With the NUS-sponsored student demonstration in London this week, the words 'student protest' and 'tuition fees' are set to become media buzzwords once more. For some however, they are not merely a news item or Twitter trend, but rather something altogether more important and fundamental. In the run-up to Wednesday's Demo 2012, University of Edinburgh received a visit from one such person: Kevin Paul, a passionate activist from the recent successful student strikes in Quebec, Canada, as part of a speaker tour arranged by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).
Paul, in addition to organising localised student strike at McGill University in Montreal, was an active member of Quebecois student coalition, CLASSE (la Coalition Large de l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale étudiante), in the spring of this year. This radical syndicalist student federation was responsible for strategising the development of the student strike at a Quebec-wide level, and coordinated a strike which at its peak encompassed 300 thousand students. The strike was multi-faceted, taking the form of walk-outs, campus occupations and near-daily street demonstrations lasting from February to October. These protests, which gained huge popular support both within and outside the student population, ultimately ended in success with the ousting of the Liberal government, and the subsequent abandonment of the proposed tuition fee increases and the now-infamous 'Bill 78' emergency law designed to control the strike.
In his speaker tour of UK universities, Paul seeks to help mobilise British student populations and draw parallels between the Quebecois and British student movements. He describes the two situations as "the same struggles in different locations", owing to "a crisis of capitalism on a global scale". He is the first to admit that for the moment, it is not feasible to create a mass anti-capitalist or anti-state movement, but as he sees it, tuition fees and the struggle for free education are one area where student populations - radical or otherwise - across the world can unite. He describes the current climate as a good context to "meet with students in the UK and to come to some sort of understanding as to how we can help each other, and learn from each other's movements".
At the centre of the discussion Paul led in Edinburgh were his ideas on the tactics used by Quebecois students in their protests, and how these might apply to a British context. Among the most fundamental aspects of the Canadian protest - in addition to frequent and popular marches - were strike votes, collective organisational structures like CLASSE, and class boycotts.
Paul is a particular advocate of the general assembly structure of CLASSE. The organisation, which has now disbanded, consisted of numerous general assemblies from the schools and departments of different universities and colleges from across the province (although the majority were based in the Montreal area), which each voted on strike mandates. The student strike was kept active by weekly mandates rather than a vague or indefinite arrangement, adding to its momentum. This structure meant that although there were leaders within CLASSE, these leaders were not wholly responsible for executive decisions on behalf of the students they represented. "CLASSE was designed to build power from the bottom up," he says proudly. "By April or May, power truly rested in the streets".
Moreover, under the guidance of CLASSE and similar organisations, leaders and students undertook what Paul calls a "strategy of economic disruptions, targeting the economy of the state", designed to affect power relations with the state. This included blockades on banks and government buildings in both Montreal and Quebec City, and the disruption of Montreal's transport networks with smoke bombs on the metro system. Paul explains that those leading the protest "knew that this was what we had to target and what we wanted to target," in order to make the seriousness of their stance understood. However, such radical tactics lost student demonstrators some standing in public opinion: in cases of major rioting, students lost considerable support. Fortunately for the movement, such disorderly incidents were not overly common. Whilst Paul asserts that "public support was never particularly determining of the power the students held", it is doubtful that the movement would have enjoyed so much success without the wider public participation that came about as a result of the emergency law against the strikes, Bill 78. That said, however, Paul maintains that the very implementation of such a repressive act as Bill 78 is indicative of the force of the student movement, and while he acknowledges that there can be no guarantee of the students' success without the wider public, he does believe that they could have won regardless.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive elements of the protests that Paul and his co-leaders organised were the student strikes. Paul argues that students can be seen as a type of labour in Quebec - and indeed in the UK - as they are going to class in order to prepare themselves for the job market. This is not to mention that striking delays graduations and costs universities huge sums of money when they are forced to repeat exam diets and semesters of classes. In Quebec, the strike is thought to have caused tens of millions of dollars' worth of damage.
Strikes were particularly effective in the Francophone universities and CEGEPs (sixth form colleges), especially at the Université de Montréal and Université de Québéc à Montréal (UQAM), where thousands of students boycotted their classes.
Even at the more apathetic McGill University, strikes votes and picket lines became regular orders of the day, even if they were perceived with more annoyance than espousal. It was this series of disturbances that Paul was responsible for organising - and indeed my own first encounter with him was on a picket line outside an English Literature class (incidentally in which the class and professor chose to exercise their democratic right and voted to evict him from the classroom).
It is no coincidence that it was in the disturbances to the education of those students who wished to remain in class that the strike gained the most notoriety and caused the most controversy. This was especially the case at McGill, where many students were not actually from Quebec, and therefore would not be affected by the tuition increases in the first place. Paul comments that his "analysis of McGill is pretty dark" and is keen to highlight the fact that tuition fees for these students were lower than in other provinces or in the US precisely because of Quebec's history of student protest against tuition increases, and that for this reason, he believes that they should be as supportive of strike action as any other students. Nevertheless, critics may well argue that while there is nothing to stop students from striking, their right to prevent others from going to class is highly questionable at best.
Many students at McGill University held this view. Hannah Edmondson, a fourth year student from Ontario, explains the reaction of students in her class when protestors caused disruptions, stating that they "were furious because those that were in class wanted to be there, were paying good money to be there, and did not want their freedom of education taken away by those protesting for free education". She goes on to explain that in her view, not only did militant strikers make life more difficult for students who wished to continue learning, but they also caused unprecedented problems for university staff, who were just doing their job. "McGill was not on strike," she explains, "so teachers had to teach regardless of the strike - and under the fear that protesters might come in and disrupt their lectures".
Indeed, it was surrounding this issue that Edinburgh students present for Paul's talk also seemed to have the most questions. Questions were raised relating to international students and SAAS-funded students who have to prove that they went to class in order to secure their residence rights and funding, respectively. Paul addresses these concerns, citing Quebec as an example. "In Quebec," he explains, "the enforcement of a strike is meant to take away individual responsibility for going to class, so the assumption is that a student can't be held responsible legally".
Even with this in mind, the tactics employed by the Quebecois in their recent demonstrations do seem extreme, especially for a UK student population beleaguered by lost battles and apathy. That said, initiating copycat protests was never Paul's explicit intention. "I'm here to give you ideas, and to hear what's going on in the UK, so we can work out how our movements can begin to support each other," he says. Only time will tell if this is a real step towards the cooperation of student movements on an international scale. For now, in true British style, most of us may remain sceptical, but I'm sure Kevin Paul would hope so.
This article was originally published in 'The Student' newspaper at the University of Edinburgh, 20th November 2012.