Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Montreal on August 22 for the monthly protest march of Quebec’s student movement. The movement has organized monstrous marches on the 22nd of each month since March of this year.
The march was an impressive display of militancy and determination just twelve days before the Quebec provincial election on September 4. Some members of the radical CLASSE student association said that 100,000 people took part. A "professional counter" employed by the state broadcasting network Radio Canada, however, estimated the figure at 12,500. This broadcaster has routinely downplayed or not reported the size of past marches.
To t the "unprofessional" eye, the march exceeded 50,000. It wound its way through downtown Montreal for two hours. On any straight stretch of roadway only a fraction of the march’s length was visible.
The march was organized by the radical CLASSE student association and the Coalition Against the Privatization and Tarification of Public Services. It was also co-sponsored by the student associations FEUQ and FECQ, political parties, several trade unions, and the pro-student community organizations that have mushroomed in neighbourhoods throughout the city and province in recent months.
Trains and busloads of students poured into the city for the demonstration from various urban centers around Montreal including Sherbrooke, a city seventy-five kilometers to the east of Montreal. . According to CLASSE, some 90,000 junior college (CEGEP) students went on strike for the day in Montreal.
The Montreal daily La Presse reported ten CEGEPs were shut down. At CEGEP Bois-de-Boulogne, early morning pickets by students and community supporters frustrated the effort of college administrators to keep the institution open for the day.
Striking CEGEP students whose school year was suspended by Bill 78 back in May, and who were to resume on varying dates this month, have voted during the past several weeks to suspend their strike. They are awaiting the outcome of the provincial election on September 4 before deciding if the strike will resume.
Election polls in the past week suggest that the governing Liberals are headed to a defeat, but it is too early to make definitive predictions. There was a mood of cautious optimism throughout the march that an incoming Parti Québécois government will have no choice but to carry through on its promise to repeal Law 12 and postpone any consideration of imposing a lesser tuition fee hike.
Omnipresent throughout the march were key issues of the student movement: to have no hike in university tuition fees and to repeal the anti-democratic Bill 78, which became Law 12 when passed into law last May.Banners, placards and red-colored squares of all shapes and sizes voiced these demands. Some placards addressed the issue of amnesty for the more than 3,000 people who face civil or criminal charges for taking part in student protests since the outset of the strike. The march also contained many broad, anti-capitalist themes. The lead banner read Mobilisation générale contre les politiques néo-libérales (Broad Mobilization Against Neo-Liberalism).
Speeches at the beginning of the march, in the center of Montreal’s business district, voiced strong opinions for the defense of social programs and opposition to attacks on them by the present Liberal Party government. Speakers included representatives of the Quebec Federation of Nurses and the Federation of Quebec Women. At the end of the march, in the historic district along the city’s riverfront, speeches given by student activists were stridently anti-capitalist and hailed class struggle as a motor force of progressive social change. The assembled crowd numbered in the thousands.
Small numbers of union banners were present on the march. They included the nurse’s federation and several post-secondary education unions affiliated to the Confederation of National Trade Unions/Confédération des syndicates nationaux (CSN) federation. There were few or no union banners from the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) () and its affiliates, nor from the CSQ, the largest teachers federation in the province. Leaders of these and other union federations have said that they will not take part in pro-student marches that risk being declared "illegal" by the police under Law 12. Organizers of the demonstration disobeyed Law 12 by refusing to seek police permission to stage it. One arrest has been reported.
Political parties also joined the march. By far the largest contingent was that of the left-wing party Québec Solidaire. Hundreds of its members, including many of its candidates in the present election, marched together. Scores of placards of the party sporting its election slogan "Stand up!" were scattered throughout the march.
A contingent of members from the International Socialist Organization hailing from the neighbouring state of Vermont and further afield in the United States joined the march with a banner reading "Solidarity with Quebec students." For several months, the group has helped bring representatives of CLASSE to speak to students across the United States. Similar speaking tours are planned for the future. Speaking tours of Quebec student leaders in English speaking Canada are planned for the coming months as well.
The CLASSE association says it is engaged in a long-term battle for free and quality education, health and other vital social services. It wants a government that has social justice and protection and enhancement of the natural environment as its watchword. As its name states, CLASSE wants to forge unity amongst students, workers, Indigenous peoples and others in this fight.
CLASSE spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds told assembled media at the beginning of today’s march, "Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, we will continue to mobilize and we must continue to question where we are headed as a society. We must continue to talk of education because even if this present tuition hike is withdrawn, all the threats of the commercialization of education will still be there.”
"September 4th [the date of the Quebec election] is less important than September 5th. From that date, we will continue to fight as we have done for the past six months until our ultimate victory."