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Fighting for a Future Worth Living

CLASSE Members Speak in Toronto About the Future of the Quebec Student Movement

by Lucid

Since the strikes began in February of 2012 the Quebec Student Movement has achieved a measure of international recognition as well as historical greatness. Yet, it remains largely misunderstood outside its provincial borders and continues to receive criticism for being a “failed movement” by both the mainstream right and the radical left. For the most part, things have been comparatively quiet these last few weeks. But as we enter the month of August, what may be on the minds of many is what will happen on school campuses in the fall, now quickly approaching.

CLASSE organizers from Quebec have repeatedly expressed a desire for solidarity from their Ontarian student counterparts, in what originated as an impassioned plea from Quebec strikers in May, as the movement had reached its zenith, they found themselves embroiled in a massive resistance effort against the passage of the draconian anti-protest law Bill 78. Fortunately the result came in the formation of a new coalition of Ontario activists, and that through the culmination of some spontaneous organizing, succeeded in launching a march that drew as many asmany as 6,000 locally in Toronto.

July 22 marked a one day demonstration in Montreal of about 175,000, where CLASSE delegates pledged that the movement would continue to escalate and spread.  A small cadre of CLASSE (translated Large Coalition of Student Associations) spokespersons, Marianne Breton Fontaine, Hugo Bonin, and Audry Devault, gave a talk at Ryerson University as part of a Southern Ontario “Solidarity Tour” to shed light on their perspectives on what the movement means to them, as part of their effort to share their strategies, and to spread the strike nation-wide.

Speaker Marianne Breton Fontaine is a political player among the Quebec student associations, as well as writer and correspondent with various co-operative alternative media groups. She opened up her presentation on a positive note by stating that the strike movement “has a plan,” and that though Quebec student movement may be at a “crossroads” she reassured the audience  that the prospects of carrying the struggle through to victory —a tuition freeze— were certain. Further, from there the movement could build toward more expansive and socially egalitarian goals such as making post-secondary education even more affordable in Quebec. She repeatedly emphasized that such a victory could set a precedent and would empower other communities in struggle around the globe.

Part of her talk sought out to dispel some of the misunderstandings perpetuated by the mainstream press and the erroneous “romanticization” of the movement as being one that suddenly emerged as a reaction to the recent tuition hikes. Rather, the mass mobilizations came as a result of at least two years of gradual organizing of on campuses to highlight the threat to funding contained in the 2010 Federal budget. “Special laws”  enacted by Stephen Harper, laws that inhibit organizing for benefits, (such as C-38), brought about not only an “attack” on Quebec students, said Fontaine, but also upon the wider sector of struggling communities and workers. Shown in this way, CLASSE's organizing efforts for the Quebec student movement places it in a position of advancing the global struggles this generation has been called to task for, in order to reverse the neo-liberal austerity agenda currently being waged against under-classes, prominently seen in Greece, Spain, the UK, and the United States.

Moreover, while the Quebec student strike movement has pin-pointed its resistance on the recent tuition hikes, Fontaine went on to contextualize the movement as fighting a “battle of ideas” happening around the question whether “education is an investment.” She categorically dismantled this as a claim given by writers and politicians making the case for privatization. “We argue that it is not,” she went on to say, because students are not “products.” Whereas within a modern society that increasingly being governed by the rules of economics, the value of education —particularly post-secondary education— has been measured by its ability to train “functional workers.” Fontaine and the members of CLASSE reject this as a perspective because it serves neo-liberalism over cultural sovereignty.

“Knowledge is like love, it is good to share. It is a social jewel,” said Fontaine, alluding through metaphor to the ephemeral qualities of knowledge and education in culture. Knowledge, for example, is not something that can be assembled and “commodified” on the market trading system. Rather, it is organically derived and developed throughout the course of a long and complicated natural process. According to CLASSE’s Manifesto statement, knowledge exists only “shared spaces.” CLASSE’s stated mission is, thus, to work for the preservation of those spaces for the good of all. Thus the privitization of the institution of higher learning is an absurd regression that has socially devastating implications, for example the impending collapse of the student debt “bubble” as the next wave in the global economic crisis.

Quebec has the highest university enrollment in the country. “We see that as a good thing”, remarked Hugo Bonin, one of the evening’s speakers, in an offhand comment. He is a CLASSE organizer as well as a “front line" striker. He talked on the issue of tuition hikes, explaining that “hikes are political” in nature. They create restrictions and inhibitions for enrollment which then contribute to the "transformation of the university” from being an institution of higher learning to an apparatus of big business capitalism. He confirmed this by adding that higher rates of “tuition creates debt,” which then, in turn, influences students to have to choose technical training over academic “emancipation.”

While Bonin and Devault, however, dedicated the majority of their talks to the pragmatic issues of student organizing on campuses, from their experiences as members of CLASSE, they both gave particular emphasis on its democratic processes which oftentimes yielded unpredictable decisions. Audry Devault related an experience from her hometown of Dawson where the student association declined, through a referendum vote, to go on strike with the other schools. Devault's account served as a sobering reminder of the serious dilemma students face in deciding their  participation and commitment for the movement. It's a choice that comes with even greater costs now, since the passage of Bill 78, because it explicitly outlaws students caught organizing for picketing on school campuses.

Nevertheless, CLASSE members remain hopeful about the movement, and perhaps through their resolve, have given hope back to the people of Quebec. They have demonstrated themselves to be effective as movement strategists during an opportune moment in history of global uprising. But what’s more remarkable is the sort of wisdom they, as leaders, exemplify. While the Charest government may have won the day in quashing the strike and rejecting negotiations for the tuition freeze, CLASSE has clearly won the moral high-ground. More-so, CLASSE now has a guiding document, the Manifesto, and it is one one that conveys a vision of for society inconceivable to authoritarians beholden to neo-liberal globalists. More importantly, they have the won the popular support, and strength in numbers. And this, in the final equation, is a lesson any politician and businessman (and woman) would do well to learn from. Solidarite’.

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