Spartacist Canada No. 174
Plus ça change...
1978 Quebec Student Strike Against PQ
Amid the social turmoil that has shaken Quebec this year, the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois has postured as a supporter of the students and their demands. But as the following article recounts, the PQ’s austerity attacks during its first term of office in the 1970s provoked an earlier, massive student strike. This underscores the fact that when in power the PQ is a brutal administrator of the capitalist profit system against workers, students and the poor, and that the program of nationalism is counterposed to the interests of the working class. Marxists advocate Quebec independence, and simultaneously fight to break workers and youth from illusions in the PQ as well as its left appendages like Québec Solidaire.
The article was originally published in SC No. 33 (February 1979) under the title “100,000 Students Strike Against PQ.”
In one of the most militant student strikes in North America since the sixties, thousands of students from community colleges (CEGEP) across Quebec walked out for six weeks during November and December to protest a Parti Québécois (PQ) government white paper on college education. The PQ’s white paper proposed a whole series of budget cuts which would establish more direct control over the academic life of the CEGEPs and reduce the accessibility to higher education in Quebec. In particular, the report advocated establishing more restrictive enrollment quotas and tying bursary allocations to the needs of business.
The strike began in Rimouski on November 7, but rapidly spread to other CEGEPs across the province. By the end of November close to 100,000 students were out on the streets demanding free tuition and guaranteed bursaries indexed to the cost of living for all students. While the strike was strongest among French-speaking students it is significant that it was joined by students at at least one English-language CEGEP (the Lennoxville campus of Champlain College).
When he was hustling votes to boost the bourgeois nationalist PQ into power, party leader René Lévesque wooed Quebec students with the promise of free education. Now that the PQ is in office, Lévesque has dropped his populist appeals to student voters in the name of the “economic stability” so necessary to marketing the bonds of an “independent” capitalist Quebec on Wall Street. When the CEGEP students struck in protest against the white paper, PQ Minister of Education, Jacques-Yvan Morin castigated them for their “greed” and wailed that if the students won their demands it would cost the government $204 million. So much for free education. Meanwhile 600 students from Rimouski rallied on November 15 (the second anniversary of the PQ’s electoral victory) and burned copies of the PQ’s program and its white paper on education.
The PQ hardlined it from the beginning. At least three student occupations were brutally broken up by the police. On November 23, 1,000 students who had marched to the Ministry of Education offices in Montreal to press their demands were forced to call off a brief occupation of the offices under threat of a riot squad attack.
The following day Lévesque told 3,000 students at Laval University that the government had no intention of knuckling under to the CEGEP students’ demands. Nevertheless, Lévesque would prefer not to alienate Quebec’s student population which comprises an important part of the PQ’s popular base. Therefore, early in December the government announced a few cosmetic “reforms” in its student aid program—a promise to “take into account” high student unemployment and a minimal reduction in the parental contribution to educational costs. By mid-December the strike had fizzled out at most colleges.
Students by themselves lack the social weight to wring significant concessions from the capitalists and their government. The PQ’s education cutbacks are of a piece with its attacks on public sector unions and its record of strikebreaking. The same cops that were sent in to break up the student occupations have been repeatedly used by the PQ to herd scabs and break strikes. Thus Marxists seek to link the fight against educational cutbacks on campus to the struggle of the labor movement against the bosses’ across-the-board austerity offensive.
Lévesque once held out the promise of “free education” to win student support for the PQ’s program of bourgeois nationalism. Today however this promise has been ripped up and Lévesque is making it perfectly clear that it is the working class, the exploited and the oppressed that are supposed to foot the bill for “sovereignty” for the Quebec bourgeoisie.
Despite the PQ’s willingness to make demagogic promises of “a better life for all” in an independent Quebec the CEGEP strike demonstrates that Lévesque and Co. are as committed to the maintenance of capitalist class privilege as any other bourgeois politicians. Education will be the right of all and will genuinely serve the interests of the masses of the population only when the workers of Quebec and English-speaking North America unite to sweep away capitalism through socialist revolution