The weeks before the strike were incredibly hectic. As province-wide flyering squads were organized, every available effort was put into mobilizing students in anticipation of the first strike votes. Often from 8 AM to 6 PM, activists were on campuses having conversations with students about the upcoming vote, their union, general assemblies and related topics. Each conversation would typically take about 5 to 10 minutes and focus on addressing common misconceptions about the tuition hike and the strike itself.

As the first general assemblies took place, the overwhelmingly positive results quickly pushed us over the tipping point of 20,000 students with a strike mandate. By February 9th, most general assemblies in the first wave had voted in favor of striking. On Monday, February 13th (a week before it was anticipated), the unlimited general strike was launched.

Up until March 7th, the rhythm of the strike was rather typical: more and more student unions holding votes on the strike, strike committees getting organized on campuses, and students joining flying mobilization teams to go around the province and help spread the strike to other student unions.

On March 5th, we reached 125,000 students on strike, which was much faster than expected. But although the strike itself was growing substantially and one or two big rallies were happening every week, there were still very few direct actions aimed at disrupting business as usual. At the same time, the leaders of FECQ and FEUQ were meeting the press and — almost apologetically — promising to put their striking students on voluntary community work…1

A turning point was reached on March 7th, when over a thousand students surrounded and blockaded the Loto-Québec2 building in downtown Montreal, and nearly two hundred stormed the ground floor and forced a shutdown. While the event was impressive in its number of participants, it remained entirely nonviolent: no windows broken, no rocks thrown around, etc. The mere presence of protesters was sufficient to significantly disrupt the routine of this government institution.

For the striking students occupying the building and protesting outside, the action was entirely legitimate and warranted by the goal to block the tuition hike. When people were asked to leave, no one moved… until riot police started moving in on students with batons blazing. During this brutal attempt to disperse the crowd and clear out the building, pepper spray was used profusely and flashbang grenades were thrown into the lot, severely injuring one student and causing him to lose an eye.

As a first encounter with riot police and the violence of the state, the episode was rich in lessons for the students participating, the vast majority obviously having had little previous experience in facing all-out repression. Encountering the police force’s insults, abuse and brutality opened the eyes of many who held the belief that officers always acted reasonably and in good faith. Not only did the event strengthen our resolve to continue the struggle, but students were now much more distrustful of police and willing to consider self-defence tactics during demonstrations and direct actions. Furthermore, the next day, public statements by several business leaders and city officials pressing the government to sit down and negotiate with students gave credibility to the argument that direct action gets the goods.

[1] Les étudiants feront du bénévolat entre deux piquets de grève, promettent la FECQ et la FEUQ
[2] Loto-Québec is the state-owned lottery corporation in Quebec.

» Direct action

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