Students, activists, and faculty gathered at the University of Winnipeg on Wednesday, Oct. 3 to participate in the Maple Tour’s stop in Winnipeg, featuring Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Cloe Zawadzki-Turcotte, two former organizers of this year’s student strike in Quebec.
The Maple Tour is a touring group travelling across Canada, discussing this year’s student strike in Quebec against a plan to raise tuition fees that was proposed in 2010 by the former Quebec government.
The tour also aims to “build bridges of solidarity” with other activist groups across Canada.
Local sponsors of the event included both the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg student unions, as well as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Local 3909.
Ethan Cox, Quebec correspondent for rabble.ca, is also featured on the speaking panel, with Nadeau-Dubois and Zawadzki-Turcotte, for the duration of the tour.
Cox opened the evening’s discussion by briefly outlining some of the successes of the student movement in Quebec, noting the cancellation of the planned tuition hikes and the repealing of Bill 78, the emergency law that, according to Cox, “essentially criminalized protest.”
Before turning the panel over to his colleagues, Cox also offered some brief facts about student tuition, noting that the independent think tank Iris estimates free education for all who want it in Quebec would cost the government about $350 million per year, which is, according to the speaker, less than three per cent of the total budget of the Ministry of Education.
Cox added that, “there are similar numbers in the rest of the country, and education is the single best investment governments can make in terms of the future prosperity of society.”
Zawadzki-Turcotte addressed the audience next, discussing the history and strategy behind the student strike, which was coordinated by the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), a temporary coalition of student unions formed in order to oppose the tuition hikes first proposed by former Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government in 2010.
She reported that the roots of the strike date back to 2010 when the budget that called for a tuition increase of $1,625 between 2012 and 2017 was announced by then-Finance Minister of Quebec, Raymond Bachand.
A demonstration was organized for April 1, 2010, the day the budget was announced, followed by an informational campaign intended to convince students the tuition hikes were unacceptable.
According to Zawadzki-Turcotte, by 2012 attempts to pressure the provincial government were ramped-up by CLASSE, culminating in an all-out student strike, which included coordinated defiance of Bill 78, which, according to Cox, was “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”
For CLASSE, which was the largest of all the student unions that were involved in the Quebec student strike, the student’s victory is only the beginning of their next fight. The next fight, according to CLASSE, is a fight against austerity measures. However, their aim is to not only oppose measures against social welfare, but to build a better society as a whole.
The key message of Zawadzki-Turcotte’s speech was the necessity for well-organized, yet democratic structures in building student movements.
“The key to our success in the strike was not complicated. It was the way we functioned. It was our organizational structure [ . . . ] It was because we had some structure, but at the same time, very democratic structures, that we were able to mobilize a very massive amount of people.”
The final panel member to speak was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a former spokesperson for CLASSE. Nadeau-Dubois shared his political analysis of the strike.
Early in his speech Nadeau-Dubois argued that the raising of tuition fees was not only an economic measure, but also an ideologically motivated, cultural measure by a government opposed on principle to funding public services.
“The purpose of this budget,“ said Nadeau-Dubois, “was to break the political culture of Quebec that was based on a social-democratic system and a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth, a mechanism that was, of course not perfect, but meant to reduce the inequalities between the rich and the poor.”
Nadeau-Dubois described the raising of tuition fees coupled with funding cuts to other facets of the public sector in Quebec as part of the same process of government intentionally shifting societal values from a collective, public focus, to a private, individualized focus.
This phenomenon, Nadeau-Dubois argued, is not restricted only to Quebec, but is part of a trend spanning the rest of Canada as well.
“If you are able to put into the mind of a seventeen-year-old, that public education, and private services in general, are there only for your private self, for your career and your own benefit, you are beginning, with that seventeen-year-old, to craft the perfect consumer, and the perfect subject, for global capitalism.”
The night wrapped up with a question period lasting about half an hour, with the panel members taking questions in both English and French.
Jennifer Black, VP advocacy for the University of Manitoba Student’s Union (UMSU), when asked whether UMSU hosted a general assembly or similar forum at which students could actively contribute to UMSU policy, explained that the student’s union hosts general assemblies twice per year. The next open general assembly meeting is scheduled for Nov. 13 and will be advertised around campus.
As well, the University of Winnipeg F(un) Class, a student-oriented activist group “against the commodification of education,” that also co-sponsored the tour’s Winnipeg stop, holds similar meetings at the University of Winnipeg.
The tour wraps up on Friday, Oct. 5 in Vancouver. That night’s entire event will be posted on both YouTube and the rabble.ca website.