7. 22. 2023

Learning from the 2012 Québec Student Strike

Emma Bainbridge

In 2012, Québec was the site of a significant historical event: the longest student strike in the history of so-called Canada. From February to September of that year, over 300,000 students skipped classes and took to the streets to protest a 75% tuition hike proposed by Jean Charest’s Liberal government. The movement ultimately succeeded in preventing the increase from going forward, and challenged us to imagine higher education as a public good rather than a costly privilege. Today, many students in Québec continue to draw inspiration from the 2012 movement when organizing at their universities.

Montréal was at the centre of this movement, and the strike profoundly changed life in the city for both students and other residents. One of those impacted was Norman Nawrocki, an author, musician, playwright, and professor at Concordia University’s School of Public Affairs, who joined the movement after witnessing his students struggling with tuition fees. Now, over 10 years later, he’s written a book based on his experiences called Red Squared Montreal, referencing the main symbol of the movement, a red felt square. As someone who both participates in and writes about student activism in Montréal, I was drawn to Nawrocki’s book because I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the movement that inspired so many of my peers.

When I spoke with Nawrocki this spring, I asked him about his role during the strike. He says that as a professor, he “did what [he] could inside the classroom and outside on campus” by rallying other faculty to the cause and holding “creative resistance workshops,” which taught students “how to use the arts, music, poetry, and theatre to raise public awareness about important issues.” During that time, he kept a written record of what was happening around him, which would later inform his book. Outside campus, he continued to participate in protests as a concerned citizen.

While based on real events, Red Squared Montreal is a fictional chronicle of the strike. Nawrocki believes that socially conscious literature “is a powerful tool to open up people’s minds, engage readers, and to have them think beyond just historical facts, but also about the human psychology involved.” In Red Squared Montreal, he explores what went through the students’ minds as they were chased by police, how they got involved in organizing, how the movement grew, and how the organizers strategized to “win” the strike. He hopes that this book will inspire people to resist injustice as he was inspired by the students.


How it started

In March 2011, Québec Premier Jean Charest’s government released a budget that included a steep increase in university tuition. Student protests emerged immediately after the hike was announced, using tactics such as petitions, marches, and occupations of politicians’ offices. Citing concerns about student debt and a turn towards the privatization of education, two provincial student unions – Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), representing 45,000 students, and Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) – spoke out against the hike. 

Feeling that the government was ignoring their previous tactics, the ASSÉ threatened a general strike. In December 2011, it created a temporary coalition with non-member student associations, called Coalition large de l’ASSÉ (CLASSE), to build a larger movement organizing against the hike. Many student associations began staging actions and building up “activist communities” on their campuses to raise students’ political consciousness and create support for an unlimited general strike. Unlimited general strikes – strikes that continue until the issue has been resolved – had been used by provincial student unions many times to fight tuition hikes and create better conditions for students. Since the first such strike in 1968, there had been strikes in 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2005, most of which resulted in positive outcomes for students. By February 2012, most student associations in Québec had voted to strike alongside ASSÉ. The movement became known as the “Maple Spring,” as media coverage drew parallels with the Arab Spring movement happening around the same time in the Middle East and North Africa.


Creativity in tactics

For Nawrocki, one of the most inspiring aspects of this strike was the abundant use of creativity to advance the movement, as students used theatre, dance, music, digital art, and poetry to spread their messages and reach new audiences. During the strike, students asserted their presence with public displays of art, engulfing Montréal in the energy of their movement. They decorated public areas with red squares and distributed them in metro stations to encourage public involvement. The movement even had an unofficial mascot, a giant panda known as Anarchopanda. “I have never in all my years, decades, living in this city seen such an explosion of public creativity,” Nawrocki says. “The movement was so rich in terms of cultural heritage, [and] political heritage.”

“For people living here, there was no way you could not know what was going on. It was just happening all around us like 24/7,” Nawrocki explains. “Whether you were riding the metro, riding a bus, walking down the street, walking into a bar, it didn’t matter where you were or what you were doing, there was always some action taking place. There was always a group of strikers nearby. There was always discussion. Impromptu dance or theatre would appear, artwork would show up – you wake up one morning and all those trees are decorated and wrapped in red scarves!”


La vie en rouge

Red Squared Montreal follows three characters: Huberto and Pascale, who are both student organizers and artists; and Jean, an unhoused man living in Montréal who observes the strike and sometimes helps the students out. All of these characters are based on real people Nawrocki encountered during the strike whose experiences and passion he wanted to convey to a larger audience. Nawrocki describes daily life for the strikers as a 24/7 lifestyle. Activists rarely had time to go home and rest; they were constantly staying up with friends to strategize, making banners or posters, and attending daily actions. People were caught up in the excitement of challenging neoliberalism. “It was no longer la vie en rose,” Nawrocki jokes. “It was la vie en rouge.”

Many people from other sectors of society were also sympathetic to the strikers’ demands, and in Red Squared Montreal, this is most prominently shown through the character of Jean. Nawrocki says he’s done a lot of work with activist organizations working with unhoused people, and talked to many of those who lived in his neighbourhood of Milton-Parc during the strike. He recalls seeing unhoused people cheering the strikers on, and in turn, the strikers would give them red squares to wear. “[Unhoused people] know what the cops can do,” says Nawrocki, explaining the reasoning behind this solidarity. “They know how [the cops] treat people because that’s their everyday life experience.” 

Despite the inspirational character of the movement, it also had its shortcomings, particularly with regards to the inclusion of racialized students. Even in 2012, the movement was criticized for being dominated by white students, especially following an incident where a group of white students wore blackface during a demonstration. While there were many racialized students involved in the movement, even forming their own groups such as the Students of Colour Montreal collective, their unique perspectives weren’t always valued by white settler organizers. Strikers of colour also called for more anti-racist and anti-colonial analysis alongside the class analysis that was at the forefront of the movement.

There are various instances in Red Squared Montreal where these tensions are highlighted, yet as Nawrocki describes, they were never properly addressed within the movement. Additionally, Naworcki suggests that the stakes were higher for racialized students participating in the strike because they were more likely to be targeted by police or, if they were international students, have their visas revoked. The book also addresses the fact that while many of the white students experienced police brutality for the first time while demonstrating, this relationship with police was already the norm in racialized, lower-income neighbourhoods.

After the strike ended, several members of ASSÉ’s committee of social struggles, a committee intended to bring anti-oppression analysis into the organization, wrote a letter of resignation. The letter cited issues with the organization’s internal structure such as exclusionary attitudes towards members who were not white, male, or francophone, and a sense of their work being devalued or not considered relevant to the movement. In 2019, ASSÉ officially dissolved, citing internal divisions stemming from factors such as a lack of transparency, loss of faith in elected representatives, and the deprioritization of feminist and anti-racist initiatives.


Police violence and state repression

Even if many of the strikers were not previous targets of police brutality, Nawrocki doesn’t sugarcoat the state repression that these students faced when protesting. The book includes many scenes of strikers being chased, harassed, and beaten by the police while demonstrating. They sustain injuries such as bruises, broken limbs, and even being put in a coma after police hit them in the head with a baton, leading characters to show up to protests in bicycle helmets and other makeshift armour. To conduct mass arrests, the police frequently used kettling, a technique of surrounding protestors on all sides to block any escape. During the strike, the city of Montréal spent millions of dollars paying police officers overtime to “control” the protests, effectively condoning this police behaviour. Only in February 2023, over a decade later, did the City of Montréal apologize to and compensate those wrongly arrested during the strike.

The province also attempted to repress protestors through legislative methods. In May 2012, the provincial government passed Bill 78, which imposed major restrictions on protests by prohibiting picketing outside of educational institutions and requiring demonstrations of over 50 people to obtain approval from police. This bill received significant backlash from the public and human rights groups, among others – outrage over its limitations on people’s right to gather and demonstrate, an essential element of democracy. The pots and pans protests, with hundreds of people coming out into the street banging kitchenware, emerged as resistance to the bill. These protests included people from all walks of life who were outraged by the government. Lower-risk than other actions, they attracted many families as well, according to Nawrocki.

The state’s heavy-handed repression clearly bred resentment and anger towards the government and police. Throughout Red Squared Montreal, Huberto, the book’s main character, struggles to balance his pacifist values with his desire for revenge against the police officer who put his best friend in a coma, a variety of internal conflict that many strikers likely experienced. Nawrocki wanted to explore the suppressed rage that many of the strikers felt when they and their friends were constantly being attacked for standing up for their rights. 

“What has to change in this society so people don’t feel that urge [for revenge]? How do we get rid of the violence in this society?” he asks. “How do we defund the police so that they’re not out there operating with impunity? Because that still hasn’t changed. They’re as violent as they’ve ever been.”


Looking to the future

The protests drew to a close in September 2012, when the Liberal Party lost an election to the Parti québécois, who subsequently repealed Bill 78 and cancelled the tuition hike. The election was centred around the question of increased tuition, and incumbent Premier Charest framed it as a way for the people of Québec to decide whether or not the hike should go forward. Nevertheless, there are still many barriers to accessing higher education, including tuition fees, a high cost of living, systemic discrimination in academia, and a lack of accommodations for disabled students – to name a few. Many of these issues result from larger systems such as capitalism and colonialism, and from an undemocratic and opaque governance of universities that gives students little control over how their campus is run. 

The struggle for accessible education is far from won, but the 2012 strike showed that attacks on the affordability of education can be defeated when students fight back. If not for mass student resistance, the tuition hike would never have been the key issue of a provincial election, and would likely have been quietly passed into law. Today, Québec has the lowest tuition fees in the country, largely due to students fighting tooth and nail against outrageous increases in 2012. 

The 2012 strike showed the importance of inter-university organizing, as individual student unions on their own would likely not have had the same impact as a unified province-wide movement. Province-wide student organizations such as ASSÉ and CLASSE facilitated connections between different universities, and helped to coordinate actions taking place all across the province. The size and visibility of the movement helped it reach the public consciousness, aided by the recognizable symbol of the red square. 

One of Nawrocki’s goals in writing this book was to preserve the collective memory of this movement so that future generations might learn from it. He hopes that by reading his book, future generations of students and activists may learn “how important it is to dream and how important it is to act on your convictions.” He encourages people to continue to resist injustice instead of being complacent.

“Too often, people think, ‘Well, I can’t do anything about it, so I’ll just sit here and shut up,’” he says. “No, on the contrary, speak out! Get together with your friend, figure something out, go out there, and do it! That’s how the strike started. It was months and months and months of organizing preparation, but it was basically all of these groups of friends sitting down over beer, tea, or coffee.”

He also wants readers to imagine futures beyond capitalism and neoliberalism.

“Neoliberalism isn’t the only vision out there. Capitalism isn’t the only way to organize our lives. The same way that people challenged slavery [or] sexism, we can challenge what’s going on here today.”

Emma Bainbridge is a freelance journalist and news editor of the McGill Daily. She writes about politics and student activism and can be found on Twitter at @emmakbainbridge.