The mass social discontent that began last spring when students took to the streets to protest university tuition hikes has come, if not to an end, then to a turning point. On September 4, Liberal premier Jean Charest lost his seat and his government to the Parti Québécois, whose new premier, Pauline Marois, quickly moved to distinguish her minority government from its predecessor. On its first day in power, the PQ scrapped the hike, as well as the emergency legislation passed by Charest that was designed to quell the student-led protests.
For students that weathered mass arrests, police batons, tear gas and rubber bullets, however, it is not a victory that starts or ends with a change in government. While the student strikes across Quebec started in February over tuition hikes, the government’s zeal to break student mobilizations and negate students’ power unleashed a building frustration at the political process.
At the student general assemblies, in the clogged streets and at blockaded bank buildings, students named the ideology of privatization, austerity and a political process dominated by the wealthy as the enemies. As the rest of the country looked out at the economic and political turmoil in the Arab world, in Europe and in the United States with self-assurance that “things are better in Canada,” Quebec’s students took inspiration from the streets of Cairo, Madrid and New York City.
Fearing the prospect of American-style student debt loads while entering into a “knowledge economy” that increasingly exploits their labor, it seemed natural that Quebec’s students threw their lot in with the global 99 percent. In doing so, they put a Canadian face onto global struggles against the concentration of state and economic power in the elites. “Students became more connected with social movements in Greece and student strikes in Chile than with Quebec’s national question,” Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesperson for the leading student association, CLASSE, told me during an association congress in August.
Still, within two weeks of our conversation (and after six months on the picket lines) students had voted to return to class amidst an election and a last minute bid to save their semester. Despite having triggered the vote, the questions about austerity and corporate power raised by the students were subsumed beneath the old debate of Canadian federalism vs. Quebec nationalism. Although Marois promised to cater to the student’s basic demands on tuition, she ran a campaign focused on language politics and Francophone cultural hegemony.
For the most part, the election tried to co-opt a new internationalism with the promise of national paternalism and bury economic grievances beneath old political divides that now appear relevant only to the political class of elites. Returning no conclusive winner, the only thing clear about the September 4 vote is that the people of Quebec rejected the austerity option and aren’t crazy about any of the other choices. Meanwhile Quebec’s students have been reaching out across the country to try to build a Canada-wide anti-austerity movement that demands free post-secondary education.
Although a new government leads the legislature, the grievances behind the “Maple Spring” are unchanged. And while the real campaign between parliament and the will of the street continues, students have the confidence of knowing they brought down the last government and that their loyalties lie beyond this one.