“This didn’t happen overnight”
The prevalence of the red squares that symbolize the student strike is stunning: pinned in the hair of a girl on the metro, worn as earrings by another, attached to a baby carriage, or duct-taped on backpacks, shoes, bike helmets and cell phones. But most of all the small, red felt squares are safety-pinned to people’s jackets or shirts, a visible expression of the crushing student-loan debt that Canadian students face — on average, $27,000, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. They’re derived from to the expression “carrément dans la rouge,” literally translated as “squarely in the red.” They are everyday reminders of the increased burden of debt that will come with increased tuition. So many people are wearing the red squares, some claim that the dollar stores where the red felt is bought are running out of it.
When we express disbelief that one of the biggest universities in Canada, the Universitité du Montréal, has been forced to cancel classes and end its semester early because of the strike, and when we are amazed at the prevalence of red squares, people simply say, “Yes, but we have been working for two years to get here.” And it is true. The tuition hikes have been on the table since 2010, when the tuition freeze ended. In March 2011, Quebec announced its plan to raise tuition by $325 a year over 5 years. In response to this, protesters occupied the finance minister’s office.
When we ask how, over that time, so many students have been mobilized and politicized, the answer is both simple and complex. As student organizer Myriam Zaidi said, “We’ve been standing on corners handing out leaflets and having conversations with people about this for years. Just opening up that space of conversation has been hugely important. This didn’t happen overnight.” These basic forms of disseminating information about the tuition hikes and fostering debate about these issues have been pivotal in mobilizing massive on-the-ground support behind their call for a strike.
But the more complicated answer to our question lies in the organizing structure and history of student unions at universities in Quebec. Organized at a variety of levels — from that of the whole Quebec Province all the way down to individual departments — these unions provide a way for students to organize politically, granting them both legitimacy and power. Longer-term mobilizing strategies include campaigns to build strike votes at general membership meetings, carefully navigated negotiations with governments and university administrations, and coalition-building between the various unions. These have been pivotal in securing a unified front during the current strike. This current round of protests are also only the most recent expressions of a much longer history of radical student unionism in Quebec, which dates back to the 1960s.