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Richard Fidler: CLASSE student organization sets its sights on free
university tuition

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The recent Quebec provincial election saw a new government come to power: Parti Quebecois won with a minority government. And one of the things that was announced earliest was there will not be a rise in tuitions, which was the demand of the Quebec student movement. And many students and activists saw this as a victory for that movement. But just how much did the student movement affect the outcome of the election?

Now joining us to talk about Quebec politics is an observer—and longtime observer, I should say—of Quebec politics, Richard Fidler. Richard’s a retired lawyer and translator living in Ottawa, and he writes at Life on the Left. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: What role do you think the student movement played in the outcome of the election? I mean, we saw massive demonstrations in the months leading up to it, really quite unprecedented not just for Quebec, Canada, unprecedented for North America, I guess, if you don’t include Mexico, which I guess has seen some pretty big demonstrations. But the demand of no tuition increase seems to have been won. And how much did that have to do with the outcome of the election, the defeat of the Liberal government?

FIDLER: Well, it was certainly one of the ingredients. It’s hard to gauge it, of course, ’cause you don’t know why people voted as they did. But certainly the general atmosphere in Quebec was very much one of fe rment and so on. And there was a lot of hostility to Charest. Obviously, it wasn’t quite as great as some of us imagined when you see the final result, a very close result between the PQ and the Liberals, but there was a lot of hostility, especially among young people, toward Charest.

It’s also indicated by the fact that two of the left-wing parties that ran, the smaller ones to the left of the Parti Quebecois, mainly Québec solidaire and Option national, both gained thousands of members during the campaign itself. And Québec solidaire now has 13,000 members, which is twice what they had a year ago. And Option national, which was formed just a year ago, has 5,000 members. And they’re both pro-sovereingty and to the left of the PQ—Québec solidaire more than Option national. So that’s one sign, if you want, that there were certainly a lot of students who felt that they had to take a political stance.

Now, I should say that the main, the largest and most militant of the student groups did not take a position in the election and decided not to participate, as such, in the campaign. The other two groups, the college students and the university students (CLASSE, the main one, encompasses both, ’cause they’re all tendencies, you see), they intervened in various ways, mainly by campaigning against the Liberals, insofar as they could within the restrictions of Quebec’s electoral law. So there were some demonstrations.

Charest generally avoided the media and avoided any situation where he would come in touch with the students. The one exception was in his own riding in Sherbrooke, and there he was defeated, and fairly decisively. So who knows? That may have been a factor that tipped the thing.

JAY: Now, there seems to have been a shift in Quebec politics. And I think the first, at least, sign that I saw of it—though I’m not watching it as closely as you are, of course—but in the last federal election, the fact that so many Quebec votes went to the NDP, which traditionally didn’t do very well in Quebec—and for American viewers, this is a sort of a left-of-center social democratic party. But normally those votes would have gone to Bloc Québécois in the federal election, which is a quasi-social democratic party, but mostly a nationalist party.

And I know I made a film a few years ago in Quebec called Never-Endum-Referendum, and at the time, there was always this kind of conundrum that the sort of pent-up progressive movement and opinion was always kind of stilted, ’cause they were in alliance with a lot of right-wing Quebec on the nationalist issue and could never break out on straight class and social issues. The last federal election and the kind of abandoning of Bloc Quebecois seemed to be a break with that. And when I asked some of the CLASSE leaders, the student organization, now, this provincial election, how much the nationalist issue played a role for them, it was, like, zero. They didn’t even want to talk about it. Have things really shifted so that there’s this—a more straight class struggle taking place in Quebec now?

FIDLER: It’s—I think it’s possible, yes. I think it was illustrated in part by the PQ’s campaign. Marois, up until a few months ago, was very much making a pitch toward what had been the right-wing ADQ, the Action démocratique du Québec, which then merged with François Legault’s group, the CAQ, the Coalition avenir Québec. And so then she turned around. The PQ was in crisis. They were losing members. They’ve lost about half a dozen sitting members to sit as independents or quit politics altogether and so on. But she took a switch early in the year, about February, and picked up some of the themes that have been promoted and championed by the more left-wing members of her party. And I would say the PQ probably waged a slightly more left campaign this time than they had in many years, since before Lucien Bouchard, which takes you back almost 20 years to the time of Jacques Parizeau, for example. And that may have helped them.

It was interesting that two of the key groups in Quebec society that have been mobilized the most during the last year or so or two years, namely, the students, but secondly, the people in all these little communities across southern Quebec who have been organizing and mobilizing against shale gas exploration and development in their areas, you know, they were both immediately pleased by the result of the election, ’cause the PQ has pledged an indefinite moratorium on all shale gas exploration and development, and, of course, a very extensive environmental review over the next period, but with the idea that they probably will not allow it. And so that was a victory for them, too.

And, of course, the students, as you mentioned, the first thing that Marois said was there will be no fee increase, we’re canceling the—I’m just going to cancel by order in council the fee increase that had been legislated under Charest’s budget. [crosstalk] she’s also committed to hold a summit on the education situation before the end of this year, in other words, within the next three months, and she’s delegated a top minister to be in charge of that.

JAY: Well, that summit could get a little thorny for her, because CLASSE, which is the biggest of the student organizations, I think, certainly that represented the most of the strikers—and for those that don’t know, there was, I think—what was it?—about 140, 150 students actually on strike at the peak of this.

FIDLER: At one time there were 165,000.

JAY: Right.

FIDLER: A hundred and sixty-five thousand.

JAY: And CLASSE’s demands go far beyond just a question of tuition increase. They’re talking—first of all, on the education front, their central demand is free university education. And it kind of is part of a whole view of trying to oppose neoliberal economics within Quebec. So when they get to that summit, the PQ’s going to be in for something here, and they can’t afford to piss the students off. On the other hand, where do they go? It’s not like the PQ is really that progressive.

FIDLER: No, no, exactly. And, in fact, Marois has been very adamant about the fact that she is not going to endorse free tuition. The interesting thing is that of course the students make a very powerful appeal on this, because free tuition was actually one of the goals of the Quiet Revolution. If you go back to the Parent Royal Commission on Education in the early ’60s, the one that laid the basis for the secularization of Quebec education, getting it away from the church, setting up that whole string of provincial universities, the University of Quebec, and creating the college system, the CEGEPs and so on, all of that was in their report, but much more. There were demands that, for example, free tuition be implemented. They said that we can’t do it right now, but this is something we’ve got to do reasonably soon. And here we are, 50 years later, and we still haven’t got it.

Now, it’s true: Quebec has some of the lowest (if not the lowest) tuition fees, university tuition fees—we’re not talking about college; there’s no tuition fee on the CEGEPs—but the lowest in Canada. But that’s because there’s been a constant mobilization by the students. I think they’ve had six or seven general strikes of the students since the late 1960s when the first one occurred for free tuition, among other things. And so this has always kept the issue somewhat alive. And, in fact, there was a freeze on tuition for quite a while, until just the last few years, when they started to jack it up again under the Liberals—and there was actually one increase in the PQ, I believe.

But, anyway, the fact is that this is a very live issue, and it goes back to deep roots in the Quiet Revolution. It’s an unfinished task of the Quiet Revolution. So the students make a very powerful appeal to Quebec society as a whole that education is a right, and if it’s a right, then it should be free, basically, as Québec solidaire puts it (and they’re the only party that took up this demand), from kindergarten right up to university.

JAY: The debate must be going on amongst the students about what attitude to take towards electoral politics, Québec solidaire. Where is that at? I mean, one would think, at some point, do they not have to commit to this if they want to, you know, have more than just some minor concessions?

FIDLER: Yes, of course. Well, the students are divided. The two more conservative federations (and I use that word advisedly, the college students and university students who are somewhat more corporatist), they decided to engage, as I said, in the election. They’re not, themselves, for free tuition, but they don’t oppose it. And one of the interesting things in this whole student upsurge this spring, the Printemps érable, was precisely the fact that the three student groups all stuck together despite whatever differences they had among them as to the program.

Now, CLASSE will go to this summit and participate in it and put forward their demand for free tuition. They probably won’t have much support from anyone else. The trade unions will be there. Now, they’re on record as being for free tuition, but whether they’ll fight for it is another question. The rectors of the University will be there, the boards of directors, which include a lot of businesspeople, and so on, and, of course, the education minister and the department officials and so on. So you can see the odds will be stacked against free tuition. But there will have to be some sort of debate, and the PQ’s under a lot of pressure from the students and from its left flank, if you want, its popular flank, to—.

JAY: How long do you think this minority government can last? ‘Cause it’s a pretty precarious—.

FIDLER: Well, it’s in the hands of the Liberals and the [kæk], as they call it, the CAQ, ’cause they have a majority between them. They took about 58 percent of the votes, and they’ve got 69 seats between them. So they could defeat the PQ, which has 55 seats and doesn’t have a majority, as you were mentioning. So it’s really up to them.

Now, neither of them wants an election. Nobody wants an election immediately. We just came through one. The PQ, if it does progressive things, can probably count on the support of the two Québec solidaire members who were elected. But the rest of it, it’ll all be the subject of negotiations. For example, Marois also said she wanted to repeal the draconian legislation that Charest implemented at the end of May to break the student strike.

JAY: This is the enhancing police powers and making any number of protest actions illegal.

FIDLER: That’s right, and also which would have effectively banned the student associations if there was any kind of strike activity on the campuses or if they tried to stage a picket line to stop other students from going in when they are having a strike, things like that, or if there was an unauthorized demonstration—unauthorized by the police, you see? Now, as it happens, the police were smart enough not to use that act. Almost nobody’s been charged under it. All the thousands of charges that occurred during the last few months were using municipal bylaws or provincial—.

JAY: But with Charest gone, would the Liberals really try to stop PQ from overturning that act?

FIDLER: It’s an act of the legislature, so although Marois was a little ambiguous about it, I think she has to go back to the legislature. She might—you see, the student strike is over, and as you say, it’s—maybe with a calmer social atmosphere, which will exist, probably, for a few months now, it’s possible that some of the sitting members may either abstain on the opposition side, people who voted for it before, or they have new members there and may not feel committed to the old legislation, and so on. She only has to get a few more votes. She’s got her party. There’s 55. She’s got two from Québec solidaire. And she needs just a few more. So if she can chip away a little bit at the other side, then [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. Well, we’ll come back to you and keep following developments in Quebec, and especially we’ll come back and talk more about the education summit. Thanks very much for joining us, Richard.

FIDLER: You’re welcome, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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