Reposted from the excellent signalfire blog:
We are now in the 13th week of a Quebec student strike against a 75% tuition hike – the longest student strike in Quebec history – the conflict has become a rallying point for any and all opposition to austerity here, and clearly represents a political milestone, perhaps (we can hope) a real turning point.
The following is an incomplete overview of what has happened so far. It is not a history of the Quebec student movement, or of protest in Montreal, or even a partially complete account of this strike. It is really just an attempt to provide a sense of what has been happening for comrades outside of the province, as well as a sense of the context in which some of this resistance has been occurring.
The three main student organizations involved in this conflict, the FEUQ (Quebec Federation of University Students), FECQ (Quebec Federation of CEGEP Students – cegep is an intermediary school system between high school and university unique to Quebec), and the CLASSE. (There is also a fourth, the TaCEQ, a split from the FEUQ, but it only represents 3% of the strikers, mostly in Quebec City.) The CLASSE has the best demands of the three, it’s the group where anyone on the left would likely be found – it is in fact a “temporary” structure set up to deal with the struggle against tuition hikes this winter, by a smaller group the ASSE, which is left-wing in orientation, committed to fighting for universal access (i.e., free education), and has a structure inspired by syndicalist principles of direct democracy and decentralisation. The media says that CLASSE represents almost 100,000 students, which is calculated by how many students are represented by the student associations which have voted to affiliate with it. There is a good background article (though the analysis is left-soc-dem) here: http://rabble.ca/news/2012/04/massive-student-movement-Quebec
The Parti Liberal du Quebec (Quebec Liberal Party) currently controls the Quebec government, with Jean Charest as premier. The Liberals are the most right-wing of the two main political parties in Quebec. It is also the province’s federalist party; that is to say, it opposes Quebec independence. The party is currently implicated in a variety of corruption scandals, heavy graft, etc. The key opposition party is the Parti Quebecois, which in the 1970s was social democratic in orientation, but now oscillates between right- to left-of-centre, depending on which way the wind seems to be blowing on any given issue. The PQ is pro-independence and, as such, stakes out the nationalist vote; historically, it had tight connections to the three major trade union federations, though these have diminished over the past twenty years. The caveat to this right-left characterization is that on issues having to do with racism, the Parti Quebecois is normally worse than the Liberals. There are two smaller third parties, Quebec Solidaire (which has 1 member of parliament, from Montreal’s Mercier riding in the heavily gentrified and trendy Plateau neighborhood) and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (7 MLAs). The latter is more stridently neo-liberal, pro-business, hostile to immigrants, etc., whereas the former is a left social democratic, soft nationalist party, with a sprinkling of trotskyists and others eager to pin their hopes to whatever.
Things have been escalating constantly throughout the months of March and April – daily demonstrations, militant actions of economic disruption, etc. In fact, many days have seen multiple demonstrations and actions in Montreal alone – as well as other things in other cities – and pickets at universities and cegeps.
This unparalleled student mobilization has been buttressed by unprecedented public support. For the first time ever, there have been non-student demonstrations in support of a student strike. CLASSE organised two specifically “family” demonstrations, on March 18 and April 9, with as many as 30,000 people participating, and where students were in a minority. And of course, this has been accompanied by the regular left noise; i.e., i was at two events, very different, in the first week of April – a Philippino political prisoner event, and a memorial for Madeleine Parent, a feminist and labour organizer/icon who died in March – at both, everyone was wearing the student’s red square symbol, mention was made of the strike, and at Parent’s commemoration reps from the CLASSE gave the speech and got the loudest applause.
Within a context of daily protests and actions, on March 7 a student, Francis Grenier, was hit by a police stun grenade, and suffered a serious eye injury. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/Canada/Montreal/story/2012/03/08/Montreal-student-protest-eye.html). That same day there were other more minor injuries and tear gas lobbed as students gained entry to Loto Quebec’s offices. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/Canada/Montreal/story/2012/03/07/student-protest-Montreal.html) This happened one week before the annual March 15 demonstration against police brutality, which police appealed to students not to join (see below). Nevertheless, this advice was ignored, it was a large March 15th (perhaps the largest ever), between four and five thousand people, with police using more stun grenades, tear gas, baton charges, etc. and making 150 arrests. (http://rabble.ca/news/2012/03/police-violence-rise-Montreal and http://Montreal.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20120315/mtl_police_brutality_march_120315/20120315/)
(For some years now this has been standard fare at large militant demonstrations in Montreal: the police violently attack in order to divide the demonstrators into a few smaller groups, which they then chase around for hours throughout the downtown core.)
Actions aimed to cause economic disruption increased throughout the month; for instance, on March 21, Montreal’s Champlain Bridge (a busy connection to the south shore suburbs) was blocked during rush hour.
On March 22, there was a large demo – the largest in many years, at least since the 2003 lead-up to Iraq, perhaps even larger than those – of 200,000 people. The trade unions were involved in backing this demo. Personally, i saw very little organized left presence – i.e., no newspapers, fliers, or even banners from left groups – but it seems that this is because the march was just so big that it was possible to be there for several hours and yet not see any of them, as the CLAC (Anti-Capitalist Convergence), several anarchist groups, as well as the Maoist PCR-RCP were all there distributing literature and agit prop.
Already by this point, the strike had taken on dimensions not seen for decades. Hundreds of thousands of students were participating, and a majority of post-secondary institutions were affected.
Right-wing students opposed to the strike began going to court, asking for injunctions against the strike. Just like injunctions pertaining to labour strikes, these court orders are used to criminalize pickets, and to give police an excuse to arrest strikers.
The injunctions started arriving in late March. First, a community college in Saguenay was ordered to resume classes – the college hired security guards to enforce the court order, and students trashed the college.
Next, Laval University in Quebec City received a similar injunction on April 3. UQAM is the francophone university in Montreal where working-class people are more likely to go; it has been a center of radical activism in this city since it was founded in 1969, and not surprisingly has been the militant core of the entire strike movement. On April 4, UQAM’s administration obtained a similar court injunction.
Against these injunctions, the student unions upheld their right to strike with militant direct action (i.e., mass pickets) against the administrators, the cops and the private security guards. This is the first time this has happened since 1968, some of the best direct actions having now taken place on the picket lines (including fighting the cops to the point that they have had to retreat, on several occasions).
Indeed, the use of injunctions, while not affecting all striking students, contributed to an escalation, as strikers successfully met the challenge. As a member of Professeurs Contre la Hausse (Professors Against the Hike) warned, “This kind of judicialization may create an explosive cocktail among students, teachers and administrators.” (http://www2.Canada.com/topics/news/story.html?id=6519058) Indeed, if anything, the injunctions have spurred on the strikers’ direct action tactics, and the strategy of economic disruption and mass street protest that has come to define this spring. (http://www.Montrealgazette.com/news/Roving+student+protesters+tackle+multiple+Montreal+targets/6442031/story.html)
On April 4, 71 people were arrested after the ritzy Queen Elizabeth Hotel was stormed; they knocked over buffet table and smashed dishes. Two security guards were apparently hurt in the melee. (http://www.Montrealgazette.com/news/UQAM+gets+injunction+against+striking+Montreal+students/6409104/story.html)
On April 5 (Passover!) locusts were released inside the University of Montreal, forcing classes to be canceled. (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2012/04/05/19598226.html)
On Friday, April 13, students at the University of Quebec’s Outaouais campus in Gatineau received an injunction to go back to class. The next Monday, the administration had to cancel classes after students barricaded themselves inside a building. Police brutalized one student, who was hospitalized. (http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/tuitiontruth/news/crisis-at-uqo-riot-police-enforce-injunction-160-arrests/) A few days late, on April 19, there were 151 arrests at the Outaouais campus, as students defied the injunction for the fourth day in a row; crickets were also released into this university’s library and walls got some red paint. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/Canada/ottawa/story/2012/04/19/gatineau-protest-Montreal-students-bus-to-join-arrests.html) More police brutality, some of it getting noticed, especially as one kid was photographed with blood pouring down his face.
On April 16, police would claim people shut down the Montreal subway system by throwing bags of bricks on the tracks. Police also claimed that molotov cocktails were left outside of a residential building which people incorrectly thought housed government offices. That same evening, several government buildings had their windows smashed, red paint thrown on them, and molotov cocktails found outside of them, unexploded. One can make of these claims what one will – people do make mistakes, people do sometimes make bad choices as to targets; but police also do plant “evidence” to discredit our side, both on their own initiative and as the result of orders from on high. Many comrades, not usually prone to conspiracy theories, feel that this string of events, especially so many molotov cocktails that all happened not to explode, was very fishy.
All the more so as the government moved in very quickly to make political hay from this, now framing its refusal to negotiate with CLASSE in terms of the latter not having denounced violence, even though there was no evidence tying them to these attacks. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/Canada/Montreal/story/2012/04/16/Montreal-vandalism-student-movement.html) In a show of unity, neither the FECQ or FEUQ agreed to negotiations unless the CLASSE was included – this was historic, nothing like it having ever happened before. Indeed, FEUQ lost thousands of members in 2005 because they broke solidarity with ASSE to accept a shitty deal. This time around, they made the political choice to stand solid with CLASSE, not so much because of some newly discovered political principles, but because they realised they would be completely gutted from the inside if they repeated that mistake.
If the solidarity with CLASSE represented a political breakthrough within the student movement, a breakthrough on the streets occurred in late April, as the government was hosting a big to-do about the Plan Nord, a massive development plan in Quebec’s north, where the population is mainly Indigenous (Cree, Inuit and Innu). Plan Nord promises to be a version of northern development in the tradition of the James Bay hydro dams, i.e., some people will oppose it on anti-colonial grounds, some on environmental, and then eventually some on colonial capitalist and nationalist grounds, based on the argument that “our” resources being sold too cheaply to foreign corporations.
There were demonstrations against Plan Nord on April 20 and 21, much of the mobilization for this being done by anti-colonial forces, green and insurrectionary anarchists, who were reinforced by student protesters. People got into the conference center and cops at one point were sent running. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=83SLtpBiJjg) As one comrade explains, “The first day was actually a momentous event, in that we started fighting back for real, fear had disappeared and we managed to kick some serious pig ass on that day. Also solidarity was felt in the street fighting to a level never seen before.”
Although the people who had gotten into the conference center were violently ejected by police, a victory had been won. After the premier gave his speech, the conference was delayed and the job fair that had been organized as window dressing was canceled for the day – and even this speech, an attempt at damage control, backfired, as Charest tried to joke that the protesters were welcome, after all, he would give them a “job in the north” (i.e., in his massive colonial ecocidal development project). Suddenly mainstream commentators started wondering if Charest himself might be to blame for the escalating tension on the streets; ever since, one of the most popular chants at demos has been, “Charest, dehors! on va te trouver un job dans le nord!” (Charest, get out! We’re going to find you a job in the north!)
This registered as a big step forward for the radical left, and a real black eye for the Liberals, with less than two dozen arrests on the Friday. Demonstrations continued on the next day, however not as aggressively, which led police to take advantage of the change in tone by making several dozen arrests, ostensibly to prove that they had “regained control” and to make up for the humiliating youtube videos showing them running away from protesters.
Sunday April 22 was Earth Day, which turned out to be the second demonstration of more than 200,000 people in Montreal this spring. Earth Day this year had become a place for all kinds of people on the left and all the various “causes” to gather, with everyone wearing red squares, the symbol of the student strike. The event has since been incorporated into the narrative of a “Quebec Spring” or “Maple Spring” that has emerged, of a spring of struggle that goes far beyond the issue of a tuition hike.
Also on Sunday, April 22, the FECQ passed a resolution that it would negotiate if the CLASSE did not renounce violence, as it claimed this would amount to the CLASSE “excluding itself”. At the same time, the FEUQ offered to allow CLASSE reps to join the discussions as FEUQ reps, with the understanding that once there they would speak for the CLASSE. Later that day, after a lengthy assembly, CLASSE adopted a resolution to condemn violence targeting people except in self-defense. The wording was obviously the result of a compromise between different political tendencies, and specifically did not denounce property attacks, fiercely defended civil disobedience and direct action, and framed things in terms of the greater violence being economic violence, and the violence of the police.
These first negotiations started Monday, April 23, with the Minister trying to impose a 48-hour “truce” while they were going on, meaning no actions of economic disruption, interpreted by her to include demonstrations of any kind. While CLASSE did not technically agree to this truce (to do so would have required a general assembly), spokespeople did state that they could go along with it as they had not planned any disruptive action within that time frame. This was somewhat disingenuous, as a night-time demonstration had in fact been planned, and members of the CLASSE executive now tried to use bogus reasons to have it moved to the Wednesday.
Defying this move, hundreds of people gathered regardless on the evening of Tuesday, April 24. This first night-time demonstration was organized largely by students at CEGEP du Vieux Montreal, a working-class CEGEP which has one of the most hardcore student unions, affiliated with CLASSE. It was clearly framed as a rejection of any truce, and the point was made that when CLASSE started making deals about how people were allowed to protest/resist, it was no longer representing the protesters. While newspapers talked of “dozens”, roughly 500 people attended, with some property damage, including a bank window smashed.
Wednesday morning there were allegedly smoke bombs set off in the Montreal subway system, while students joined with laid off Air Canada workers to block the street outside an Air Canada shareholders’ meeting. Despite attempts by union reps to have only their people speak, rank and file workers insisted on taking the microphone and then passing it to student reps. Around lunchtime Minister Beauchamp announced she would no longer negotiate with CLASSE because the truce had been violated, amongst other things by these latest occurrences and the demo the night before. FECQ and FEUQ left the negotiations in protest. That same day, three high schools voted to go on a three-day strike. At the same time, the call went out for another demonstration that night.
Roughly 10,000 people showed up Wednesday night, and the demonstration got off to a good and militant start, with extensive attacks on property: all the banks on the route had their windows smashed, the Apple store and other establishments received red paint – the police would say a car was set on fire, though that has yet to be confirmed. For their part, the police attacked people with stun grenades, pepper spray, and beatings, making over 80 arrests. (Later on, police station 21 had its windows broken.) Some good video footage: https://vimeo.com/41177705
Thursday night there was a third demo, again with thousands of people attending. There were fewer arrests and vandalism than on the previous night. At this point, it became clear that there would be night-time demos every night until the Minister returned to negotiations.
Friday (April 27) was the fourth night time demo. This time i decided to attend, and i was both surprised, heartened, and disappointed by what i saw. I’ll go into some detail here, not because this was a particularly important demonstration, but because it was one where i was there so i can give a bit more detail.
For one, it was not a warm night – just under zero (celsius), with occasional very light snow. Thousands definitely did show up when it started at 8pm, perhaps as many as ten thousand at first. It felt very unleft, which i mean in a good way, meaning just that it was not the left activist crowd i am used to hanging with, or who i normally see at demos. Obviously a lot of young people, but i definitely was not the oldest. Getting a slice of pizza before it started, a Black guy in line in front of me said, “It’s going to be a thousand white kids against two thousand cops, crazy!” – i asked if he had gone to any of the other demos and he said he wasn’t into that bullshit. Then i bumped into a woman i have known for years, a veteran of decades of various kinds of social justice/peace activism, who explained to me she had come to tell the students “how it’s done” – by which she meant nonviolently. I didn’t know what to expect.
The crowd was overwhelmingly white and francophone. Essentially, this was a Quebecois event. Which makes sense, as the entire official class-oriented apparatus in Quebec is Quebecois, from the trade unions to the student unions to the antipoverty groups. This strike is “historic” amongst other reasons, because the English universities and cegeps have not voted to participate in a strike in decades (or ever, depending on who you talk to) – yet even in this strike, the English universities have no solid pickets, and as a result many classes continue pretty much as usual. All a reflection of the fact that social democratic politics in this society is Quebecois. Plenty of exceptions, but that’s what they are: exceptions.
Given that, the April 27 demo had relatively non-existent visible nationalist politics (2-3 flags or signs), though some of the chants (“Whose Quebec? Our Quebec!”) could be understood that way. The complexion of the march was largely middle class, but the politics were of class struggle from below, i.e., the bulk of people there experience the tuition hikes as part of a process pushing them out of the middle class, endangering “their future”, whereas the political core (and thus the people formulating the slogans, etc.) have a clearly left-wing perspective and frame things in terms of working class struggle.
This is not an unusual situation in the First World, especially in North America – the pitfalls are fairly well-known, even if the way to deal with these remains elusive. As such, in the future this is likely to split, along much the same lines as the Occupy movement and other swells in protest in North America. So long as we remain in this stage of the capitalist crisis, most people politically affected by such protests will initially end up lining up behind some kind of progressive, soft-nationalist social democracy, while a minority will be won to radical left positions. As international capitalism is pushing sections of the middle class (including the labour aristocracy) downwards, it is important to also recognize that a minority will develop a radical resistance that may oppose this, but along exclusionary and authoritarian – even fascist – lines. (Here, as in the United States and English Canada, we see signs of the potential for this in the attraction to conspiracy theories and exclusionary nationalist solutions.) The task at hand for our side within these metropolitan societies is to intervene politically from an anticapitalist, anticolonial, and internationalist perspective in order to increase the numbers who will take option #2, though we should not have any illusions about that ever being more than a minority.
In this regard i was shocked at how little – as in zero – organized left presence there was at this demo. Nobody handing out newspapers. Nobody with fliers for upcoming events. No groups with banners. Nothing, nada, zilch. This is an example of the fact that, while the radical left has been present at these events, it’s capacity to do outreach has at times been outstripped by the size of the upsurge taking place, by the sheer number of protests, as well as the number of people who attend them.
Despite – or perhaps because of – such a lack of organized left presence, at first it felt like a really big militant march, snaking through the city. It felt a lot more disappointing after the first half-hour, when police blocked an intersection (Ontario and St-Laurent) and would not let us pass. Someone had been arrested, and 20-30 cops, not rigged out in super-heavy riot gear or anything, were standing against 10,000 people, maybe 200-300 of whom were masked (though not a black bloc as such) and looking like in theory they’d have been in favor of rumbling – yet the arrested comrade was never rescued, and it took 20 minutes to even get the cops to move and let us pass. Worse, the main chant at that point was “We are staying peaceful!” Very bad.
As the demo snaked on, this happened a few times, and by 11pm it was a little smaller, but still many thousands. The cops then announced it had turned into an “illegal assembly” and had to disband, but this had no effect. Between 11pm and midnight there were a few more standoffs, increasingly tense, a bit of pepper spray, some kind of flashy thing shot into the air, and a few arrests. Although there was no black bloc, someone blocked up did throw a stone through the window of an army recruiting center – they were actually physically attacked by “pacifists”; although you can’t see it all, you can see some here: http://www.cyberpresse.ca/actualites/dossiers/conflit-etudiant/201204/27/01-4519835-une-marche-pacifique-malgre-la-tension.php. I also heard that people applauded when police made arrests, of which there were 34 in all that night. Although the media described these as the result of police making “surgical strikes”, what this really amounted to was retaliatory and often random arrests; i.e., see this youtube video showing a group of kids under arrest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiib7CVafw0
On the other hand, i did not see anyone intervene when the small unlucky contingent of cops who were assigned to accompany the demo had (empty plastic lightweight) bottles and marbles thrown at them. And i did notice that as the demo got smaller the “We are staying peaceful” chant was overtaken by “We are staying in one group”, meaning physically tight. Cool tankie chant of the night: “Charest, sans blague – on t’envoie au gulag!” (“Charest, we’re not joking – we’re going to send you to the gulag!”)
I left the demo at 1am; there were still thousands of people, but i was tired and wanted to get the last bus home. The next morning’s headlines were all about how the demo policed itself and was anti-vandalism. What several comrades have pointed out to me is that during the month of March and April things were escalating in the streets, but that many students who were not in the streets every day were experiencing this filtered through the media. When CLASSE was kicked out of negotiations, this led to thousands of people joining the nightly demonstrations and turning them into the main form of protest; however, when these thousands of people saw folks carrying out militant actions, they reacted based on their own understanding of “good students vs. bad vandals” that had been constructed in the media. So it is not that the protests turned against people carrying out more militant actions, so much as that they were swollen by thousands of new people who did not grasp the dynamic of what had happened before. (For mainstream media on the overall relationship of black bloc and student strike: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/05/04/graeme-hamilton-hard-to-claim-Montreal-violence-isnt-tied-into-wider-protest-movement/ and for a sympathetic explanation which appeared in the mainstream media but was written by a comrade: http://rougesquad.org/en/content/black-bloc-and-red-square)
In any case, talk of the black bloc,and militant tactics being marginalized, while puffed up by the media and social democrats, proved to be premature.
While nightly demonstrations did continue, albeit with far fewer militant actions and arrests, the next major confrontation occurred on May first, at the annual anticapitalist demonstration.
Unlike English Canada and the United States, where Mayday is mainly a radical left thing, in Quebec it is the main labour march, with trade unions, politicians, etc. jumping on board. Tens of thousands of people, sometimes more, take to the streets in Montreal.
In the 1990s, there developed a situation whereby younger anarchists were often getting vamped on by trade union security marshals, frequently because they would be chanting anti-nationalist slogans or else acting militant. This was both bad politics on the part of the unions, and also a bit of a generation gap – i remember hearing a security marshal at the first demo where this happened, he was panicked talking into his walkie talkie about how “nazi skinheads” had invaded the march – it was in fact a very disorganized proto-black-bloc of anarchist teenagers. This split with the trade unions was deepened every year, in part by the security marshals being heavy handed – especially those from the FTQ (the Quebec Labour Federation), the least progressive of the three main trade union federations. With the rise in Maoism that culminated in the official formation of the PCR-RCP in 2007, Maoists became even more visibly present in the mix. (Prior to 2007, this group had been known as the PCR(OC); it had been founded in 2001 out of the group Groupe Action Socialiste.)
A few years ago, this process culminated in a decision on the part of a coalition of anarchists, Maoists and others to organize a separate march with an explicit anticapitalist basis of unity. The demo took place in Hochelaga, a heavily Quebecois neighborhood, one of the poorest in Montreal – and also the site of years of class-oriented organizing and activism by anarchists, Maoists, and other communists. The straw that had broken the proverbial camel’s back had occurred the year previous, when comrades who had occupied the office of then-FTQ president Henri Masse to protest against union corporatism were violently ejected – i.e., kicked, hair pulled, etc. – by union goons. (See pages 3 and 11: http://www.clac-Montreal.net/sites/default/files/coup_pour_coup_web.pdf ) As one comrade explains, “We split from labour to organize the anticapitalist demo because they are just too pathetic and sold out in general, and extremely fucking pathetic when it comes to anticapitalism and acknowledging the radical history of May Day.”
As a result, since 2008, every May 1st there have been two marches, a trade union march and a militant anticapitalist march; while at first the trade union march was by far the largest of the two, for the past couple of years they have been roughly the same size. The Anticapitalist May 1st has been another place where militant street tactics have developed; the demos have routinely been attacked by police – in 2008, boneheads seemed to be a part of a setup – and people have been hurt and have received heavy charges.
In 2011, some police were roughed up – while some suspect this was a setup, it could have also just been pure stupidity, as some relatively unprotected cops felt they could enter the march and make arrests without anyone resisting – leading to a several-month covert investigation of the PCR-RCP, following which some people’s homes were raided and three comrades were arrested. It was initially reported that these arrests were carried out by the anti-gang squad, but it soon came out that the organized crime division had established a red squad (or maybe a black-and-red squad?) over the past year, named the GAMMA (Guet des activites et des mouvements marginaux et anarchistes – clunky literal translation: “Surveillance of Activities of Marginal and Anarchist Movements”) – in order to respond to the increasing militancy of local anticapitalist demonstrations. The GAMMA agents were accompanied by someone from the integrated national security unit, and amongst the subjects the comrades were questioned about was a bombing of a recruitment center in Trois Rivières (a city about two hours from Montreal) in 2010 just after the G20 in Toronto.
On 2012’s Mayday, the anticapitalist demo was clearly larger than the trade union march – several thousand people. In fact, the trade union march was hardly even mentioned in the media. The tone was set before it even started, as police vamped on a Maoist comrade (who was arrested as part of last year’s GAMMA investigation) on the grounds that he was breaking his conditions.
Nevertheless, the demo started peacefully enough, however within an hour street fighting had broken out between the black bloc and police. The demo was declared an “illegal assembly”, and soon after the cops got pelted with some rocks, a massive police charge broke it apart. In fact, as we wandered the streets, we assumed it was over, although isolated standoffs between people and police, and tear gas and stun grenades going off, made the downtown area seem surreal. We trekked along for about a half an hour before, by accident, coming across the remnants of the demo, several hundred people, at Carre St-Louis. More marching through the streets, anti-police chants, etc., ,ending at Place Emilie Gamelin, with some more tussles with police, a few more arrests, and then finally many of those who remained joined with that night’s student demonstration. In all, there were 108 arrests at the Mayday march. Sympathetic left report here: http://www.mediacoop.ca/story/what-really-happened-montr%C3%A9al-may-day-protest/10727 and video footage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhQv-dDdHf4
Throughout this period of escalation, which started in March and has still not necessarily ended, a dynamic relationship has been created between one protest and the next. The people in the streets have been creating momentum, and a political crisis that the government has found itself unable to manage or reverse so far.
This is the context in which the Liberal Party was scheduled to hold its party conference in Montreal between May 4 and 6. This is where they were to decide upon their platform for the elections that will have to happen later this year. Due to the protests that have rocked the city every day, the week before it was to take place, it was announced that it would instead be moved to the town of Victoriaville, a couple of hours away.
The anti-cutback Coalition opposee a la tarification et a la privatisation des services publics, as well as a variety of student associations quickly organized buses to bring the fight to them. Which is what happened. Between two and three thousand people traveled to Victoriaville. Demonstrators quickly knocked over the police barricades, but then simply gathered in front of the line of police and listened to speeches. The police attacked the demonstration just ten minutes later, shooting tear gas and hitting people. As one comrade recalls, “I was shot point blank with an impact projectile (pepper powder) and they started to launch CS grenades at the same time; then all hell broke loose.” Some people resisted, throwing things back at the police, who had begun firing stun grenades and plastic bullets. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=A_6QnK1w1i4
During this initial attack, three demonstrators were badly injured by police projectiles; initially it was reported that one was at risk of dying, though this is fortunately no longer the case. Two men suffered severe head injuries; in one case, requiring 8 hours of surgery, and resulting in the loss of an eye. As police were firing various “sublethal” weapons at people’s heads, the most likely hypothesis at this point is that he was hit on the side of the head with a tear gas canister, as these explode upon impact, and his ear was sliced open. A woman also lost several teeth as she was hit in the face by a police projectile. There were also countless people who received leg injuries from plastic bullets.
In the case of one of the seriously injured, Alexandre Allard, there are several eyewitness reports of what happened, including video footage from CUTV (the Concordia campus television station, which has been providing live coverage of many of the Montreal protests). Police, when informed that someone was injured and possibly dying, refused to phone an ambulance. Demonstrators phoned for one, while street medics – many of whom belong to a group formed out of the nurses’ union, who have attended several of these protests in uniform – attempted to provide first aid. (Given the severity of his injuries, this likely proved critical.) Police continued to lob tear gas, and as people began to run, demonstrators had to form a human chain to protect Allard from being trampled. As police continued with the tear gas and moved in, people then had to move Allard, not once but twice, in order to protect him. Finally, as people cleared a path for the ambulance (which took over twenty minutes), police took advantage of the gap in the crowd to make another assault. Video footage of all of this here: http://cutvMontreal.ca/videos/1132 and a story in the Gazette, Montreal’s English-language mainstream newspaper: http://www.Montrealgazette.com/news/never+seen+police+like+this/6582164/story.html
The fighting continued for hours; there is heartening video footage of one cowboy cop jumping on a demonstrator to arrest him, only to receive a beating from other protesters. The cop was sent running, the demonstrator got to go home that night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1MZMx7eN9w
Nevertheless, there were over 100 arrests, many of which occurred when people were already on their way back to Montreal. Three buses were intercepted by the police: as one comrade later wrote, “we were forced to sit throughout the night – over ten hours – as police processed passengers in the station and armed guards stood watch on a bus transformed into a jail.” (http://Montreal.mediacoop.ca/story/riot-police-turn-bus-jail-cell-victoriaville/10800) While this does point to a vulnerability in terms of travel logistics, it also indicates police were unable (or perhaps not trying to?) to get that many people during the demonstrations/riots themselves, and were instead taking advantage of these easy pickings for the sake of PR.
More media coverage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTQZ60AZ2pQ
On Friday night, in the wake of the riots, all three student federations, including the CLASSE, appealed for people to be calm. The three student federations had entered into marathon negotiations with the Minister on Friday: it would have been a media coup for the government to be able to come up with a settlement during the party conference, and so everything was likely timed this way on purpose – i.e., refuse to negotiate until right before the conference, then hold negotiations with an eye to getting some kind of resolution to put wind in the Liberals’ sails for the next election.
Indeed, less than 24 hours later, after almost three months of the students being on strike, on Saturday, May 5, there was word that an “agreement”, or at least a “tangible offer”, had been agreed to or drafted or something (vagueness ruled!), between the three student federations and the government. Reports are making it clear that this came from heavy pressure from the trade unions, especially the FTQ, which had people at the talks, and which threatened the student reps that they would withdraw their support if there was not an agreement reached. (http://www.lapresse.ca/debats/chroniques/yves-boisvert/201205/06/01-4522604-la-contribution-syndicale.php)
Essentially what the “proposal” boils down to would be that the tuition hike would still happen, but would be balanced in the upcoming semester by an equivalent reduction in institutional fees, so the way it was being presented by the government was that the actual amount paid would stay the same. This has been denounced as a farce, as it would mean the hike would still happen but would in effect be paid for in the form of cuts to student services. While there may be a lot of waste (i.e., perks to administrators and such), the places to make these cuts would be decided by a committee comprised of 4 student reps, 4 reps from the trade unions, and 11 reps from school administrators, government, etc. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that even if the cut to institutional fees matches the tuition hike in the first year, that it would do so next year or the year after. This view has been buttressed by Minister Beauchamp’s making public statements over the weekend about how the government has won, has not given in, etc., which may prove to be an error on their part, as the agreement has not been ratified (as of May 8) by any of the still-striking student associations, and the latest media reports have student reps saying they doubt it will pass.
(Francis Grenier, the guy who lost his eye to police in March, had this on his facebook status: “For myself and many other of those injured in the student conflict, the strike of 2012 is never going to be over with, so we cannot be content with so little”; for a good left response to the offer: http://ucl-saguenay.blogspot.ca/2012/05/mouvement-etudiant-cette-entente-est.html )
At the same time, in the wake of the months of increasingly militant protest here, the State is responding, and not just with violence on the streets.
On May 7, it was announced that CSIS – the internal spy agency, unlike the FBI, but like the German Verfassungschutz, unable to make arrests but with a focus on infiltration/surveillance – has begun investigating the Union Communiste Libertaire (anarchists), the PCR-RCP (Maoists), the CLAC (Anti-Capitalist Convergence, mainly anarchists but also some others), and the RRQ (Quebecois Resistance Network, nationalist) and their activities in the riots. (http://tvanouvelles.ca/lcn/infos/national/archives/2012/05/20120506-183028.html)
That same day, referring specifically to events in Quebec, a (federal) private member’s bill was drafted to criminalize the wearing of masks at riots or “unlawful assemblies”, with jail time of up to five years – given that the Conservatives have a majority in the federal parliament, it would be difficult, and would require a militant extraparliamentary struggle, to stop this from passing. Such a law will apply Canada-wide. (http://www.680news.com/news/national/article/359688–conservatives-back-private-members-bill-targeting-masked-protesters). (It should be noted that all it takes for a demonstration to become an “unlawful assembly” is for the police to say it is one; i have been at dozens such “unlawful assemblies”, often the police make the call right at the beginning and then attack. One gain of the past few years is that demos are sometimes able to withstand this attack, and indeed during the strike many such “illegal assembles” have proceeded, with the police not feeling sure enough of their position to make a move.)
This was followed, on May 7, by Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay announcing that a series of bylaws will be passed to counter the rise in militant protest. Organizers will have to tell police the route of their demonstration beforehand, or else the demonstration will be automatically classified as an “illegal gathering”. Wearing a mask at any demonstration, whether it has been declared an “illegal assembly” or not, will likewise be criminalized; however police will be given wide latitude to decide how to apply these rules, as the mayor has indicated he only wants demonstrations “that are likely to get out of hand” to be targeted. What’s more, fines for being present at such illegal gatherings are to dramatically increase, to $500-$1000 for a first offense up to $3000 for repeat offenders. (No crime need have been committed, simply being at the scene will be enough – there are literally thousands of cases of people who have been swept up by police in this context simply for having been walking down the street at a time when a protest is being kettled or smashed.) (http://www.Montrealgazette.com/news/Montreal+masked+demonstrators/6580627/story.html)
Repression is both predictable and inevitable when we go on the offensive, and as such these legislative moves are the logical result of the escalation that has taken place over the past months. That said, it always remains an open question whether repression will end a cycle of struggle, or fan the flames – in and of itself, all it does is confront people with a choice to either push ahead further still, or else back down. Backing down always leads to demoralization, the fragmentation and scattering of our forces, and in the long term plays into the rise of exclusionary and right-wing forces, not only pro-State, but also (and separately) pro-fascist. At the same time, escalation comes with its own risks too, for every step on our part will be matched by steps taken by our opponents. Historically, there are no long-term blueprints for success (that’s why we’re still stuck with capitalism), though in the medium-term maintaining political focus while extending the scope of the struggle, both geographically and in terms of the issues mobilized around, seems the best way of keeping one step ahead of the State.
When i saw the youtube footage of kids chasing cops outside the Plan Nord conference, throwing sticks and stones at them, i was elated. On a gut level i felt “they don’t know that they’re supposed to be afraid to do that” – my kind of activism, and most people i’ve known who have been activists for a long time, would not have tried that, because it looked tactically unwise, and likely to lead to arrest. So, at first blush, it could look like a strength of spontaneous radicalism. Indeed, i can think of other examples where something tactically unwise that people with more experience would “know” could not work has not only worked, but became an element in a breakthrough. I think what we accumulate as mental baggage may always seem to us subjectively to be “knowledge” and “experience” and “good”, but in actual fact we may be learning wrong lessons, or the lessons someone else wants us to. In which case, outside repression is not even necessary.
However, my initial reaction was simplistic, and inaccurate. The militant street tactics here have not appeared sui generis. For one, i know many people who were there, and they are people who have been active for years. There were also people who have been active but part of a younger crowd, who have eschewed the demo-etiquette that developed over the past ten years here, and have been consciously developing a more militant praxis in Montreal for a couple of years now. But even they have been doing this on the basis of ideas and debates that existed prior to April 20.
For ten years now, the ASSE has been doing groundwork on campuses across Quebec, providing a radical reference point for students, and developing an analysis that is militant, feminist, and clearly anticapitalist. Over the past three years in particular, there have been repeated blockades, occupations, and the like carried out by students working in coalitions with community groups and even trade unions. Many activists got their training, as it were, at these actions.
More broadly, anarchists, Maoists and others in Montreal have nurtured specific experiments in militant street protests for over a decade now. The oldest such “tradition” is the International Day Against Police Brutality, organized by COBP (which came out of repression against the anti-HLI protests in 1995) on March 15, which has been going on since 1996, and which routinely involves vandalism, some street fighting (or at least violent arrests by police), and an organizing collective which refuses to condemn this or to give the police their demo route in advance. This year police publicly appealed to students to not join the COBP march; this advice was ignored by many, thousands showed up, and there were heavy police attacks, a cop car was flipped, etc. (The week before, Grenier had almost lost his eye due to a police stun grenade, which helped set the tone.) And even March 15 built upon militant tactics developed in the struggle against the first round of neoliberal cutbacks, the Axworthy reform in the early 90s, and a series of militant antifascist mobilizations later in that decade.
Although not annual events, all of this has also existed in a positive feedback loop with occasional summit-style events, such as Quebec City Summit of Americas in 2001, the WTO Montreal mini-summit in July 2003, the Montebello meeting between Bush, Calderon, and Harper in 2007, and the Toronto G8/G20 two years ago.
Similarly, persons unknown have engaged in sporadic acts of protest of a less open nature – police cars have occasionally been torched, etc.. Nothing incredibly big, but enough to have an effect on the consciousness of people who self-identify as activists.
All of which is to say, my initial somewhat romanticized notion of “these are kids who are avoiding the errors of the activist scene” was just that, a romanticized and incorrect notion. What is happening is more complex, and i have no way of measuring it objectively, but it builds upon previous experiments in militancy, is fueled by the spontaneous and fresh wave of protest from people who feel they are being pushed out of the middle class, and occurs in a global context defined by the Arab Spring of 2011, the Occupy phenomenon, and resistance in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere.
It is the best thing i have seen in Quebec in a long time, and the biggest thing of its kind i remember ever seeing here. I say that aware of the much heavier, and more important, Oka standoff in 1990 – but the difference is that at that time the mass mobilizations in Montreal and the suburbs were of a racist, even pro-fascist, nature – this time around, for the moment, it feels like an offensive rather than a rearguard engagement.
And things are far from over, the above is just an overview of what’s happened so far. Definitely incomplete, but hopefully useful for some of you.
For more information in English:
- Rouge Squad Tactical Translation Team: http://rougesquad.org/
- CLASSE: http://www.stopthehike.ca/
- CLAC Montreal: http://www.clac-montreal.net/en
- Sabotage Media: http://www.sabotagemedia.anarkhia.org/category/english/
- Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR-RCP): http://pcr-rcp.ca/en/
And on Facebook, News from the 2012 Quebec student general strike: https://www.facebook.com/pages/News-from-the-2012-Quebec-student-general-strike/332377376800387