The massive student protests that occurred in Montreal under the Rocke Robertson administration in the late 1960s are part of a long narrative of student activism in Quebec. For our part, many students today witnessed another enormous student protest in 2012. After the announcement of tuition increases, thousands of students took to the streets multiple times over an entire academic year, eventually using the conveniently timed provincial election to vote the Liberal Party of Quebec out of office. In order to help our understanding of student activism in Montreal, and to further comprehend the protests in the 1960s, this will be a comparison of those protests to the ones in 2012.
Despite the often diverse goals stated by protestors, it is possible to identify important goals in each of the two cases. In the 1960s, as you have already read, the students were fighting for democratization of the university governance and disciplinary systems, since they believed those systems were generating inequality of treatment. This translated into demands for representation on administrative bodies, such as the Senate, and demands for more transparency. In 2012, the initial goal was even more concrete. The protests were sparked by the announcement by the provincial government of Quebec that they were intending to increase university tuition by $125 per year, every year for five years. The protesters were demanding an elimination of those hikes and a return to the tuition freeze that had been in place.
In the 1960s, the protesting students conducted their protests in the style of popular assembly. Their commonly used strategies included public riots, marches, sit-ins at university administration buildings and lock-outs. The primary function of these particular strategies was to grab attention, as well as to rally support and generate awareness. The 2012 protesters undoubtedly drew lessons from their 1960s counterparts, a fact which was actually vocalized by a spokesman of CLASSE, a major student organization that was involved in organizing the protests[i]. The 2012 students marched in the streets in large numbers, boycotted classes and tried to launch a Quebec-wide student strike. That being said, the very existence of coordinating student organizations, such as CLASSE, the Federation Etudiantes Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) and the Federation Etudiantes Collegiale du Quebec (FECQ) show a major break with the 1960s strategies. In 2012 these umbrella student organizations, which brought together the student governments of almost every school across Quebec, were able to centralize their efforts and engage in tactics that would have been difficult for the 1960s protesters to organize[ii]. For example, the use of the so called ‘casseroles’ in the streets in 2012, essentially the use of pots and pans to create noise, was a coordinated plan learned from protests in Chile, but required the participation of the whole group in order to be effective[iii]. The leadership of CLASSE, the FEUQ and the FECQ, as well as modern communication technology like email, Facebook and Twitter allowed such strategies to be actively pursued.
The diverse attitudes of the students also provide a point of comparison. In the 1960s, there was a polarization of the student body. Both in the 1960s and in 2012, a small portion of the student population voted for the student representatives that pushed for protest action, which brought on criticism of a radical minority. In 1968 only 20% of the student body voted for the relevant student representatives[iv]. In the 1960s protests, interestingly, a moderate minority took significant action against the most radical protestors and even managed to gain some power in the movement. This is in contrast to 2012 where other than the radical minority, the majority of the student population was decidedly apathetic. The only time students other than the protesters came out in any numbers was to vote against a student strike, and even then only around 1000 students mobilized. There was very little in terms of counter-strike activism in 2012, due to that apathy. Students may have been polarized, but not polarized enough to spring to action, unlike in the 1960s.
So What Happened?
Perhaps the most interesting parallel between the two movements is the timing and results of provincial elections. In 1970 and in 2012, both at the tail end of the student movements, there were controversial Quebec elections in which the student vote played an important part. In 2012, as has been well publicized, the student activists actively campaigned and voted against the governing Liberal Party of Quebec, whose Premier Jean Charest had proposed and defended the tuition hikes. During the campaign, Parti Quebecois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois wore the red square, the symbol of the student activists, and a former CLASSE spokesperson, Leo Bureau-Blouin, actually ran as a PQ candidate. As a result the PQ took power and the province came to grapple with the Quebec sovereignty leanings of the PQ once again during her term. In 1970 we can see a startlingly similar pattern. The 1970 provincial election was actually the first one in which the newly formed PQ was on the ballot, under the leadership of the popular Rene Levesque. Though they did not take power in that first election, they received massive support from students who were already mobilized by their protest activity[v]. It seems that student activism mobilizes students politically, often away from the moderate Liberal party.
The actual policy results of the two different protests are also worth examining. The 1960s goals of democratizing university governance did gain some policy responses. Students did get some representation on the McGill Senate in 1968 and Principal Rocke Robertson initiated his Open Forum Policy in order to get more feedback from students. That being said, the administration still retained significant control over all aspects of running the university. These policy steps towards democratization were part of a large, gradual process of including students in decision-making. The 2012 goal of eliminating the tuition fee increase was far more concretely resolved, at least initially. Once the PQ was elected, they did eliminate the proposed hike, giving the student activists exactly what they asked for. That being said, there were some caveats. First of all, the removal of the tuition increase was accompanied by significant budget cuts at universities. As well, over time, the PQ decided to index tuition to inflation, which almost replicated the proposed tuition increase. In both cases there was progress but not a perfect victory.
Those of us who were here in Montreal in 2012 have an intuitive understanding of the nature of student protests in our bilingual setting. Looking back at the experiences we learned from can help us understand the history of student activism here in Quebec. Students want to be heard. The streets are filled, the crowds are loud. The solution is often messy and never perfect, but marching in the streets does seem to get the attention of decision makers, and progress does seem to be made.
[i] Nick Taylor. “Organizing Strategies in the Quebec Student Strikes and the ‘Maple Spring’ Protests.” Social Policy 42.3 (2012), 9.
[ii] Megann Ayotte-Thompson & Leah Freeman. “The Quebec Student Movement.” Social Policy 42.3 (2012), 4.
[iii] Nick Taylor. “Organizing Strategies in the Quebec Student Strikes and the ‘Maple Spring’ Protests.” 12.
[iv] James Ferrabee. “McGill Escapes October’s Discontent.” The Montreal Gazette 18 Nov. 1968. 7.
[v] Andre E. LeBlanc. “Student Activism in Quebec.” Change 3.2 (1971): 27, accessed 17 March 2014.