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John Passant

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Interview with Québec student strike leader Guillaume Legault

Guillaume Legault, one of the leaders of the Québec student strike, spoke recently about the strike at the Australian National University in a meeting organised by Socialist Alternative and Green Left Weekly. John Passant and Damian Ridgewell from Socialist Alternative interviewed him afterwards.

By way of background, last semester in Québec more than 150,000 university students went on strike against the Provincial Government’s hikes in tuition fees. When the government effectively criminalised these and other protests 300,000 demonstrated against the Government’s action and for students.

John Passant: What are the key issues of the student strike?

Guillaume Legault: What we are looking at is the rise of a new neoliberal way over education. The government is trying to tell us they don’t have enough money to run the education system. They are investing more in research than in education and this is the biggest problem we have. We don’t really believe the mission of universities is necessarily research over education. It should be research combined with education.

The commodification of education produces clear discrimination against some fields of study. Marxist theories are not really profitable (money-wise – JP) so they and other ‘unprofitable’ areas get less investment than the rest of the University.

JP: Why has the Québec government increased tuition fees?

GL: This is a international quest to get equal universities, equal programs, equal fees, that can be transferred from one country to another.

This is the Bologna Conference, based pretty much on tuition fee increases, on the global privatisation of education, making all programs equivalent, with some sort of standardisation with equality of measurement and trying to get Universities to be able to be ranked about their productivity.

This is what leads the Liberal Government in Québec to increase tuition fees. But when we asked them in negotiations why do you want to increase tuition fees, how many teachers do you want to hire, where do you want to invest the fee increase money, they had no answer.

We asked them why that particular number – $350 million from the fee hike. Why not $800 m or $100 m? They had no answer other than ‘we want to increase the quality of education.’ But quality is arbitrary, subjective.

JP: And part of the answer too I think has to do with the commodification of everything that moves, including education, and students as consumers of a product. Tell us about Bill 78.

GL: The government introduced this to smash the student unions. Viewed overall it affects to right of assembly and we are contesting its constitutionality. We believe it is a clear attack on the right of assembly, the right of free speech and the right of political participation.

The Bill is very vague in its wording. It forces students to go back to school despite the fact that there is a democratic decision of students to the contrary. It also forces teachers to go to school and teach no matter how many students are in the class.

It is an anti-union law. It forces teachers to cross picket lines. It stops student unions from protesting. If they do there are huge fines – $5000 a day for participants, $35000 per day for organisers and $125,000 a day on student unions.

We have to give details of our protests and the cops can decide what is reasonable.

This Bill is an attack on the ability of students to organise because it make she student organisation responsible for the actions of all its members.

JP: 300000 demonstrated in Montréal. What was that like?

GL: There were many people with a range of different political demands – free education, free health care, demands for but not limited to the environment, against neoliberalism and privatisation. The size of the demonstration and the wide range of anti-neoliberal demands could be related to a crisis of legitimacy for neoliberalism started by the government.

This could lead to a consolidation of the Left. Right wing parties and organisations can catch all the anger that people have within the political structures, and get them to concentrate on certain specific issues. Here in Australia it is immigration and refugees. In Québec it is different topics, but still they are trying to get people’s focus away from neoliberalism and capitalism.

I think this type of event, the demonstration of hundreds of thousands as a big gathering of left wing organisations can really help the left into the future.

JP: The strike has been strong so far. What about the future?

GL: The 2005 student strike at is peak had a little more than 150,000 on strike in its biggest one day demonstration.

In 2012 that figure was 300,000. So the government couldn’t just say we student protesters are a minority.

Even in our own General Assemblies (GAs) most have more than 50% of their members participate nd clear majorities for strikes.

There are also weekly GAs to determine whether or not to continue the strike. So that gave us a pretty good link with the members.

Damian Ridgewell: What has been the impact of the strikes and protests on students. Has there been a process of radicalisation, a questioning of the legitimacy of capitalism?

GL: I have never before in my life seen a demonstration of 15,000 people chanting anti-capitalist slogans. This is not usual. Of course you have to ask yourself are they really thinking what they are chanting? But I think the way things were done during the strike led to a radicalisation of the people.

The government was so arrogant. The media and government were lying to everyone and we could all see their lies for ourselves.

There was such a brutal reaction from the cops. There are now 3500 arrested. This is really horrible. It is not the usual thing to attack students. Why us many are asking? Why single students out?

At other demos the cops aren’t there. But they beat the hell out of students when we protest. This different treatment is leading some towards a more radical critique of the way politics is being organised.

Radicalisation became easier as the struggle was going on. When people are really involved in the struggle they realise how bad things are. And then you just absolutely realise you have to keep on organising, facing the challenge.

For example when we first created the broader student association CLASSE, we had softer entry conditions than its founding body. But once the struggle was going on, we took broader and broader political positions – on healthcare, on privatisation, on neoliberalism, on the environment, on feminism. A position in support of feminism was essential for membership.

JP: You talked today about democracy and democratisation as key parts of your organising.

GL: A social movement is supposed to be a legitimate expression of the voice of a portion of the population that gets organised. It is not supposed to be acting only to defend its own interests but global interests everywhere.

So when you see a government that doesn’t respond to the biggest demonstrations in the history of Canada, just trying to ignore what is going on, things are pretty stuffed up.

What is it going to take the government to listen? Is Montréal going to have to burn down for you to see reason, to realise something is happening?

The government used to call this a crisis of democracy, saying ‘we have this big disagreement in society. There is a crisis.’

But there is no crisis. This is the way democracy works. In democratic regimes, not everyone has to agree with each other. We are trying to build something from the disagreements. We want to build something in common for general interest. It was pretty cool that we did.

Democracy has been pretty important. People just realised the way we were getting organised was way more democratic than the government.

And this Government was implementing all these laws, being so brutal and repressive with cops and fines and everything else. They were just trying to de-legitimise our student democracy.

We don’t have the right any more to have picket lines. They represent the democratic decisions of GAs, a whole assembly, not just 2 or 3 people.

They were just trying to destroy the legitimacy of the movement when in fact we are more in touch with the people and the people have a greater influence on the way we get organised.

If you simply vote every 1 to 5 years you don’t have that much of an impact. And this is one of the reasons why the Government wanted to go for a general election.

They want to de-legitimise the way we were getting organised.

After we have the election, whether or not they are going to be re-elected, the political elite will say ‘Democracy has spoken. The people have had their chance to express themselves. So you should shut up and get back to class.’

Then we are going to have a problem after that point if we organise after the election. It is going to be pretty tough.

JP: Are there lessons for and parallels with Australia?

There are the cuts to TAFE here which are very similar to what is happening in Québec. We are on the long road to global privatisation.

There is an international agenda. Canada and Australia have lots in common, British colonialism and also in the terms of politics.

Québec might have a couple of things less similar than Australia. I think you are much further in privatisation and the neoliberal process than we are. But still, we are facing the same challenges. We are getting organised against the same thing.

DR: What’s the relationship between the student movement and the Quebec working class?

GL: People pay more taxes in Québec than the rest of Canada. They want more services of the money they pay. There is also a huge crisis concerning corruption. The political class is all corrupt. And they all have links to business.

Occupy was also a great portrait of the whole with their 99%/1% link and their representation of how things are being run politically. And with that they seemed to be in touch with the working class.

But the way labour unions are organised, the way they are institutionalised, it just prevents them form getting politically organised.

The working class wants to fight against the increase in student fees, but even though the labour union leadership have a pretty weak position in terms of participating, they couldn’t ignore the huge demonstrations in Montréal.

In March that was mainly of students, but in April, May, June and July a large proportion of the people in the demonstrations were ordinary normal people, people who had taken time off from their jobs to participate.

In fact, on the day after we decided not to respect Bill 78, on May 22, we were completely amazed by the size of the demonstration of 300,000. It was completely crazy. We thought there would be maybe 50,000.

There were a huge number of people, ordinary people, mainly from Montreal, people who are really tired of the way politics is being organised.

JP: You mentioned Occupy. What impact did that have and the Arab Spring and the strikes and demonstrations against austerity in Europe?

GL: Most of the people involved for a long time in the radical student union are in touch with activists around the world and trying to build activist networks. We were inspired by what was going on.

But Occupy Montréal wasn’t the greatest. It was anti-direct action, completely passive. They didn’t even want to blockade the Stock Exchange Tower. They didn’t call any demonstrations.

But it inspired people about the representation of politics. It really projected the need to have international solidarity with everyone because we are fighting the same challenges, the same cuts, the same political agenda of governments.

As for the Arab Spring and the anti-austerity campaigns in Europe the difference is that it is not the same economic context that we are facing. It is not the same social context of Greece, of Arab countries where there have been big mobilisations of people.

In Québec there is no crisis of employment for young people, and this is usually the big factor in mobilising them. This is just not a problem in Québec. Of course we aren’t paid well, we are cheap labour, we work in convenience stores, we work shitty hours, much like young people all across the globe.

I think it has been really inspiring but the inspiration is the way we just saw something else going on elsewhere in the world and the fact they are fighting against the same enemy really.

Within the struggle the argument is easier to make. Within the struggle you start to make links with every kind of struggle over social problems in your society but also internationally, that everyone is living the same crisis, everyone has the same shitty governments.