Quebec’s student-led “Red Square” movement, which started in February, has sparked the greatest social unrest seen anywhere in Canada for decades.
At the start of this month, two new chapters opened in its incredible story. Students launched a new round of strike votes.
This time they are explicitly against the “special law” brought in by the government to attack the movement. It bans picketing of classes and tries to take away students’ right to strike. And Quebec’s premier Jean Charest has called a general election in the midst of this unrest.
What underlies both is a social movement whose boundaries exceed that of either the election or the student strike alone.
The question this month will be: how can the outcome of the student strike and the elections serve to push those boundaries even further?
Charest declared the election on 1 August. That same night, 15,000 people took part in the 100th “nocturnal march”. Students and supporters of the Red Square movement have marched like this every night for the last three months.
The beginning of August also saw people in many neighbourhoods again taking to the streets, banging pots with wooden spoons in “casserole” protests.
It’s not just students who are fighting the special law. “Profs Contre La Hausse” (Lecturers Against the Hike) have launched a petition-manifesto against it. It has been signed by 2,000 academics worldwide, including big names like Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky.
On 6 August the organisation held an event where a panel of lecturers from some of the most important universities in Quebec pledged to respect student strike votes. As one of them stated, “The only thing worse than a draconian law is obeying one.”
And that very night, the first new student strike vote result came in—from the social work department at a major research university, the Université de Montreal.
The election was called by Quebec’s ruling party, the Liberals, as a distraction both from the student conflict and from a major public inquiry into corruption.
But the election is also an opportunity to translate the importance of the student movement to an even wider public. A new party on the political scene, Quebec Solidaire (QS), finds itself in a position to make modest electoral gains. These can create even greater space for the Red Square movement as it develops over the long term.
QS comes directly out of the experience of the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000s and the anti-war and environmental movements that followed.
It has already succeeded in electing a member of the Quebec provincial parliament, Amir Khadir, who has become well known for his fighting politics.
But the ground it might gain in this election will come from the students, who have inspired a different view of education and ultimately of everyday life.
This vision will not disappear, no matter what happens in the elections—or in the attempted “return” to classes this month. Ultimately, to make that vision a reality means engaging Quebec’s 99 percent. And that, we hope, will be the next chapter.