The role of anarchists in the Quebec student movement: An interview with Rémi Bellemare-Caron

The role of anarchists in the Quebec student movement: An interview with Rémi Bellemare-Caron

An interview with Rémi Bellemare-Caron of Union Communiste Libertaire (UCL) on anarchists' influence on the student movement, that of students on the anarchist scene and the prospects of the ongoing student strike in Quebec.

Linchpin: Can you tell us what your role is in the anarchist and student movements in Quebec?

Rémi: At the moment, I'm a “supporter’’ of the Union Communiste Libertaire and I have been a member of the UCL for several years in the past. As for my role in the student movement, since I am not taking any courses in the current session, I'm not a member of any student union. But I am a student at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal) studying for a Masters degree in Political Science. I am also on the executive committee of my teaching and research assistants union, which is a Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) local.

Inside the student movement I mostly do support work. I facilitate general assemblies and congresses. I organize workshops to share skills such as how to facilitate general assemblies and how to protect oneself from police in demonstrations, etc. I obviously also participate in the demonstrations and the different actions organized by the student movement.

Besides this, I am also writing a chapter on anarchism in the Quebec student movement for a book about anarchism in Quebec today.

Linchpin: Historically, has the anarchist movement played an important role in the student movement in Quebec?

Rémi: I think so. It is difficult to clearly evaluate the role of the anarchist movement in the student movement but the role of anarchists, as individual militants, is pretty clear. Already, the ideas and practices of the student movement are clearly influenced by those of the anarchist movement: independence from political parties, direct democracy, direct action – all are strongly-held principles in the student movement. Further, the majority of “organized” anarchists (those in formal organizations) are student activists, and they have a disproportionate presence in the student movement's on the ground organizing, mobilizing efforts and communications work. And an even larger number of anarchists or militants who identify as left anti-authoritarian organize local demonstrations and direct actions.

It is necessary however to understand the role of anarchists in the student movement in light of the deep divisions that exist in the movement. While anarchists play a very important role in the militant, combative wing of the student movement, largely grouped under the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), the majority of the student movement is characterized by corporatism and political opportunism. Numerous leaders in the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) and the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) are or become members of bourgeois political parties, mainly the Parti Québécois and more recently, the Coalition Avenir Québec.

Further, even looking at the militant wing of the student movement, we should not get the impression that it is ''quasi-anarchist'', free from political divisions and corporatism. Even within this wing of the movement, there are sometimes intense strategic and political debates and certain basic principles have to be re-defined and defended so that the movement does not slide towards the centre of the political spectrum and towards corporatism, a risk that all mass movements face over time.

Linchpin: It seems what you are describing, at least as far as the militant wing of the student movement goes, and ASSÉ in particular, is a situation where the anarchist movement has built what we sometimes call ''a leadership of ideas'', that is a situation where a mass movement or organization has adopted or internalized basic anarchist principles. This idea also expresses an anarchist strategy that consists of promoting anarchist ideas in social movements from below as opposed to strategies that see left militants try to take leadership of a movement by running for the highest positions and then pushing left politics from the top down. Is this an accurate depiction of the role of anarchists in the militant wing of the movement? Does the anarchist movement have a common strategy for work within the student movement?

Rémi: I think that effectively, the militant wing of the student movement has internalized basic anarchist principles, as have other social movements in Quebec over the past decades. However this has not really come about as a result of an organized common effort by the anarchist movement. In my opinion, this result has come about due to the dedicated work of individual anarchist militants who for years now have argued for and defended their ideas and their practices inside their student unions and who have had an enormous influence. These same people are also often elected to positions inside their unions, sometimes the top positions. However this occurs as a result of the support they build due to their organizing work and is not part of a strategy or desire to impose their politics from the top down. It should be known that militants from the extreme left (organized anarchists, anti-authoritarians, communists) are very present in the militant wing of the student movement and it often seems they are the only ones who want to occupy positions in the student unions affiliated with ASSÉ.

While many anarchists are active inside the student movement, few of them are members of formal anarchist organizations such as the UCL. And those that are find it difficult to present a political perspective that is clearly distinguishable from the general perspective of ASSÉ. There were also attempts, more or less successful, to create explicitly anarchist groups on different campuses after the 2005 student general strike. Today there are more efforts to organize anti-capitalist groups as opposed to explicitly anarchist ones.

Linchpin: Just to clarify, do you mean that it is difficult for UCL militants and other anarchists to promote anarchist ideas inside the student movement because ASSÉ already expresses some of the basic anarchist ideas?

Rémi: It's more a case that we find that we can't really push anti-capitalist politics in the student movement because, while we want to radicalize the movement, we also have to keep the movement's strategic considerations in mind too. Also, since ASSÉ already has some very radical demands (such as free education), and its practices are very close to anarchist practices, there is not much room left for a discourse seeking further radicalization. In any case, within the UCL we find this difficult, especially since many of us are already active in ASSÉ.

Linchpin: It sounds like part of what you are saying, if we understood right, is that anarchists inside the student movement have to be careful not to use their influence in such a way as to push the militant wing of the movement too far left, too fast. Given that a majority of Québec students remain represented by student federations to the right of ASSÉ, pushing too far to the left now risks slowing down or hurting the growing influence of ASSÉ among Québec students. Is this what you mean by strategic considerations?

At the same time, UCL members and other anarchists presumably see their long term goal to be promoting anarchist ideas. Are the separate student anarchist and anti-capitalist groups on campus, combined with work within ASSÉ, an expression of an attempt to find a productive way to both build ASSÉ and also build anarchism on campus more explicitly?

Rémi: For sure, we cannot forget that we are talking about mass organizations that have to represent the majority of their members and not only their most militant segment. As far as strategic considerations, what must be avoided is self-marginalization or the launching of campaigns that are ''too radical”. For example if anarchists promoted the idea of an ASSÉ campaign to demand wages for student work, we would risk that less mobilized student unions would disaffiliate from ASSÉ.

As far as our role as anarchists in the movement, we of course should defend and spread our ideas. But as anarchist student militants inside the student movement, we should act so that our movement's campaigns are successful (though not at all costs) so that people build up their confidence and capacity for collective action.

Regarding the anti-capitalist and anarchist groups on campus, the objective is to promote anarchism more explicitly in a way that does not do damage to ASSÉ and to our ability to defend the interests of students. In fact, where anarchist student groups have not survived, it is largely because anarchists in these groups realized their absence from their student unions made them weaker. The failed attempt to launch an unlimited general strike in 2007 was a wake-up call for a lot of people.

Linchpin: We've talked a lot about the role of anarchists in the student movement. To reverse the order, what has the student movement and student militancy meant for the anarchist movement in Québec? You already mentioned that many UCL members are students. What weight or force do student militants have in the anarchist movement and the anti-capitalist movement more broadly? How important have the student mobilizations of the past decade been for radical movements? Is it going too far to say that students are the main force inside the radical movements?

Rémi: I think the student movement has played an enormous role in the dynamism of the anarchist movement and more broadly in other social movements. Not only does the student movement serve as a training ground for militants in the anarchist movement, it also puts a mass of people in contact with the practices of direct democracy and direct action. Even if this does not mean that all of these people end up in radical groups, they have had contact with anarchists and they have used anarchist practices and will likely be more receptive to our ideas.

Almost all of the anti-capitalist militants in Quebec have at some level or other, been active in the student movement. The high level of participation of anti-capitalist militants in the student movement is due in part to the nature of our education system. The CEGEP system means that a big portion of the population passes through the higher education system, either the CEGEPs and/or the universities. The low cost of education in Quebec also increases the number of people who go through the higher education system.

Further, most have participated in the 1996 or the 2005 general strikes, as well as other mobilizations. A lot of them searched for a place to continue organizing and chose the anarchist movement or the anti-capitalist movement. Several radical groups saw significant growth in numbers after successful general strikes.

These student victories inevitably have a considerable impact on other social movements, since they have been rare victories against governments in the last decades. Victories restore confidence in the power of mass mobilization and contribute to strengthen a political perspective that questions not only the government in power but also the entire neoliberal project and its supporters. So I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the student movement is the strongest force inside the radical movements.

Linchpin: That really puts the achievements of ASSÉ and the student movement in perspective. What is the mood like right now on the ground among anarchists and student militants about the current general strike? And, if we can ask you to do something always risky and look into the future, how do you think the current strike is going to develop? What are in your opinion the most likely outcomes, bad and good?

Rémi: For most of us, our reference point is the 2005 general strike. Thus, willingly or not, we are comparing almost everything happening now with that strike. At the moment, we are satisfied with how the strike is developing; the number of students on strike has been growing fast. Now we have to see if the strike movement will continue to gain strength beyond those student unions that traditionally go on strike. The current danger, and one that will worry us from now until the end of the strike, is evidently the corporatist wing of the student movement. In order to retain control of the movement, the FECQ and FEUQ are willing to play on students' fears of going on strike on the campuses that they control in order to avoid student unions affiliating with the Coalition large de l’ASSÉ (CLASSE) for the duration of the strike.

The worst outcome for the student movement and for other social movements would be a defeat. A second defeat in a row (following the failed attempt at a general strike in 2007) would be devastating. If the strike movement reaches its peak strength and the government still chooses not to give in, the movement could run out of steam and end without making any gains.

The other main fear that we have, besides a total defeat, is that the movement is co-opted by the FECQ and the FEUQ who would negotiate a weak compromise with the government. These student federations have the same demands as CLASSE but we know that they would be willing to negotiate concessions for students in order to be able to claim victory and retain control over the student movement. This is a real possibility but the task of the militant wing of the movement is to make sure that the general assemblies maintain control of their movement. And to see this happen, students must be as informed as possible about the possibility that student leaders may betray the movement.

The other possibility is a total victory for students. This would see the movement maintain control of its organizations, vote democratically for disruptive actions, increase the pressure on the government and win a freeze on tuition at 2012 levels.

The ideal but not very likely scenario would be one where the idea of a general strike takes hold in other segments of society currently in conflict with the government and the struggle expands beyond the student movement. Among others, day care workers are opposed to the government and are currently on strike for better working conditions (since this interview, their strike has ended in victory for the workers).

Originally submitted at on 6th March 2012.


Jul 9 2012 00:45

was just reading this interview on a trot. site. Interesting:

Spokeswoman for CLASSE: “We have shaken Quebec’s government”
By a WSWS reporting team
7 July 2012

As part of its ongoing coverage of the nearly five-month-old Quebec student strike, the World Socialist Web Site is publishing in edited form an interview it recently conducted with Jeanne Reynolds, a leader of CLASSE (Broader Coalition of the Association for Student-Union Solidarity).

Insisting that education should be a social right, CLASSE initiated the province-wide strike against the Quebec Liberal government’s plans to dramatically raise university tuition fees. In contradistinction to the trade unions and the other major student associations, all of which are closely aligned with the big business Parti Quebecois (PQ), CLASSE has called for defiance of Bill 78—legislation that effectively criminalizes the student strike and places sweeping restrictions on the right to demonstrate over any issue anywhere in Quebec.

Reynolds, a 20-year-old CEGEP (pre-university and technical college) student, is one of three official CLASSE spokespersons.

Keith Jones, of the WSWS editorial board, has written a comment on the political issues raised in the interview with Reynolds: “CLASSE, the working class and the blind-alley of protest politics.”

Jeanne Reynolds speaks to the WSWS with another CLASSE representative (left)WSWS: The strike is now well into its fourth month. The government has clearly taken a very hard line—ultimately, police repression followed by Bill 78. Why do you think the government has been so intransigent, so hostile towards the students’ demands?

Jeanne Reynolds: We knew from the beginning that it would be difficult to reverse things, because for this government the tuition fee hikes are the tip of the iceberg. If, despite everything, the fee hikes pass, the government will have greater latitude to impose all sorts of other user-fee hikes and initiate its “cultural revolution” [making the “user-pay” principle for public services the norm]. Because students, it must be said, are the population group most ready to oppose things, to go out on strike.

The government’s obstinacy has almost been obscene and has caused the government to make all sorts of errors. It never seized on the occasions when the conflict could have been ended.

There was an article that appeared in the [British] Guardian perhaps two months ago that said the conflict in Quebec is one of the first real threats to neoliberalism in North America. At the beginning, I thought that was a little ambitious. But now, I think that's true. We have shaken and destabilized this government. Pushed to the wall, the government has entrenched itself by resorting to the most extreme measures. In so doing, it has revealed its real face before the eyes of the population.

WSWS: The strike has certainly shaken the Charest Liberal government. But the more it has been shaken, the more intransigent and ferocious it has become. This is because what is at issue is, as you say, its whole program, and this program of dismantling public services and destroying social rights is the program of the entire ruling elite, across Canada, in Greece, Spain and around the world.

JR: Yes, this is a battle that we find in some fashion everywhere. But here in Quebec the struggle has taken shape through the student strike, which is more and more directed towards a popular struggle.

WSWS: Do you think that if you continue the struggle in the manner that you have pursued it to date the government will ultimately be forced to negotiate and give in?

JR: We in CLASSE have always had a mandate to negotiate. That is to say, if the government calls us for negotiations, good, we'll go. However, for us, this is not the principal axis of struggle. The way in which the conflict can be resolved is if they cancel the fee hike completely, or there's another possibility—the calling of elections. If they don't call elections and we can restart the strike in August [when the government plans to resume the suspended winter semester], if we can be supported by the trade union federations, by the big unions, for just a few days of massive mobilization, we will have a very, very powerful weight.

WSWS: What you have just said raises many questions. First, do you think the unions will support you? They have announced that they will obey Bill 78. Second, what do you think of the support that you have received to date from the labor federations?

Jeanne ReynoldsJR: We have had the unions’ formal support. But to be sure, we are far from the trade unionism that we had 30 years ago or further back. It's a unionism that is less combative, more accommodating. Will these people elaborate a plan for a social strike, which for us is something that's quite achievable? I know that there are many things that could prevent that from happening. For example, they're all sorts of rules that mean workers could lose seniority.

There are two groups. There are those who don't like a social crisis—a large part of the population, including the trade union movement. For them, the moment order is disturbed, there is something wrong and it's necessary that order be restored. FECQ [Quebec Federation of College Students] frequently says: “Things have to be calmed down. We must return to social peace.” Whereas for us, when we're in crisis, that's something good. We're in a moment of ferment, of effervescence. It only makes for more important crises of conscience that can lead to something bigger, like a larger mobilization.

WSWS: You spoke of elections. How could they solve things? Do you think the Parti Quebecois is a viable alternative for students and working people?

JR: For us, elections are not really the way to resolve things. When they say that democracy is once every four years, that’s something that makes us grind our teeth. For us, the voice that we express when we are in the streets, that's democracy.

WSWS: At the beginning of June, CLASSE and the other student associations made a counteroffer in which they accepted the government’s tuition fee hikes for all but two of seven years. Had the government accepted this proposal, do you think it would've been acceptable for the students? Wasn't this counteroffer based on the idea that there will soon be elections and that through the election of a PQ government students’ demands can be met?

JR: It's more the other student federations [FECQ and FEUQ—Quebec Federation of University Students] that pushed for this idea at the negotiating table. But I do think our negotiating committee let things slide a bit. In any case, this proposal would not necessarily have been supported by the students.

FECQ and FEUQ base themselves on the fact that the government must call an election some time over the next 18 months. They view the election of a PQ government as a solution. But for us, that’s not a solution. Maybe it's a short-term solution, because if the PQ takes office they really won't be in the position to maintain a hard line like [Quebec Liberal Premier] Jean Charest.

The return of the Liberals would be completely disastrous for us. Whereas, it’s certain that the PQ, at this point, is much less hard-line.

WSWS: But did not the PQ, when it last held office, impose, with the unions’ support, the greatest social spending cuts in Quebec history?

JR: Yes, I know. That's why I told you that the ideal scenario is that the elections not be launched at this point, and that we go forward with our mobilization and break this government. And if it retreats on the question of the school fees that would mean that our governments are there not for the economic elites—they're not there to rule for the banks and big companies, for the 1 percent, they’re there to govern for the whole of the population, for the welfare of all.

I think that what really differentiates the PQ from the PLQ [Liberal Party of Quebec] is the dream of independence. But, in reality, the PQ is just as much mired in corruption and collusion as the Liberal Party… The party that would most coincide with the views of CLASSE is Québec Solidaire. Although I must say, that within CLASSE there is a great diversity of political opinions—it goes from anarchism to communism and there are also social democrats.

WSWS: You've spoken of a social strike. Is that now CLASSE’s strategy, and what precisely do you mean by a social strike?

JR: We are caught in a dicey situation with Bill 78 as regards students’ dues. That is to say, if we decide to block classes, to mount picket lines, the government can cut off our student dues one trimester for each day [we defy Bill 78]. If we are on strike for two weeks, that means 14 semesters without student dues.

If these provisions are not suspended, we say, why not go with the social strike? They won't be able to apply all of the repressive laws and, at the same time, this will be the occasion for a massive mobilization, precisely to break all of these austerity policies.

That's what we have envisaged. For the summer, we’re planning conferences around Quebec to make known our demands and discuss the social strike. We will write a manifesto with our demands to directly address the people. It will be like a message to the nation.

One thing is for certain. If we want a social strike or days of massive mobilization, it is necessary to go to the rank-and-file workers. We can't go to the presidents of the labor federations and ask them to advance our mandate for a social strike, because we know they won't do it. It's necessary to pass through the rank-and-file workers to convince them why it's necessary to do this. They are the ones who will take this forward, who will place pressure on their elected officials. But it's not a simple task and I acknowledge it's not clear how things will turn out. I don't think we will get an unlimited social strike. Perhaps a few days, but not something long-term.

WSWS: Will this be a strike with the perspective of bringing down the government?

JR: I think that it will be to break this government, to change the climate: we've had enough of the politics of austerity; we have had enough of this electoral system. So obviously all this will come into play. If we’re speaking of bringing down the government, I don't think we’re going to arrive at the National Assembly pitchforks in hand. It is not with that perspective, but with the perspective that if we can change things, modify our political system, well, yes, we’ll do it. But it's necessary to convince people to join us and that is not always easy.

WSWS: What do you think is the attitude of the working population, the working class, towards the strike and towards Bill 78?

JR: It's not clear. Because most of the working class population, the people who work in the factories and in places like that, these are not necessarily people who are with us. There is like a new populism. I don't know if you grasp my meaning—people who want to pay less and less tax, who want to have more, who are angry with the government, but who want to buy more. I don't think the working class in Quebec really has a tough time. There are factories where people are very, very well-paid, so well-paid that, let us say, the culture of the big car and the big house is very implanted.

One has to beware of this notion of class struggle. I think things have really changed. I would say that there is a section of the poorest people who, yes, are with us. But they are not interested in politics.

The middle class, I would say the middle class is very much there. Also, there are bourgeois people who have values like those we defend and who come out in the streets with us. One really has to be careful with classification.

WSWS: The situation is very different from how you present it. Over the course of the past 30 years there has been a dramatic decline in the social position of the working class—a vast increase in social inequality and economic insecurity. The top 10 percent and especially the top 1 percent have reaped virtually all the revenue gains, while workers’ wages have stagnated or declined; the tax burden has increased even as public services have been bled white.

JR: Do you know anything about the conflict at Rio Tinto Alcan? I know many people from Alma [in northern Quebec] who say that the workers who work at Rio Tinto Alcan wouldn't be with us if they weren't themselves currently locked out. Because these are the people who really control the wealth of that region and who have big cars and big swimming pools. In my region, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield [an industrial town in southwestern Quebec] there have been several plant closures, and the workers who have been put on the street find themselves with many problems because they bought $300,000 homes and went into debt. I don’t know if you realize the rhythm of life has changed.

WSWS: In Quebec, as across Canada and around the world, workers have been systematically betrayed by the pro-capitalist trade unions and the “left” parties of austerity, like the social democratic NDP. We believe that the way forward for students is to recognize that the working class is the only social force with the power to radically reorganize society so as to secure the basic social rights that capitalism will not and cannot provide. We fight for the student strike to become the catalyst for the mobilization of the working class across Canada and beyond, in defence of all public services, jobs and worker rights, and against big business and its political representatives.

JR: We are contesting everything to do with user fees and the privatization and commercialization of public services. But it is not necessarily evident, because the mass media always want to restrict this to something small, to something narrow, perhaps to preserve the system. I don't know really why they do this, but it's what we feel. Frequently people say, “Why didn’t you speak of that?” But we do. That's why we want to publish a manifesto.

We started this strike over the question of the tuition fee hikes, but it has gone so far beyond the struggle that we began that I think we are now in over our heads somewhat. People keep saying “Why don’t you do this?” At a certain point, these people need to come to our aid.

WSWS: What do you think is the international significance of what has taken place here over the past four months?

JR: Many people have been influenced by all the struggles that are taking place internationally: the Arab Spring, Occupy, etc. The strike that we have carried out shows that we can make changes by acting directly in our milieu, not simply by crossing our fingers and waiting for another party to take the power. Change is brought about directly, by people going into the streets, by economic disruption. Everywhere people are mounting struggles and the struggles are influencing one another. If everybody starts doing this, we’ll be able to make changes and act differently.

EDIT: here's link to original article: apologies for the original ommission.

Jul 8 2012 22:57