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Social Movements and Self-Transformation :pdf
From the 2005 Student Strike to the Printemps érable

Xavier Lafrance


Veterans of the student movement in Québec will tell you that the preparation work for 2012 student strike was started in 2005. It is indeed the 2005 student strike that launched a cycle of transformation of the balance of power within Québec's student movement which culminated with the great strike of 2012, the aftermath of which is still ongoing. This last strike and the widely popular mobilization it entailed brought to the forefront the democratic and combative student unionism upheld by the ASSÉ and its member unions. This represents a major shift from the prevalence of a top-down, corporatist, and lobbyist mode of action under the dominance of the Fédération Universitaire Étudiante du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec (FECQ) since the early 1990s.

To understand how this process was launched in 2005 and unfolded over the years, it is important to analyze the successes as well as the failures of the ASSÉ during the 2005 strike, and since. These successes and failures become clearer and take their full meaning when analyzed in comparison with the accomplishments of the spectacular movement in 2012. Such an analysis reveals how the democratic and combative wing of the student movement was able to mature and to sharpen its political perspective and its strategic outlook between the two episodes of heightened mobilization and how this evolution was facilitated by a shifting balance of power within the broader student movement.

The 2005 strike and the CASSÉÉ

In 2003, two years after its creation, ASSÉ launched an unlimited general strike campaign primarily aimed at blocking the substantial hike of institutional fees that had been announced in many CÉGEPs across the province of Québec. Though many student unions obtained strike mandates, the number deemed necessary to launch the strike was not reached and the campaign ended in a stalemate, which had a demoralizing and demobilizing effect on the organization. For the remainder of 2004, ASSÉ appeared to be more or less stagnant. The Political Science program student union at UQÀM formally reconsidered its affiliation to ASSÉ during spring of 2004, but remained a member by a narrow majority. The executive committee of the CÉGEP de Drummondville student union also made clear its intentions to leave ASSÉ in the near future. The Concordia student union did disaffiliate, though mainly for its own internal reasons, joining the FEUQ and taking a large financial contribution with it; ASSÉ was left with only seven members and a much smaller budget. The student federations (FECQ-FEUQ) were thus confidently asserting their domination over the student movement and were boasting about the eventual death of their rival organization, ASSÉ. But not for long.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2003 and again in its 2004 budget, the Liberal government of Québec announced a harsh reform of the province's financial aid system that included the transformation of a $103 million bursaries budget into loans. In late spring and summer 2004, ASSÉ decried this reform and launched a campaign in opposition to it. The Association refused to limit its demands to the $103 million cutback, instead developing a platform that demanded not only the abolition of the reform, but the retroactive reinvestment of the sums that had been cut, and also a clear commitment from the government not to decentralize the CÉGEP network—which would grant powers to campus administrations that would lead them to compete with one another and to offer programs increasingly catering to the demands of private corporations. With these immediate demands came a longer-term goal to eliminate post-secondary tuition fees (that is, to institute free education), as well as to clear student debt.

After an escalation of pressure tactics, and facing an unyielding government that refused to even listen, ASSÉ launched the eighth general student strike in Québec's history in February of 2005. The student federations (FECQ and FEUQ) joined the movement just over a week later. In order to lead the strike and put forth its demands more widely, ASSÉ decided to invite non-member student unions to join forces within a broader coalition named CASSÉÉ. All student unions were welcome, including unions affiliated to the federations, provided they had democratically decided to join and adopted the coalition's platform in their general assemblies (or general membership meetings). The ASSÉ decided to form this coalition primarily in order to improve its balance of power in the face of the state. But another crucial motivation behind this unprecedented move was to avoid a repeat of the 1996 student strike.

The seventh general strike (1996), launched in opposition to a 30 per cent tuition increase, had seen FECQ and FEUQ taking advantage of the leverage created by the mobilization— 40 associations and 100,000 students on strike at its peak— to negotiate with the government without MDE (Movement pour le Droit à l'Éducation), a then recently formed national student union and, in a sense, the predecessor of ASSÉ. The federations, representing only a small proportion of the students on strike, reached a very disappointing agreement at the time.

To avoid such a scenario in 2005, ASSÉ created a broader coalition. The creation of the CASSÉÉ was met with unexpected and impressive success. It represented well over a third (70,000 out of the 185,000) of students that were on unlimited strike at the peak of the mobilization. Many student unions formally affiliated with the federations joined the Coalition, adopting its practices of direct democracy. Members of CASSÉÉ were also behind many of the numerous demonstrations and economic disruption as well as the plentiful and very creative artistic interventions, which foreshadowed the combative and powerfully imaginative mobilization of 2012. The Coalition met only once with the Education Minister but was excluded from the negotiation process for the remainder of the seven week-long conflict (a serious failure on the part of the Coalition, to which I will return below). Yet, from the streets and in the massive general assemblies where students throughout the province pronounced their will and positions, CASSÉÉ was able to pressure both the government's and the Federation's representatives all through the negotiation process. The coalition brought a strong culture of direct democracy to the movement which imposed a constant pressure from below on representatives sitting at the negotiating table. Thus, in 2005, through a massive collective struggle, CASSÉÉ had already kickstarted a shift in the balance of power within Québec's student movement.

Maintaining the Coalition together during the strike, however, proved to be difficult. The Coalition brought a clash of cultures between student unions who were still new to democratic and combative (activist) student unionism, on the one hand, and on the other hand the ASSÉ's member unions, whose seasoned delegates could be immature and dogmatic on a number of points. For example, the issue of free education proved to be a sticking point. During a CASSÉÉ congress, a group of delegates voiced their opposition to the goal of free education, which they believed would not be popular in the media and would have the effect of marginalizing the Coalition. The members present at the congress, however, finally voted to preserve this broader aim. In retrospect, this was the right decision. It led tens of thousands of students on strike to appropriate (or at least to ponder) the idea that education is a right and should be free and publicly funded. It allowed the Coalition to present its immediate demands while also promoting a deeper vision of a free and decommodified post-secondary education. In the wake of what was at that time the largest and longest student strike in Québec's history, the Coalition's position actually brought the notion of free education out of its almost complete marginality into the public sphere as a legitimate and debatable idea. In the months and years that followed the mobilization, many local student unions as well as many other organizations—among them the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, the province's largest trade union federation—adopted positions in support of free post-secondary education.

The issue of "violence" was also problematic and proved quite divisive. CASSÉÉ was excluded from the negotiating table by the Minister—with tacit support from the Federations—on the ground that it supported violent actions. In order to be re-included in the negotiations, the Coalition was asked to officially condemn violence. In general assemblies and congresses, some of CASSÉE's student members dismissed the Minister's demand as a pretext for excluding the most democratic and radical student organization from the negotiating process (this was certainly true). A condemnation en bloc of undefined violence, members argued, would cut us off from tactics of economic disruption, sit-ins, occupations, etc. that provided us with much of our power in face of the state. Other associations and unions urged the Coalition to condemn violence in order to access the table. Yet others also insisted that militant actions and protests should be framed in a way that would please media. In the end, all sides abided by the false contradiction that had been set up between combativeness and a sound representation of the movement in the media. These debates notwithstanding, the coalition in general did believe in the importance of winning over "public opinion", in spite of discussions and proposed positions that often complicated the task. The spokespersons were left to play a delicate dance with very limited experience and resources.

The CASSÉÉ was not yet able to adopt the brilliant position embraced by the CLASSE in 2012, which condemned physical violence on individuals while asserting the importance and legitimacy of actions of civil disobedience. Even if it had, however, this would have offered no guarantee of inclusion in the bargaining process. Beyond the issue of condemning violence, what was needed for the CASSÉÉ to be included in negotiations was unity within the student movement. The FECQ and the FEUQ would have needed to show solidarity and defiance in the face of the government and refuse to negotiate without the Coalition created by the ASSÉ. The next challenge, then, was to build broader unity within the student movement, across organizational divides.

Some members of CASSÉÉ suggested approaching the Federations with a deal: the coalition would refrain from criticizing the FECQ and the FEUQ publicly in exchange for their promise to not engage in negotiations without CASSÉÉ. Such a deal was struck over the summer of 2011 at the Rassemblement national étudiant (RNE), where 88 student unions belonging to the ASSÉ and the Federations, as well as unaffiliated unions, met in preparation for the upcoming strike of 2012. Now, would such a deal have been possible in 2004-2005? Not likely. For one, the ASSÉ and many of its activists were probably too prone to attack the student federations at the time, a reflex that becomes understandable in the face of fifteen years of undemocratic and corporatist behaviour by the FECQ and the FEUQ.1 The federations also showed disdain toward the ASSÉ and were actively trying to isolate and undermine the organization at the time.

If anything, the Federations were even more closed off to the idea of any collaboration between our organizations than was the ASSÉ. What allowed for the 2011 RNE deal to take place and ultimately forced the FECQ and the FEUQ to refuse to bargain alone in 2012, was fundamentally the transformation of the balance of power within the broader student movement. This began at the end of the 2005 strike when, even as they voted to go back to class, student unions representing a majority of the 185,000 people on strike rejected the deal reached by the Federations and the government, which had been publicly recommended to its members by FEUQ. After the deal was made public, many unions affiliated to the federations offered overt critics of their national organization. Some went as far as to occupy the FEUQ's offices to denounce its undemocratic manoeuvrings: negotiating with the government in the absence of an organization (CASSÉÉ) representing over a third of the students on strike, and publicly recommending an unsatisfactory deal at the request of the government, before a consultation of the student population through general assemblies could take place.

In the months and years that followed, and as a direct consequence of the 2005 strike and of the way it ended, member unions representing tens of thousands of students left the FEUQ, many of which went on to join the ASSÉ. The FEUQ's position in 2012 came in large part from the fact that it simply could not afford to suffer such a loss again in 2012. The FECQ, which had refused to formally recommend the deal in 2005, did not face a similar backlash. In 2012, this organization was much less ready than the FEUQ to defend the CLASSE's right to participate in the negotiation process, and retained clearly anti-democratic patterns. The wave of disaffiliation it is currently facing can be linked to these patterns and practices.

ASSÉ made the sound decision in 2011-2012 to reject dogmatic (and even ritualistic) denunciations of the Federations and to take the initiative to build unity within the student movement on a democratic basis through the RNE, and later through CLASSE. But for this (shaky) unity to emerge, the internal context of the student movement had to be ready. The CASSÉÉ was able to launch this transformation through the struggle of 2005, which it initiated and which it infused with well-rooted democratic functioning and aspirations, in spite of its immaturity and of its mistakes.

So was that a defeat?

Many have depicted the 2005 strike as a defeat. The deal accepted by the student federations' executive committee and rejected by the CASSÉÉ (and many members of the FECQ and the FEUQ) was certainly unsatisfactory: the government's cancellation of the bursary budget transformation into loans was not retroactive to 2004, was only partial for 2005-2006, and it was entirely financed through federal transfers that should have been used to improve the financial aid system instead of compensating for provincial cutbacks. Moreover, the deal remained completely silent on the issue of the decentralization of the CÉGEP network. This powerful strike had the potential to win much more.

Yet, one of the principal gains was certainly that the movement demonstrated (yet again) so vividly that the defence and promotion of our social rights depends upon our capacity to mobilize collectively and democratically. Thousands learned this lesson in the school of the streets and of collective struggle. They developed activist capacities and adopted new political perspectives. In the wake of the cycle of struggles launched by 2005, we witnessed a reinforcement of the democratic and activist pole of Québec's student movement—to a point where CLASSE became the dominant actor throughout the 2012 strike.2 This cycle forced the FECQ and the FEUQ to undertake certain transformations. They faced (and continue to face) many losses in membership and internal critics that led them to refuse the divisive game that they had agreed to play for the government in 2005. The federations also showed increased combativity as well as greater respect for democratic organizing principles during the "printemps érable" of 2012.

This whole evolution is rich in lessons for those driven by a desire to transform society. There is no revolutionary agent quietly waiting to be found. The working class (understood in all its internal diversity, to which students belong) is not simply asleep. It represents a community of interests that needs to be actively rebuilt through a process of struggles and systematic mobilization, punctuated with breakthrough and setbacks, from which we need to draw lessons collectively.

1 Lacoursière, Benoît (2007). Le mouvement étudiant au Québec de 1986 à 2006, Montreal: Sabotart, 179 p.

2 During the 2012 strike, CLASSE represented a little more than half of the strikers and included  11 of the 14 CEGEPs that were on strike.