kind of a “boiling frog” scenario, the water may only be “warm” at this point (at least for some),  but these frogs want the heat turned off.  

In my understanding, students are also striking in part in solidarity with those who will excluded because of fee hikes (by some estimates 30,000 potential students); because of the racialized impact of the fee hikes http://gsaconcordia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/CFS-O-Racialised-Impact-of-Tuition-Fees.pdf; and because in Canada, at least, the sentiment among students is that the hike is unnecessary — taking advantage of a generalized  global climate of austerity which does not fully reflect the Canadian economic situation; part of a trend to skew funds into administration and elsewhere, (and a more general tendency to privatization); and that this trend is being authorized by folks who had the full benefits of a public post secondary education themselves several decades ago.      

my two cents, but anyone closer to the action with other insights please feel free to respond.  

On 12-Mar-12, at 8:56 PM, S**** P J B********* wrote:

That is an extraordinarily small tuition hike, viewed over 5 years. Maybe it is a misprint and it is actually $16,250?  

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: y***** k***** <***********>
Date: Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 10:11 AM
Subject: Concordia Geography Chair interferes with student politics, sends chilling memo
To: LEFTGEOG@lsv.uky.edu

Good morning,
Some of the members on this listserv might already be aware that approximately 130 000 students across Québec are on strike against the plan to raise tuition $1625 over the next five years. Basically unknown outside Canada, student protesters have been met with extreme violence, including aggravated assault on one college student.
At Concordia University in Montréal, geography students have joined the strike, and some students have even decided to defend picket lines. I am sending you the Chair’s “chilling” memo (see attachment) that I believe interferes with students and faculty’s right to assemble and protest. Below is my response.
I think its important that administrators be held accountable for their actions. Since they seem more interested in being accountable to their funders and scientific journals to the Concordia community, they might react differently if they are pressured are by their colleagues.
I encourage members of this listserv to send messages of support to the following emails:
Dr. David Greene, Chair, Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University (Montreal)
greene@alcor.concordia.ca
David Graham, Provost, Concordia University dgraham@algol.concordia.ca

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One Response to “Putting the Quebec Student Strikes in Context”

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  1. New post on the Geogging Collective | geographyonstrike - March 17, 2012

    […] have added a new post to the Geogging Collective called Putting the Quebec Student Strikes in Context – in response to a thread on a critical geography listserv, it’s an attempt to help […]

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