The 2012 Quebec student strike was the longest and by far the most radical of the nine general student strikes in the history of the province. One vital ingredient in the creation and sustenance of this historic movement was direct democracy. Thus, in order to properly understand the strike, one must first examine the concept of direct democracy and its practical application in the struggle.
In this chapter we start by introducing direct democracy, its concrete manifestation in Quebec’s student unions, and its place within a wider frame of union-based organizing—namely, combative syndicalism (unionism). We then move towards an analysis of the role of direct democracy, grassroots mobilization and general assemblies (GAs1) in the 2012 student strike. Finally, we reflect upon post-2012 critiques of this model of direct democracy, particularly the GAs. We conclude with some thoughts about the long term impacts of direct democracy and grassroots mobilization on students and Quebec society in general.
Democracy is an ambiguous term with a complex history—both conceptually2 and in its concrete incarnations. In order to clarify the term, we will define “democracy” as a “mode of political action,”3 as the political practices of ordinary people taking charge of their own affairs. This conception of democracy—different from a mainstream understanding of democracy as a representative political regime—allows us to understand direct democracy as a form or incarnation of democracy.
Direct democracy is clearly not the invention of students in Québec nor of any modern social movement. To cite two examples amongst many, assemblies were held by medieval peasants in Europe4 as well as by Indigenous people in North America.5 However, by exploring direct democracy within the student movement and explaining its manifestation, we hope to provide additional clarity and insight into its historical and practical significance.
In most student unions in Québec (certainly those that are members of ASSÉ/CLASSE6), the general assembly is open to all members and is the ultimate decision making body.7 This means that the GA can take any decision, including about how it functions, as long as the process follows a certain set of agreed-upon rules (e.g. Code Morin, Robert's Rules8, etc.). The decision then binds the union as an organization—especially the elected executive of the union—to carry out said decision. The executive committee exists to give life to a decision: its role is not to interpret9 the decision nor to change it. A decision can be reversed or altered in a subsequent assembly following the aforementioned procedures.
In order to encourage rank-and-file members to also be involved in carrying out the GA's decisions, student unions create open, informal, non-elected committees10 in which more technical questions are discussed and motions are put into practice (Figure 1). Thus with the help of members, the executive and other committees are able to carry out mandates voted in the general assembly.
Under normal circumstances, assemblies are held once a month or so, with a relatively low turnout—typically from one to five per cent of membership in attendance. In contrast, in the context of a large mobilization, participation can increase drastically: during the 2012 movement, the average attendance rate gravitated between 40 and 60 per cent.11 Beyond the broader political context, membership attendance is also strongly linked to the mobilization (promotion) efforts for a given GA, the topics on its agenda, and members' perceptions of its personal and political importance. GAs about budgetary and other bureaucratic affairs—although they are important in terms of transparency—are usually less popular than those involving political debates and potential courses of action. During the Québec student movement, the GA was the place where students took back the control of their own affairs, thus creating (direct) democracy as a mode of political action.
In principle, GAs grant all the participants of a given student union an equal say about its collective decisions, while providing the opportunity to bring forth individual concerns. Students take part directly in discussion and deliberation without any intermediary. Moreover, the rules and regulations used during GAs allow each individual the equal right to speak and intervene. However, like with any endeavour, there are always challenges in practice: the boxed section further below will take a critical look at the dynamics within GAs and the aspects deployed to facilitate participation among diverse individuals and groups.
Finally, it is important not to overlook the fact that general assemblies can consume a lot of time and energy: organizing the GA and mobilizing students to attend involves a tremendous amount of work that cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, long and sometimes unproductive debates are not always a propos, especially in a context where students and unions face time constraints to make decisions on a number of issues. That being said, this does not mean that GAs should be discarded because they take time and energy to organize. On both political and strategic planes, the benefits of direct democracy outweigh its shortcomings.
Before addressing the debates about the challenges of direct democracy practices in a diverse student population, we want to frame such practices within the larger frame of union-based organizing. Since the birth of the modern student movement in Québec in the 1960s, student unions have been inspired by the French notion of ‘student syndicalism’ that viewed students as intellectual workers;12 some have been particularly influenced by le syndicalisme de combat—combative syndicalism, and its emphasis on direct democracy.
Relatively unknown outside of francophone countries (the concept is called syndicalisme de lutte in France), combative syndicalism is structured around two principles: democracy and constant mobilization. In this perspective, the only way that members (workers, students) can expect to improve their conditions is through mobilization of the membership in order to establish a constant leverage against political opponents (employer, administration, government).13 Implicit in such a statement is the membership’s control of the union, through general assemblies and other elements of direct democracy. It is “only the control of the union by its members that allows them to get involved and become politicized.”14
Such control and ownership could be difficult to exercise if the associations consisted of tens of thousands of members (such as an entire university). Thus in the student context, smaller associations such as those of CEGEPs, faculties and departments are preferable for organizing and engaging in combative discourse.15 Regular general assemblies, debates, workshops, etc., further help to raise consciousness and empower members to take control of the issues that affect them. This emphasis on direct democracy is also a way to counter the tendency of social organizations—be they workers’, students’ or other organizations—to bureaucratize themselves and move closer to the established political order.16
In the Québec student movement, this relation between direct democracy and combative unionism is similarly intertwined. Direct democracy is present thanks to the strong presence of combative student unions, and those unions are combative because of the place of direct democracy in their structures. This relation also reiterates the strong connection between direct democracy, mobilization, and politicization in the movement: mobilized students participate in their general assemblies, thus they become aware of their agency as democratic actors, thus becoming more politically conscious.
"Existing as a permanent balance of power against the State, a combative student association that is based on the strength of numbers must operate through direct democracy."17
—ASSÉ, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante
The name Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), when translated into English, often misses the particular historical connotations associated to the term ‘syndicale’ as mentioned above. Indeed, both before and during the 2012 strike, for the student associations who were members of ASSÉ (and thus CLASSE18), direct democracy was practiced at all levels, starting with general assemblies. The processes of deliberating, debating and collective decision-making that took place in these GAs are key to explaining the strength and longevity of the 2012 movement. During the strike, weekly general assemblies were the central space where students at the grassroots level voted on issues of both local and provincial content, including demonstrations, strategies and other political actions and positions, and of course on the pivotal question of the unlimited general strike19—and whether to accept government offers.
Students were empowered via their general assemblies to make their decisions and did so because they believed in accessible and free education and because they knew that a strike was the ultimate tactic against the hikes.20 It was the students themselves who decided collectively in their general assemblies to go on strike based on the discussions and debates held with their peers.21
The strike movement thus was built from the ground up: the positions and mandates from the general assemblies were then debated among all the members in the CLASSE congress to decide upon a common course of action. The decisions made at the coalition (provincial) level were the positions taken by member associations in their own general assemblies (see figure 2). CLASSE executives would then coordinate this action plan, with the help of CLASSE committees22 and members at large.
How did it all play out? Delegates from each association brought the mandates voted in their respective GAs to the congress. The mandates of each association were also posted on the CLASSE list-serve so that other associations could take a position on them. If at congress, the majority of members did not have a position (more abstentions than yes and no votes) on a given proposition, the position was tabled.
This way of operating emphasizes the distinction between a ‘delegate’ and a ‘representative’. While normally representatives would make decisions on behalf of the members of their union (members thus don't have a direct say), delegates to CLASSE would be expected to vote according to the mandates adopted in their GAs, thus respecting the principles of direct democracy. This continues to be the case for those associations who are members of ASSÉ and participate in ASSÉ congresses.
It should be noted that a CLASSE (and ASSÉ) mandate did not automatically become the mandate of a member association who didn't have a mandate from its own members. Local sovereignty was protected at all times, empowering the students at the grassroots, which in turn strengthened the movement.
Just as demands and action plans were decided from the bottom up, any requests or communication coming from the government that were addressed to CLASSE also followed these processes, each student association’s general assembly voting on how to respond to the government’s request or communication (or offer) and then bringing the positions to the CLASSE congress for another vote. Students at the core of the grassroots movement thus had the power to decide whether a government offer was acceptable or not, what course of action should be taken next, whether to condemn violence or not, or even what constitutes violence.23
This larger provincial impact that decisions made at the grassroots GA level could have was an important mobilizing factor during the strike. We can attribute higher GA attendance during the strike to the level of influence students had on the local but also the Québec-wide directions of the movement. Since member students were involved in making decisions, such as when to hold Québec-wide demonstrations and what type of actions to put forward, they would also feel responsible to take part in carrying them out—on campuses and on the streets.
In this way, direct democracy was one of the strongest pillars of the student movement that lasted over six months. It is our contention that such a movement would not have been possible if it had been led by student union executives behind closed doors, making decisions about when and where the strike should take place. For the most part, campuses and associations that did not exercise direct democracy through general assemblies were not able to mobilize their members on a massive scale and/or did not take part in the strike. Strong direct democracy practices at the local student association level but also in the CLASSE thus played a vital role in mass mobilization and explain the stable number of students on strike for a long period of time and the turnout of hundreds of thousands to the streets.24
Following the 2012 Québec student strike, many discussions took place across Canada about the methods and organization of the CLASSE and student unions in Québec. One point of criticism was that general assemblies are oppressive structures that don't encourage minority voices and perpetuate heterosexual, white, male privileges. Indeed it is necessary to note that GAs—especially large ones—can be intimidating and might not always allow for everyone to voice their concerns. Students, no matter their level of politicization, are not exempted from power relations and in some cases discriminative/oppressive statements and attitudes were witnessed in assemblies.
One of the first things to acknowledge, however, when addressing oppression and GAs is that racism, sexism, heterosexism and oppressive systems are structural parts of Québec’s society (as in most societies) and are therefore reproduced inside the student movement and its structures. Hence, anti-oppression and other related training and efforts need to take priority on our campuses, in our student unions, and all its instances.
Some specific mechanisms were put in place in the case of the Québec student movement following the 2005 strike (and the reflections that came out of it) in order to make GAs more inclusive spaces and allow all, in particular minority voices, to be heard as much as possible. These include basic techniques, which are widely practiced, such as priority for first-time speakers and an alternation between men and women. Another more elaborate mechanism is the presence of a “mood watcher” (gardien-ne du senti), a person elected for the GA who is responsible for moderating the tone and pointing out any oppressive language or stances, and discouraging dominant voices from monopolizing the GA time. A specific time-limit is usually agreed upon which is to be respected by all participants, so that no one gets to speak for longer than others. The use of microphones, unless the GAs are very small, can ensure that people with loud voices are not privileged in being heard over those with less assertive and/or audible manners of speaking.
As GAs more often than not gathered hundreds of students, some found them intimidating, as not everyone is comfortable with speaking in public for various reasons. In some cases the much smaller departmental GAs were preferred in order to have more healthy and inclusive discussions. In some cases during the student strike, affinity groups were created that focused on having minority voices heard. The creation of affinity groups along various lines—some more action-oriented around activities such as yarn bombing, others framed around identity and politics, such as the queer/feminist bloc or students of colour—also allowed for informal discussions and the preparation of propositions/motions to bring to the general assemblies for widespread discussion and debate. As a member of yarn bombing group Maille-À-Part explained, having an affinity group as a "safety net" allowed for members to speak more confidently at the GAs, as they knew at least the members of their group were in agreement with the idea being proposed. Another specific example of an affinity group was the Comité Femmes GGI (Women's Committee for the unlimited general strike) that was created at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal) and whose members were active at the coalition level as well.
Of course, all of this does not mean that GAs are absolutely 'safe spaces.' There is considerable room for improvement and for introducing other mechanisms to make them more diverse and equitable for all. Additional mechanisms could include an alternation between racialized and non-racialized students (or prioritizing the contributions of racialized members) in addition to alternating speaking rights between self-identified male, female, queer and trans people. Ultimately, general assemblies are structures to facilitate direct democracy, so they can and should be modified and adapted according to the context, to be as inclusive as possible. It is a work in progress.
In the end, avoiding GAs by saying they are oppressive is a vicious circle as without the space for direct democracy, students at the grassroots would be disadvantaged rather than be empowered. The solution is to create general assemblies with mechanisms in place designed to address systemic inequalities and facilitate the participation of a diverse membership as well as to continue the efforts to make GAs a safer space and a tool for collective emancipation.
We have sought to illustrate how direct democracy played a key role in the mobilization of the students in 2012, and was possible due to the existence of structures in which such democracy could express itself and become a means of political action. Collective spaces of deliberation were the basis of the collective movement that was the 2012 Québec student strike.
We consider it to be too early to draw clear conclusions about the aftermath of the 2012 strike. The consequences on the student movement, on Québec society and on social movements will probably be diverse and profound. But one thing is sure: the tens of thousands of students who participated, discussed and voted in their respective general assemblies were transformed by this experience. For example, their vision of democracy is likely to have shifted from a mainstream, liberal understanding of the delegation of political capacities through the ballot box, to the comprehension of democracy as a mode of political action.
In an analysis of assemblies in revolutionary France, J. Guilhaumou puts forward the idea that the practice of direct democracy transforms people on an intellectual level. Thus, individuals participating in assemblies are shaped by new "cognitive practices that reflect their resources and knowledge as every citizen becomes a judge in the field of legislative activity and political emancipation."25
By its size and length, the 2012 strike will certainly have repercussions for tens of thousands of students and the broader public, who had a taste of a more genuine democracy. And that’s one hell of a victory in itself.
1 Also known as General Membership Meetings (GMMs)
2 For an analysis of the changes of the meaning of democracy in the 19th century, see Dupuis-Déri, Francis, “Histoire du mot ‘démocratie’ au Canada et au Québec: Analyse politique des strategies rhétoriques”, Revue canadienne de science politique, vol. 42, n°2, 2009, p. 321-343. Also see Dupuis-Déri, Francis, Démocratie. Histoire politique d'un mot: Aux États-Unis et en France, 2013, Lux Éditeur.
3 Abensour, Miguel «'Démocratie insurgente' et institution», Martin Breaugh, Francis Dupuis-Déri (eds.), La démocratie au-delà du libéralisme : Perspectives critiques, Outremont, Athéna/Chaire Mondialisation-citoyenneté-démocratie, 2009, p. 186. Our translation.
4 Gutton, Jean-Pierre, La sociabilité villageoise dans la France d’Ancien régime, Paris, Hachette, 1979, p. 141-146.
5 Sioui, Georges E., Les Wendats : Une civilisation méconnue, Sainte-Foy, Presses de l'Université Laval, 1994, p. 248-258.
6 More on ASSÉ/CLASSE later.
7 For a more general definition of “general assemblies”, see Baba, Morjane, “AG”, Guérilla Kit, Paris, La Découverte, 2003, p. 67
8 These are mainstream codes of rules whose purpose is to order deliberative assemblies. Most student unions use specific procedures adapted from the Code Morin, a Québec code inspired by Robert's Rules. An adapted version of Code Morin can be found here: www.aecpul.com.ulaval.ca/PDF/CodeMorin.pdf CLASSE's Congress used an adapted Code Morin available at www.asse-solidarite.qc.ca/spip.php?article74. Last accessed September 27, 2012.
9 In practice there is inevitably some degree of interpretation involved, though when it happens, it is often criticized by the student members to whom the executives are accountable (also see note 12).
10 Whether committees are elected or not varies greatly accordingly to the student union; Committees are often open to everyone and manage a specific aspect of the union's work (student life, women's condition, mobilization, etc.). They have access to budgets but must work within the framework of the positions of the general assembly.
11 Attendance was the highest in student unions with a strong and established culture of direct democracy, particularly urban CÉGEPs that were members of the provincial strike coalition, the CLASSE.
12 For a general history of the Québec student movement, see Bélanger, Pierre, Le mouvement étudiant québécois : son passé, ses revendications et ses luttes (1960-1983), Montréal, ANEEQ, 1984, 208 pages, and Lacoursière, Benoît, Le mouvement étudiant au Québec de 1983 à 2006, Montréal, Sabotart Édition, 2007, 202 pages.
13 Piotte, Jean-Marc, Le syndicalisme de combat, Montréal, Éditions coopératives Albert Saint-Martin, 1977, p.28.
14 Piotte, op. cit., p. 30. Our translation.
15 For a discussion on the desired size and composition of a student union, see www.studentstrike.net/5-further-readings/building-local-student-unions/. Last accessed September 7, 2014.
16 We can see general assemblies as “[…] deliberative processes that amplify diverse viewpoints, utilize heterogeneous sets of organizational resources, and maintain accountability structures that limit the negative influence of bureaucratic routinization and maintain openness to new practices”. Walker, Edward T., “Social Movements, Organizations, and Fields: a Decade of Theoretical Integration”, Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 2012, n°4, p. 584.
17 Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, “Le syndicalisme de combat”: \www.asse-solidarite.qc.ca/spip.php?article1743&lang=fr#4.1 Last accessed September 27, 2012, our translation.
19 In all CLASSE members associations, the strike was voted as unlimited general strike (GGI: Grève Generale Illimité) which was "unlimited" in principle and in most of the associations, it was renewed in a weekly GA.
20 This does not erase the fact that thousands of students were against the strike and that several student unions did not go on strike. It might be possible that anti-strike students were also empowered by GAs as they became more vocal through participating in the assemblies.
21 It should be noted that grassroots mobilization was carried out on campuses starting 2010 , which was intensified leading up to the strike. Depending on mobilization levels on campuses some associations (on Anglophone campuses, in particular) continued grassroots mobilization for GAs and other actions during the strike as well. For details on this aspect, see www.studentstrike.net/ Last accessed September 7, 2014.
22 See note 9. Also see some criticism of the structure in the resignation letter of the Social Struggles Committee to ASSÉ: orientation.bloquonslahausse.com/lettre-de-demission-du-comite-aux-luttes-sociales/. Last accessed September 7, 2014.
23 In April, the condition to join the negotiations with the government was to condemn violence. While the two other federations condemned it soon after or within a few days, CLASSE waited for its members to take a position on violence in their own general assemblies. Based on the GA mandates, the position of CLASSE on violence was discussed, debated and formulated.
24 The demonstrations also included non-students but the critical mass, particularly at the beginning of the movement, was composed of students who were on strike, whose time was liberated to bring their case to the streets.
25 Guilhaumou, Jacques, “Le mécanisme démocratique”, in Marcel Detienne (ed.), Qui veut prendre la parole ?, Paris, Seuil, 2003, p. 344-345. Our translation.