After a winter semester of massive student strikes and repressive government reaction, Quebec university life may finally be returning to normal. Last Thursday, the newly installed Party Quebecois announced that it would repeal the Liberal government’s tuition plan, which would have raised yearly fees 70 percent to $3793 by 2017. Starting in February, anger at the plan led more than 150,000 students across the province to boycott classes in what became the largest student strike in North American history. Government intransigence and police violence in response to strike demonstrations galvanized the student population, which rallied around CLASSÉ, the radical student union that was involved in the initial strikes. The Liberal government further exacerbated students’ anger with its May adoption of Bill 78, which suspended the semester, required protests to be approved by the police, and outlawed any demonstration that would disrupt school. The day after Bill 78’s passage, more than 300,000 marched in protest, and CLASSÉ announced its plans to defy the law. In August, Prime Minister Jean Charest called for an election to demonstrate the support of the “silent majority” for his party’s leadership; much of the energy aroused by the student movement was channeled into the effort to defeat him, which was successful in the September 4 vote.
On Tuesday evening, CLASSÉ general coordinator Guillame Legault spoke to an audience of about 75 in Salomon Hall at Brown University. Beforehand, the Independent had a conversation with him on the patio of the Stephen Robert Campus Center.
The Independent: CLASSÉ was originally formed out of Assé, a smaller anti-globalization student union. How did the dynamics of CLASSÉ change as more students got involved?
Guillame Legault: We have seen less radical student unions join CLASSÉ, and that created some friction with the initial members. But even though there were some really big disagreements on some issues, we decided to be as inclusive as possible and to respect the fact that some people don’t want to go as far as others. And slowly a radicalization process has been going on through the whole strike. And at the end more and more people were sharing the same political perspectives on many issues.
Indy: What were some of the areas where there were serious disagreements?
GL: One of them would have been on the issue of condemning violence. In the altermondialisme [alternative globalization] movement there have been these great debates, beginning in the year 2000, about whether or not we should condemn violence. This has been going on forever.
Indy: So do you guys maintain the idea that property destruction is something individuals choose?
GL: We have always decided to respect the idea of the diversity of the tactics. But with this new debate lots of people tried to reframe this position. We were really targeted by the media as the radical dangerous terrorist organization, which in fact we were not. Civil disobedience isn’t violence, and we have to make a clear difference, ’cause for the government, for the media, making a picket line is something violent, which it really isn’t.
Indy: Can you define violence?
GL: Well, I can give you the definition that CLASSÉ has been able to give. CLASSÉ finally decided to condemn violence, as the act of someone hurting someone on purpose without being in a position of self-defense.
Indy: So CLASSÉ does not consider property destruction violence?
Indy: Which is a good stance to have. I think that’s the stance that SDS had. That’s a conventional stance.
GL: And it got us out of the debate about what is violence, and what we should condemn. ’Cause they even wanted us to condemn the actions that we organized ourselves, which was completely stupid. We wouldn’t organize something that we would condemn. We just simply wouldn’t do it!
Indy: With the election and the repeal of the tuition hike and Bill 78, is the energy that was present in the spring pretty much gone?
GL: The colleges and the CEGEPs [pre-university public colleges] were the first ones to vote on whether they were going to continue the strike into the fall. And most of them voted against. So this really discouraged lots of people. With the elections, the two other student federations decided to get really involved into the open promotion of the vote. In fact, the former president of the collegial federation has been elected under the PQ banner. Which is in my opinion a complete tragedy, cause this is not the way we believe that we should be doing things. So it’s sure that lots of people just don’t seem to have the same will to fight. Because most of the issues they were addressing or they were trying to fight are not there anymore. Since the very beginning we have always been saying, we’re not fighting for a number, we’re fighting for ideas. And lots of people shared that. But the summer just dramatically hit us.
Indy: What’s the next action?
GL: This weekend there’s gonna be a congress about what’s up next with the campaign. The newly elected minority PQ government is looking forward to doing these sort of roundtable meetings, a summit on education. People are gonna get organized to get themselves heard there. Lots of people were talking about going on a temporary general strike on the road to the summit, maybe organizing a counter-summit. Now also people are gonna have to ask themselves some questions. Because some student unions have already put in the next congress book the question of dismantling CLASSÉ and going back to Assé. Because there’s no more strike, and at the very beginning, CLASSÉ was a temporary coalition for the strike.
Indy: You’re currently working on a graduate degree, on social movements like this one. Why is it important to you to have a college education?
GL: Education in the way that it is actually structured, and the goals that we give to education, are not the ones that I would privilege. But still, education and culture are things that are really, really important for people to be able to emancipate themselves and to go against an order that is already there, and that you just have to fit into.
Indy: But why organize within the current university system? Why continue to support a culture that you have to pay into, rather than create a different culture?
GL: I totally agree with that. The question is, when you’re already involved into something that you already study, and you come to the point that you have a certain amount of critiques about what you’re actually doing, and you face your own contradictions, you try to do your best within the institutions you’re involved in. It’s something I would really wish to have the time to get involved into, to help people to get involved into permanent education, and adult education, and neighborhood or community education. Still, I think university isn’t all bad. But the democratization of the whole university network is slowly going away. And I think we can, and we have, stopped these things.
Indy: I understand you support yourself with a part time job. What do you do?
GL: I work in a warehouse. I’m a forklift driver. Real proletariat. [laughs]
Indy: Is your warehouse organized?
GL: I’m the only person that works in my warehouse, so it could be hard to unionize myself. I just imagine myself being the president and the only member of the assembly.
Indy: But you prefer school.
GL: I don’t see a hierarchy between school and work.
Indy: If you woke up in the morning, you didn’t have anything you had to do, would you rather go to school or work?
GL: I guess it would depend on the day.
Indy: Good answer. As a social scientist, you’re familiar with structural lenses to social life. What balance between structural constraints and personal responsibility do you strike when considering the police?
GL: I guess it could depend on the police officer you have in front of you. But as long as this person has a stick that is made especially for hitting you in the face, I’m not gonna like you. I don’t see them either as victims, because cops have a role in maintaining the hierarchy and the dominance, and the distance between the elites and a lot of people in the society. That’s one of the things I didn’t like about the one percent that people from Occupy were always talking about. It’s more than one percent! A lot of people contribute to keeping these people there without even knowing it.
Indy: How do you consider the relation between your personal consumption choices and your involvement in radical social movements protesting neoliberalism?
GL: I’m not the ambassador of consumption, or organic consumption, or . . . no. My choices are pretty much mine. I live with my contradictions and I’m pretty ok with that. I don’t want to judge myself like I don’t want to judge the others. Like, I’m vegetarian. I could be vegan. I could eat raw food. I don’t give a shit if you eat meat. Eat as much as you want! I can find it like bad if you eat, like, only steak every time, but I don’t give a shit. [laughs]
Indy: So what actions do you think people should take in their daily lives, what would you like to see the people right here do differently?
GL: Well, first of all, people here, who seem to buy things, could simply be part of a cooperative. Or they could do a little more than buying packed stuff. They could instead collectively buy dishes and wash them themselves and not pay someone to do it. I think the spirit of community on the university campus is something that is really missing in a lot of places. That’s the first thing. These chairs are not the most comfortable chairs ever. They could be made out of recycled wood. They could be not. I don’t really care.
Indy: Should the students of Brown University drop out?
GL: Depends why they are going to these schools. Why should they drop? Why shouldn’t they?
Indy: Well, they could stop paying someone to teach them, they could be part of a cooperative where they learn!
GL: Yeah, why not?
Indy: Because they want to have jobs. Maybe.
Indy: I don’t know! I don’t know why either of us are in college. We just keep doing it, right? Why don’t we just go to California and go and—
GL: And create an anarcho-syndicalist commune!
Indy: And live in an anarcho-syndicalist commune!
GL: I don’t know! I don’t feel that bad with the life I’m living.
Indy: You just want to make sure that the tuition doesn’t go up.
GL: No. If it would be only about this, I don’t think I would have done everything I’ve done last year. I think it’s important to start by speaking about principles and other ways of seeing everything we do every day. But I don’t have the good answer. As you don’t.
Indy: No, I certainly don’t.
GL: No one has. Well, if you find someone who has all the good answers, I don’t know what we should do with this person, but that could get us into trouble.
Indy: Yeah. I agree.