November 26, 2016

The Polytechnic lives! From Athens to Montreal, the student struggle continues

Adrien Welsh

Last Sunday, November 20th, the Ligue de la jeunesse communiste du Québec participated along with the Greek Workers’ Association of Québec in activities commemorating the 43rd anniversary of Athens’ Polytechnic popular uprising that contributed to the end of the military dictatorship that ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974 with the full support of the USA and NATO.

The uprising, although starting a few days earlier, reached its peak on November 17th 1973, early in the morning when military forces broke into the student occupied university with tanks and guns and attacked resisting students and the people gathered there in support of the movement. About 34 people died and the official figures were that 840 others were arrested. After the fall of the regime, this figure reached 2400 individuals.

The day following this bloody repression saw the biggest mobilization of Greece’s history. 120,000 people hit the streets of Athens and many more in the other cities of the country shouting “ψωμί, παιδεία, ελευθερέια” (food, education and freedom) in support of the movement and in disgust of the fascistic regime.
2016 commemoration of the Polytechnic event in Montreal last week
More and more isolated both within the country and internationally, the Colonel’s dictatorship was forced out in 1974, but before doing so, they organized a Coup d’État in Cyprus to dismiss the democratically elected President Makarios. This became the pretext for a Turkish invasion of the island, which is still divided today.

Last Sunday evening, we could read on the walls of the Greek Workers’ Association “το Πολυτεχνείο ζει”, meaning “the Polytechnique is still alive”. It is now the case that this date is celebrated in every school in Greece, but it is also true that the spirit that brought these young women and men to resist the dictatorship is the same that animates most of the students around the world who are committed to build a new world exempt of exploitation, crisis and wars.

In that sense, Québec is no exception to the rule and the event was also the occasion to acknowledge and honour the student movement in La Belle Province.

The student movement in Québec also has its proud & militant history

It started with the general strike of 1958, right in the middle of the rule of the ultra-right government of Duplessis, which this action contributed greatly to the weakening. At that time, no less than 120,000 students from Université de Montréal, Université Laval, Université Sir George-Williams, Bishop and McGill organized a three day strike for free education. Despite the Government’s refusal to listen to the student organizers, this movement set the base for an organized student movement that would play an important progressive role after the Quiet Revolution of 1960.

It is after this period that the students, gathered in the Union générale des étudiants du Québec, organized the 1968 strike also known as Québec’s “May 68” (in reference to the student uprising in France at the same time). At the core of the movement’s demands was the creation of a new public French-speaking university and the progressive reform of the loan and scholarship system. Indeed, after the application of the measures prescribed by the Quiet Revolution, the number of students applying for post-secondary education hit tremendous high proportions in such a way that the existing universities across Québec couldn’t handle the enrolment. As a response to the movement, the Government created the “Université du Québec”, with sites in Québec’s main cities. This marked the end of the movement which nevertheless found an echo in the March 28th, 1969 demonstration under the slogan “McGill Français” (for a French McGill).

Many important struggles helped forge the student movement afterwards, but perhaps the most notorious and noteworthy one is the general student strike of 2012, also known as the “Maple Spring”, which was the peak of contemporary student mobilizations in Québec.

Initiated in February 2012 after the Charest Liberal government decreed a 75% hike in tuition fees justified by the need for everybody to pay “their fair share”, the movement took its roots in the 2007 failed attempt at a mass student strike. At that time, student organizations were more divided and in a situation, similar to today, where the less-than-spectacular results of a previous strike that had occurred two years earlier in 2005 had created a barrier to mobilization. This failure in 2007 though paved the way to building strong unity and mobilization amongst and between student unions and federations, which cleverly foresaw that a major attack was being prepared by the Liberals.

The four years of both dialogue and mobilizations (for example, through one-day strikes in order to keep student forces alive) became essential when the time came to hit the streets and vote for the strike. This allowed for about 300,000 students across Québec to go on strike at the peak, and more than the half that number remained out for over 6 months. Equally important, it allowed the student unions to be prepared to mobilize their members under a clear slogan: the abolition of the tuition hike. This unity went far beyond a rhetorical position. In practice, when the government tried to bust the strike by attempting to open negotiations with only two of the three main student unions, they all refused unless all of them were at the table.

These two features became essential as the strike gained importance. Strikers had to evolve in a climate of hostility from both the Government and corporate media that tried to isolate us from the rest of the population, especially from the working class, by trying to depict students as “wealthy” and “privileged” people.

Part of the strategy used to isolate the movement was to depict student unions as being anti-democratic and push for injunctions to force students back to school. This couldn’t be further from reality. For all of us who were mobilized in spring 2012, this was a tremendous school of democracy. We certainly knew about democracy from books, but living it from the inside, but participation in General Assemblies and in Mobilisation Committees or Congresses gave us a sense of what popular democracy looks like. Decision-making processes within student unions were much more democratic than, for example, the 1995 Referendum where votes for the “no” result were literally bought.

When the strike reached its peak, strong support from social and labour movements appeared. The movement, which started over a clear demand to stop the tuition hike, grew into a genuine anti-monopoly and anti-privatization struggle. Some sectors of the labour movement even started debating the possibility of social and political strike.

This strong support didn’t please the Government which imposed the “special law” that drastically attacked freedom of association and the right to free expression. Students, nevertheless, with strong support from the population, continued carrying out the fight in the streets, which eventually forced the Liberals to call for an election that ousted them from power.

Of course, the ascension of the Parti Québécois was not a victory in itself. The progressive agenda they promised was nothing other than opportunism, and history has proved that with abandonment of most of the promises.

Nevertheless, 2012 will remain in Québec and Canada’s history as a historic moment for progressive forces. Not because of the “radicalism” of the movement nor because of its electoral results, but because it showed that unity and militancy, rather than being incompatible, are complementary. Unity under an immediate slogan does not mean that militancy has to be put on the side. It also showed that immediate demands can lead to broader demands and to political demands.

Finally, 2012 did show that the forces are there to build another world and that the youth and student movements have a progressive role to play. This was also evident in the movements that took off in the aftermath of 2012, like the Idle No More movement of Indigenous peoples, which adopted a red feather as its symbol to reflect the red square used by the Maple Spring militants. It was also echoed by many elements of the student movement in the rest of Canada and reflected again in the Spring 2015 movement here in Québec and the success of the last November 2nd Pan-Canadian Day of Action against tuition fees and for free education.

On the international student movement

November 17th certainly marks the 43rd Anniversary of the Polytechnique’s uprising, but it also coincides with the International Day of Students.

This date was chosen to honour the assassination of 9 students from University of Prague by Nazi forces on that date and to honour the 1200 others were sent to the concentration camps.

These events should remind us how students around the world constitute a progressive force that played, and is still committed to play, an important role for social transformation, for peace, against imperialism and against austerity. It is also an occasion to learn from student mobilizations around the world.

The students in India, more precisely students of Delhi’s high-ranked Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), are at the forefront of the mobilizations against the Indian far-right and ultra-nationalist government of Modi, which is even qualified as fascist by many social movement and left activists. The protest was sparked after the government tried to crush a rally against the arbitrary execution of two Kashmiri activists in 2013. This led to severe repression including the arrest of the head of JNU students’ union and a courageous response from progressive students who are now leading the student union under very hostile circumstances.

We are familiar with Chile’s long history of struggle and resistance first with the election of Allende’s government and then in the opposition to the Pinochet regime, which was then forced to abandon power. The so-called “democratic transition” though didn’t solve all the problems, especially for the students who inherited an education system that was established under the dictatorship and where only 25% of post-secondary tuition fees are provided by the state. Throughout 2011, students from most of the country’s universities demanded free education and the end of this elitist system. They were soon joined by high school students and supported by the Labour movement. This mobilization is known as the largest since the restoration of “democracy” and paved the way for a strong and organized student movement that is still active and keeps calling for free, accessible and emancipatory education after winning considerable gains.

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what students are capable of. We could also mention the strong mobilizations in Europe against the Bologna Process and we could outline Belgium’s mobilizations against austerity measures and cuts in public services. Students are playing a very important role for peace and against imperialism.

We cannot forget that as we are gathering today, Syrian students organized in the National Union of Syrian students are struggling against NATO aggression in their country. We can’t forget the fight that is being carried out by the General Union of Palestinian Students who, since 1948, have been fighting tirelessly for the right to self-determination of their country and against Israeli apartheid. This is also the case with students from Western Sahara who are mobilized against Moroccan occupation.

We cannot ignore the important role played by Cuban and Venezuelan students who are still struggling against US imperialism - especially in the particular situation that is unfolding now after Trump’s election - and who are building a strong and militant movement in Latin America through their work within OCLAE (Caribbean and Latin American Student Organization).

All these are examples show that, in context of an increased danger of a new world war or globalized conflict, students are leading to win peace. In capitalist countries like in Canada, we are fighting against austerity agendas justified by the fact that there is no money, although our governments increase their military budgets every year. We need to make it clear that as students, we refuse that our governments decimate youth in other countries in our name.

Image from the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students
in Ecuador in 2013
What we want is peace and prosperity, not war and austerity.

It is with this spirit that students from all over the world are working to build broad delegations to the next World Festival of Youth and Students that is to be held in Sochi in October 2017. We need to do so too in Canada and Québec, to show that here too, students struggle against imperialism, for a world of peace and social justice. Honouring our past, we build our future!

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