While injunctions were spreading, prompting the movement’s rank-and-file to become increasingly restless, the government was steadfast in its rejection of any form of compromise or negotiation. By mid-April, the total number of students on strike was stabilizing, but in many general assemblies, the voting numbers gap between for and against the strike was shrinking. We feared that if a few major student unions stopped the strike, it could trigger a trend that would collapse the strike. In all likeliness, this is what the government was hoping for.
However, at the same time, the movement was radicalizing itself. Several factors were at play, notably the absence of any dialogue on the part of authorities for such a long time after the beginning of the strike. The government was at pains to maintain its image of being “of the people and for the people” rather than “of the rich and for their businesses”.
Actions in the streets grew more brazen and defiance of police and riot squads was increasingly widespread. In parallel, assemblies took bold steps to signify their intention to persevere by deciding to suspend their regular continuation votes and commit to only reconsider the strike if and when the government made an offer. This trend of “eternal strikes”, as they became known, started in a single cegep known for its radical politics but quickly spread across the strike movement. Within a few weeks, over 100,000 students were on this type of strike.
Finally, on April 15, the education minister announced it was ready to engage in talks with the students union leaders, but on one condition: that they all publicly condemn violence. FECQ and FEUQ obliged all too happily, yet CLASSE, invoking the need to first consult its general assemblies, didn’t follow suit. As such, the government hoped to isolate CLASSE under the pretext that it could never negotiate with apologists of violence and thus hold negotiations with only the moderate federations at the bargaining table.
This plan was frustrated when FEUQ announced its refusal to participate in any negotiations from which CLASSE would be excluded. This unprecedented show of basic solidarity from an organisation most previously known for its contempt of ASSÉ could be explained by two main reasons. First, because at this point the strike movement was associated with CLASSE more than any other organization, through the mainstream media as well as its grassroots mobilising efforts on campuses. FEUQ wanted to avoid making such a strongly divisive move that would have outraged masses of already angry students. Second, because it was going through an internal crisis where member unions threatened to defederate if FEUQ accepted negotiation without CLASSE. Many within the federation were keen to avoid a scenario similar to the one that played out during the 2005 general student strike.
Within CLASSE, the issue of violence was referred to general assemblies and the congress. The next week, the congress adopted a resolution condemning the “deliberate violence against individuals unless in legitimate defense”. Student unions refused to condemn radical tactics and direct actions such as blockades and occupations, which is what the government was seeking by using the blanket word of violence. Obviously, the right-wing accused CLASSE of wordplay, and insisted that an organisation condoning vandalism and destruction should be dealt with through law enforcement and not politics. In the end however, the move was largely perceived as an act of good faith and the education minister reluctantly agreed to convene all three student groups to negotiations.
First meetings between the two parties were held on April 23 and 24. While FECQ and FEUQ were represented by each federation’s president, CLASSE sent the members of its negotiations committee elected explicitly to this function. Ostensibly, the government’s strategy was undermined by the presence of CLASSE delegates. In typical negotiation scenarios such as with unions for example, representatives are free to put forward alternative proposals and strike agreements that fall short of the demands or goals of the movement. Most often, this mediation role played by the movement’s leadership can make conflicts shorter, but at the expense of helping to push through scant offers against the membership’s will. The CLASSE negotiations committee had no such mandate, however. It could neither propose a compromise to the government nor recommend any offer to students: its function was strictly limited to communicating the demands of general assemblies and report back with the government’s offers.
Shortly after breaking off negotiations, the government made a public offer through a media statement. To say it fell short of reversing the tuition hike is an understatement. The offer was so pathetic that the very same evening, a spontaneous night demonstration of several thousand marched against it, chanting “it’s not an offer, it’s an insult, our answer: demonstrations every night until victory!” Predictably, in the following days, the offer was massively rejected by general assemblies.