1968 (October): The CEGEPs (junior colleges) have just been founded in Quebec and it’s a dynamic period for social movements in Quebec and around the world. More than 4,000 students are refused admission into university in Quebec due to the lack of space and professors. Students demand accessibility for working class youth and francophones in post-secondary institutions; clarification about the Minister’s position on the loans and bursaries program; and more democracy in the university, within a general critique of global capitalism. Fifteen (out of 23) CEGEPs go on strike for around one month. The strike speeds up the creation of the Quebec university network (UQ) and the construction of UQAM, and achieves the abolition of mandatory class attendance for students enrolled in CEGEP -a first step towards recognizing the right of students to strike by not attending class.
1974 (October & December): There are two general strikes during the same semester, against two different reforms. The first strike in October opposes new aptitude tests for university studies (TAEU) that are required only of francophone students. With CEGEPs on strike for one month, the government cancels the TAEU.
The second strike in December 1974 is sparked after 300 students have to quit CEGEP due to financial difficulties because of changes to the loans and bursaries program. The strike includes 40 institutions on strike during its peak (mostly CEGEPs, but also universities and high schools), for around 2 weeks. Demands include substantial improvements to loans and bursaries, notably abolishing the parental contribution (the expected amount that all parents should pay). This second strike is also quick and effective, resulting in a promise on the part of the government to abolish the parental contribution in loans, and diminish the parental contribution in the case of bursaries.
1978 (November): With the promises from 1974 not completely fulfilled, students demand free education and substantial reforms to the loans and bursaries program. The strike lasts around three weeks, reaching 100,000 striking students once UQAM joins the ranks of the 33 CEGEPs. The movement grows so quickly that the government makes concessions: Significant improvements are made to the loans and bursaries program.
1986 (October): Responding to the Liberal Government’s threat to increase tuition and to make cuts to loans and bursaries and to education budgets, students launch a strike. Thirty student associations (mostly CEGEPs) go on strike. After only 5 days of strike, they force the government to retreat from its plan to increase tuition for both university and CEGEP, to open negotiations about loans and bursaries, and to stop ancillary fees from being imposed at universities in the UQ network.
1988 (October): Disappointed with the stagnated progress of the loans and bursaries negotiations, and fearing upcoming tuition increases, students strike up to 2 weeks, with 25 student associations for the strike (all CEGEPs except two), and 25 against it. Not enough CEGEPS participate: The Liberal government announces a tuition increase, though the pressure to improve the bursaries and loans program (AFE) indirectly contributes to most of students’ demands about the loans and bursaries program being realized in 1989.
1990 (February-March): The government increases tuition (from $500 to $1200) and allows universities a 10% margin to include ancillary fees. Ten thousand students hit the streets for a province-wide demonstration on February 14th. Yet the student movement is badly organized at this point, still recovering from a defeat two years earlier. Sporadic strikes take hold in a dozen student associations, including universities. The Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR) declares an open-ended general strike, becoming the first university association in Quebec history to go on strike for more than a week. Some associations call for a general boycott of tuition (encouraging students not to pay), but only 1% of students answer that call, so this strategy fails.
1996 (October-November): The government plans to increase tuition by 30%. With more than 40 student associations on strike, including 100,000 students at its peak, it is a success: Tuition is frozen and stays frozen until 2007. Yet $700 million dollars are cut, loans and bursaries become more restrictive, tuition fees increase for non-Quebec residents, and a tax is imposed on CEGEP students who fail classes.
2005 (February-March): This is the most important general student strike in Quebec history. In 2004, when the government decides to transform $103 million from loans into bursaries, students start organizing protests and other tactics, and start striking. It lasts 8 weeks and at its peak 230,000 students are on strike. It ends in a partial victory, preventing $103 million in annual bursaries from being converted into loans starting in 2006 (yet completely losing the $103 bursary funding for 2004 and partially losing it for 2005). Considering it was the longest and most popular student strike in Quebec history, the provincial student union that negotiated with the government could have asked for more. This time, in 2012, we will.
What we can conclude from this timeline is that every time there has been a major setback to accessible education, the strategy of a open-ended general strike was potent enough to scare the government into changing its mind. Never has the government backed down when it only faced demonstrations, petitions or symbolic actions. It was when the student movement was strongly combative and united in strikes that massive political victories were possible.
From Free Education Montreal, « Why should we strike », 2011.