In February of this year, Quebec students began an unlimited general strike to oppose what would become an 82% increase in tuition fees by the then-Liberal government of Jean Charest.
Six months later, the record of the longest student strike in Canadian history speaks for itself. The resignation of one education minister, then another. The defeat of Premier Charest, and his government. And, finally, the repeal of the tuition hike, and an unprecedented “special law” that sought to deny basic rights to organize and protest.
Throughout the years of mobilization that went into building this social movement, we had a simple slogan: Together, we can block the hike.
But this straightforward demand was always placed within the context of a broader critique of austerity measures, and a broken system that places the interests of the rich ahead of those of the majority of the population.
Although the hike has been defeated for now, the broader struggle against this austerity agenda continues. Our governments persist in slashing taxes on major corporations (tax cuts that have failed in their stated goal of stimulating the economy and creating jobs). Meanwhile they plead poverty when it comes to funding critical social programs like education and healthcare.
Polls show Canadians want the opposite: over two thirds of people in this country are concerned by increasing inequality, and want the government to intervene in the economy in order to shrink the gap between the rich and poor.
I am currently on a national speaking tour with former CLASSE Executive Cloé Zawadzki-Turcotte and rabble.ca journalist and Canada.com contributor Ethan Cox. By this Friday we will have visited seven cities in seven days, speaking to students, activists and citizens about the lessons of our Maple Spring, and what comes next.
These are the three main points I have been making on our tour: about democracy, about uniting our movements, and about hope for the future.
Many people make the mistake of thinking I was a leader of CLASSE or the student movement. I was not. As spokesperson, I merely articulated the decisions taken by the members to the media and public at large.
CLASSE is organized along principles of direct democracy. Every decision is made by the members, in general assemblies where each student has the right to debate and vote on all actions and policies.
I cannot imagine that students would have remained on strike for six months, braving repression and the threat of losing their semester, if the decision to strike had been made by elected representatives, rather than decided each week by the students themselves.
If there is one message I hope people take away, it is that the success of Quebec’s movement is largely attributable to its democratic character. With this tour I do not want to spread our movement so much as our democratic ideals. If students across the country insist on holding real general assemblies, where they are empowered to collectively make decisions on issues that affect their lives, they can build their own movements, which fight for their own priorities.
And why stop with students? Democratic control over our everyday affairs can be extended elsewhere, to our workplaces and neighbourhoods.
Democracy means a great deal more than marking an X on a ballot every four years. It means being an active and engaged citizen, one who stands up for their beliefs, and challenges injustice, each day of the year.
United we are stronger. The struggles of the student movement are inextricably linked to those of other popular struggles, such as the environmental, labour, feminist and indigenous rights movements. We must stop fighting the symptoms alone, and instead unite to tackle the root cause of our problems: a system that serves the interests of a small elite, at the expense of the vast majority.
To be effective, we need a common front of social movements. One capable of fighting, and winning, a new battle each year. Our power comes from our numbers, and building a mass movement requires focus, selflessness alongside mutual support, and unity amongst movements. The first step in building such a common front is a social forum bringing together social movements from Quebec, the rest of Canada and First Nations, such as the one being organized for 2013 by Alternatives.
We live in a momentous time. We must take immediate action on climate change, to pick perhaps the most pressing example. But it is not too late to make the changes we need, to build a sustainable and just society that serves the interests of ordinary people.
In my travels across Canada and internationally, I meet few people who do not recognize that there is something deeply wrong with our society. But many believe that they are powerless to change things, and therefore it is pointless to try.
If there is one lesson I hope people across Canada and around the world take away from our Maple Spring, it is that people, working together, can achieve incredible things. Never underestimate your own power.
Together, we can block austerity.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is the former spokesperson for Quebec student group CLASSE. The Maple Tour will be in Victoria Thursday and Vancouver on Friday. Details, and a livestream of Friday’s event, can be found at rabble.ca