The UQAM General Assembly for Political Science and Law Votes to End the Strike
It’s one faculty, in one school, but it’s important. L’Université du Québec à Montréal has been a backbone of the student movement, with about 40,000 students and a history of student radicalism. This week, after the CEGEPs (junior colleges) voted to return to class, student activists hoped the trend would be stopped in the universities, particularly UQAM andUniversité de Montréal.
UQAM is often a trendsetter, because, as UQAM Law student and CLASSE (student union) committee member Emilie Joly describes it, the school is “not too radical or too wimpish.” Six of the seven faculties at UQAM have been on strike (all but Business), and the Law and Political Science met on Monday evening to vote on whether to continue the strike. With the election looming like a watchful parent, UQAM Law and Political Science students chose the neatness of the ballot box over the mess of the streets.
Just under six hundred students assembled to represent the nearly 2200 students in the faculty. The meeting lasted two and half hours, mostly spent hearing comments in the “plenary” period, during which participants shared opinions not necessarily connected to a specific proposal. With a whole summer of action and reflection, students had much to say.
Students shouted about personal hardships: You told us you would try to save the semester and we would have access to bar (law) school. When is your strike ending, because I want to go back to school! (many schools have cut financial aid to students for the shortened fall semester).
Others discussed strategy: It’s going to be way harder to go back on strike! Once we start the semester, we’re not going to have time to mobilize! While candidates are campaigning, we can put pressure on all parties at once.
Many stressed the symbolic importance of the moment: Remember that this student movement is the biggest in Quebecois history. I put two years of my life into this movement, and we’ve had a quarter of a million people at a demo! If we fold now, it will look like we’re scared of Law 12 (threatens arrest for blocking access to public institutions). If we go back to school, we cannot use the strike again in the future to win political victories.
But the debate was grounded in worldview as much as strategy, and for some, returning to class meant shutting the curtains on a world they hoped to live in, and turning back to the four dark walls of this one. One female law student said, “We’ve seen what happens with the elections. Charest [Quebec’s current Liberal Party Premier], with the help of money, gets elected every time. We’ve created this space of direct democracy that’s so different than their representative democracy, and if we end the strike than we lose that space.”*
While the comments in plenary and on proposals seemed to flow with inspiration, the “call to question” for the vote came abruptly. “I don’t think it’s going to pass.” Joly repeated anxiously as students held up pink slips of paper.
Vote for continuing the strike: 240 pro, 331 against, 22 abstain.
Yips and yells exploded in the back of the room (the more radical students were sitting front and center), silenced quickly by the facilitator. “I’m going out for a depressing smoke,” the student to my right said. The student next to him burst into tears.
Does it happen so easily? UQAM, One of the beasts of Montreal, emboldening students across the Americas to join its pack, put to sleep by a wave of pink papers? To me, the meeting displayed far more than the movement’s carcass.
“We.” Several speakers emphasized that “we need to talk about what we believe,” saying that it’s not through an election that they are going to resolve their issues. Whether the divide is generational, ideological, or identification-based (“students” of the world unite!), there was a feeling that the students were demonstrably different than those in power, and they did not need their institutions to make decisions.
One important way students showed their independence from status quo political power was the savvy with which students conducted themselves in the GA. Students called for amendment, made proposals, called out points of order, and unanimously condemned anyone who broke with the rules of conduct (which are similar to Robert’s Rules of Order used in many unions). In one instance, Emilie Joly sat down after a rousing speech and said “I spoke too early,” explaining the strategy of setting the tone at the beginning of a session or waiting until the end to leave a lasting impression.
The students were self conscious of their prefigurative politics, which came out in the discussion around the value of returning to school. Since the winter semester was suspended for twenty-five schools, the administrations have proposed finishing the winter semester in five weeks, and then condensing the fall semester to thirteen weeks. A pro-strike Law student argued against a consumer attitude towards education. “We shouldn’t go back to school in this context. You’re just going to be paying for your diploma.”
In denying the value of a crash course semester, students also acknowledged what they had gained in the experience of the strike. Joly rebuffed a students complaint about his personal losses from the movement, “It’s not a loss. Whether we save the semester or not we’ve learned incredibly during this time in ways we can’t quantify.” If the goal of Political Science and Law education is to prepare future political leaders that understand a legal code, then the strike, especially these General Assemblies, is a hell of a field trip.
While other universities will vote this week, and perhaps if the Parti Quebecois wins the election (currently leading) then the promised summit on education will be fruitful. But regardless of the election, students have learned to redefine and create value outside of the given institutions, both university and parliament.
Not only are the students capable of self-governance, but they like it. After Joly when she voted for a time extension proposal, a student teased her that she just missed everyone and wanted to stay all night. Joly smiled, “I brought my sleeping bag!”
*All quotes translated from Quebecois.