Trouble in strikeland

MONTREAL – Student unrest may have triggered Premier Jean Charest’s fall election call, but that doesn’t mean the activists who led it agree on how to approach the September 4 provincial vote.

As the salvation of their semester hangs in the balance and the political elite they soundly rejected try to woo them into giving up protests for ballots, students are divided over whether to make Quebec ungovernable or try to change the government.

The thousands-strong casseroles in Montreal’s streets vowing to strike on have had mixed fallout. While 30,000 university students have voted to keep their departments and faculties at Quebec’s main universities closed, and picket lines are now re-emerging in defiance of Bill 78, the protest is mostly over for CEGEP and many university students who have voted to return to class.

And oddly, for all the tumult of the spring, the issues raised in the streets – free post-secondary education, an end to economic inequality and to the anti-protest law – are being skirted by the main party leaders, who instead are preoccupied with the sovereignty issue.

“The national project in Quebec isn’t the great social project it was in the 1970s,” Jérémie Bédard-Wien, spokesperson for CLASSE (the largest striking student federation) tells me outside a Concordia University auditorium on the sidelines of the federation’s congress.

“In that sense it’s absolutely normal that students find themselves more at home with [anti-austerity protests in] Greece and [student strikes in] Chile than they do with the national question,” he adds. In fact, he says, the sovereignist debate at the centre of the election has been absent from the general assemblies.

Instead, they are splitting over whether the election can resolve the impasse. A discussion back in July with CLASSE rep Jeanne Reynolds in a St. Denis café presaged this now-apparent fracture. “The possibility of a strike during an election is really weird,” she said, “because you are not directing your strike to any one government, but against the electoral system. This might work in university, but in cegeps it might not, because a lot of students are more attached to political parties.”

While CLASSE has decided not to encourage its members to vote, but is instead calling for increased protest pressure, the two other major student federations (which historically have ties to the Parti Québécois) are mobilizing their members to vote against the Liberals.

For Léo Bureau-Blouin, former president of FECQ (a federation representing college students) and now a star PQ candidate, the election is the way to reunite Quebec, and the party is the way to do it.

“The social divide in Quebec has been created by 10 years of Liberal government,” he says. “Now we have an election to resolve them.”

Describing his candidacy as evidence that social protests can channel demands into the National Assembly, he argues that the PQ is committed to cancelling the 75 per cent tuition hike, the crackdown law (formerly Bill 78) and health care user fees.

“I’m not looking for global revolution. I’m trying to deal with these central social issues,” he adds.

With the PQ pushing a nationalist theme and focusing on linguistic and ethnic politics, and the left-wing Québec Solidaire short of a significant breakthrough, the debate over election positioning has consumed the movement.

I attended a general assembly of 75 philosophy students at the U of Montreal on August 17 and watched the discussion over whether to suspend strike action or continue class pickets. While a few participants argued forcefully that it’s pointless to strike over an issue the election intends to resolve, the vote, after four hours, went to those who wanted to keep up the strike.

But at many colleges and universities, the same long, winding debate ends in the decision to wait out the election in the classroom. Some votes aren’t carved in stone while over 2,500 U of M students voted to keep classes shut, a second philosophy GA the following week reversed the strike mandate.

Differing approaches to the election were clearly on parade when tens of thousands demonstrated in Montreal on August 22 at a CLASSE-hosted protest. As the mostly young crowd, dotted with various courting politicians, wound through the downtown toward the old port under a beating sun, the chants calling for direct democracy and continuing the strike were met by stern calls to punish the Liberals at the polls and signs saying “I vote.”

The tone was very different from the mass night marches and mega-rallies that railed against the way politics is done in Quebec.

Now, just ahead of the polls, the question debated in the street is. can the discontent that has shaken Quebec be resolved through a changing of the guard?

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