Revisiting the 2012 Quebec Student Strike

On October 13, 2023, Quebec Minister of Higher Education Pascale Déry announced in a press conference that the province plans to nearly double tuition prices for out-of-province and international university students beginning next fall. As of December 14, the provincial government has reduced the tuition hike to a 33 per cent increase with a requirement that 80 per cent of out-of-province students reach intermediate French proficiency by graduation. Cited as a measure to reverse the decline of the French language in Quebec society, the drastic increase has been met with criticism from anglophone students, university administrators, and opposing politicians. Students from McGill, Concordia, and Bishop’s University, Quebec’s three English universities, as well as those from Université de Montreal and UQAM, took to the streets on October 30 and again on November 30 in Montreal for the “blue fall protest.” Aside from student action, administrators at these universities have also been quick to act. McGill University has gone so far as to pause the introduction of a $50-million French-language program aimed at helping students, faculty, and staff “learn or improve their French.” 

Quebec has a rich history of student demonstrations, most recently in response to proposed tuition fee increases by the provincial government in 2012. The 2012 demonstration was the longest-recorded student strike in Canadian history and elicited international attention and solidarity among hundreds of Quebecers. This time around, the impact of the increase on non-Quebec students may not provoke a reaction to that scale. Still, are there lessons to be gained on the effectiveness of student activism?

The Student Movement in Quebec

Student movements in Quebec date back to the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. As Quebec implemented reforms for a more modernized society and secular government, access to education was expanded. Public education and opportunities for tuition loans and grants were strengthened, while student associations in Quebec gained significant power. Opposition from students has long kept the province’s tuition fees relatively low compared to the Canadian average, particularly for in-province students.

2012 Student Strike

The 2012 student strike was launched in response to a March 2011 budget tabled by Jean Charest’s Liberal Party of Quebec government, which would increase tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years. The hike was met with widespread disapproval and resulted in major protests by Quebecers of all ages in Montreal and across Quebec. The strike lasted from February 13 to September 7, 2012, and resulted in conflicts with police. It ended only as the Charest government lost re-election, and the incoming Parti Québecois government cancelled the tuition increase.

Protests were marked by conflicts with police. “IMG” by Brian Lapuz is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

The student strike was greeted with popular support from Quebecers. The strike initially began in December of 2011, when a temporary coalition of over 60,000 students was formed. Soon after, the FECQ, which represented the CEGEP student unions, and the FEUQ, who were representing Quebec universities, joined the strike. By March 2012, nearly 310,000 students, out of 400,000 in all of Quebec, were out of the classroom and on strike. 

On May 18, in response to these massive turnouts, the National Assembly of Quebec passed a special law, Bill 78. Described as a measure to ensure those students wanting to study were no longer impeded from attending school, Bill 78 implemented fines for individuals, student associations, and student unions whose demonstrations interfered with class schedules, forcing students back to class and prohibiting protesting near schools. 

Students protesting in Montreal on May 22, 2012, 100 days into the student strike. “Montreal 100 days students strikes” by Fernando Brandão is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED.

Beyond students, Quebecers of all ages were taking part in “concerts de casseroles:” banging pots and pans to show their opposition to Bill 78. Many wore red square pins in solidarity, and celebrities and former Quebec politicians alike voiced support for the students. The hashtag “#ggi” (for grève général illimité/unlimited general strike) spread on Twitter. The strike was dubbed the “Maple Spring,” in reference to the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests across the Arab world between 2010 and 2012.

Bill 78 drew international attention

Bill 78 quickly drew scrutiny for restricting the right to demonstrate, which is protected by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The law was denounced by the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire. On May 31, opposition expanded to a national level when the National Hockey League held a “Casserole Night in Canada,” banging pans across the country in support of the student strike. Apart from this event, solidarity and support from students in other provinces was limited. However, criticism reached international levels when Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called Bill 78 “alarming,” explaining she was “disappointed by [a bill] that restricts [Quebecers’] rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.” However, in response, John Baird, the federal government’s Foreign Affairs Minister, defended the provincial government’s actions on behalf of the federal government, adding “with what’s going on in Syria, with what’s going on in Iran and Belarus, the UN would be better to spend its time on there.” UN Watch, a non-governmental organization that monitors the UN’s performance, also opposed Pillay’s statements, highlighting that Bill 78 was implemented by a democratically elected government and that the law could still be challenged in court. 

In any event, the concerns and financing of Quebec universities were never directly resolved. Eventually, in August of 2012, Jean Charest called an election, where the Liberals lost to the Parti Québecois. Under the leadership of Pauline Marois, the Parti Québecois cancelled the tuition fee increase and repealed Bill 78 altogether.

A legacy of student activism today

The power of student activism in 2012 was undeniably influential. Youth activists and community organizers helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of students to bring attention to their concerns. The student strike brought young people together and sparked engagement in politics at all levels. There are lessons to be taken from the work done in 2012 for students today organizing against the Legault government’s recent tuition hikes for out-of-province students. Leadership across student unions and community groups stood united, enabling the consolidation of support from both progressive and moderate student associations through compromise. 

Given that the scope of the tuition increase is directed towards out-of-province students it is unlikely there will be the same solidarity throughout Quebec society as was the case in 2012. This limitation makes cooperation between schools and student unions even more important. The tuition hike will impact students across Canada, and accordingly, solidarity from students in other provinces could be significant. This time around, there is greater potential for mobilization via social media to an extent not possible in 2012. Currently, thousands of students are once again protesting. Student resistance has proved a powerful tool, but for these efforts to make an impact in 2023, it will be through unity and compromise between stakeholders, from students to university administrators to the Legault government.

Edited by Lily Molesky.

Featured image: “Red Flag flying in Montreal” by Howl Arts Collective is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED