An interview with Rémi Bellemare-Caron
A look inside the role of anarchists in the Quebec student movement, currently engaged in an open-ended general strike against tuition fee increases.
Linchpin: Can you tell us what your role is in the anarchist and student movements in Quebec?
Rémi: At the moment, I'm a “supporter’’ of the Union Communiste Libertaire and I have been a member of the UCL for several years in the past. As for my role in the student movement, since I am not taking any courses in the current session, I'm not a member of any student union. But I am a student at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal) studying for a Masters degree in Political Science. I am also on the executive committee of my teaching and research assistants union, which is a Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) local.
Inside the student movement I mostly do support work. I facilitate general assemblies and congresses. I organize workshops to share skills such as how to facilitate general assemblies and how to protect oneself from police in demonstrations, etc. I obviously also participate in the demonstrations and the different actions organized by the student movement.
Besides this, I am also writing a chapter on anarchism in the Quebec student movement for a book about anarchism in Quebec today.
Linchpin: Historically, has the anarchist movement played an important role in the student movement in Quebec?
Rémi: I think so. It is difficult to clearly evaluate the role of the anarchist movement in the student movement but the role of anarchists, as individual militants, is pretty clear. Already, the ideas and practices of the student movement are clearly influenced by those of the anarchist movement: independence from political parties, direct democracy, direct action – all are strongly-held principles in the student movement. Further, the majority of “organized” anarchists (those in formal organizations) are student activists, and they have a disproportionate presence in the student movement's on the ground organizing, mobilizing efforts and communications work. And an even larger number of anarchists or militants who identify as left anti-authoritarian organize local demonstrations and direct actions.
It is necessary however to understand the role of anarchists in the student movement in light of the deep divisions that exist in the movement. While anarchists play a very important role in the militant, combative wing of the student movement, largely grouped under the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), the majority of the student movement is characterized by corporatism and political opportunism. Numerous leaders in the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) and the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) are or become members of bourgeois political parties, mainly the Parti Québécois and more recently, the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Further, even looking at the militant wing of the student movement, we should not get the impression that it is ''quasi-anarchist'', free from political divisions and corporatism. Even within this wing of the movement, there are sometimes intense strategic and political debates and certain basic principles have to be re-defined and defended so that the movement does not slide towards the centre of the political spectrum and towards corporatism, a risk that all mass movements face over time.
Linchpin: It seems what you are describing, at least as far as the militant wing of the student movement goes, and ASSÉ in particular, is a situation where the anarchist movement has built what we sometimes call ''a leadership of ideas'', that is a situation where a mass movement or organization has adopted or internalized basic anarchist principles. This idea also expresses an anarchist strategy that consists of promoting anarchist ideas in social movements from below as opposed to strategies that see left militants try to take leadership of a movement by running for the highest positions and then pushing left politics from the top down. Is this an accurate depiction of the role of anarchists in the militant wing of the movement? Does the anarchist movement have a common strategy for work within the student movement?
Rémi: I think that effectively, the militant wing of the student movement has internalized basic anarchist principles, as have other social movements in Quebec over the past decades. However this has not really come about as a result of an organized common effort by the anarchist movement. In my opinion, this result has come about due to the dedicated work of individual anarchist militants who for years now have argued for and defended their ideas and their practices inside their student unions and who have had an enormous influence. These same people are also often elected to positions inside their unions, sometimes the top positions. However this occurs as a result of the support they build due to their organizing work and is not part of a strategy or desire to impose their politics from the top down. It should be known that militants from the extreme left (organized anarchists, anti-authoritarians, communists) are very present in the militant wing of the student movement and it often seems they are the only ones who want to occupy positions in the student unions affiliated with ASSÉ.
While many anarchists are active inside the student movement, few of them are members of formal anarchist organizations such as the UCL. And those that are find it difficult to present a political perspective that is clearly distinguishable from the general perspective of ASSÉ. There were also attempts, more or less successful, to create explicitly anarchist groups on different campuses after the 2005 student general strike. Today there are more efforts to organize anti-capitalist groups as opposed to explicitly anarchist ones.
Linchpin: Just to clarify, do you mean that it is difficult for UCL militants and other anarchists to promote anarchist ideas inside the student movement because ASSÉ already expresses some of the basic anarchist ideas?
Rémi: It's more a case that we find that we can't really push anti-capitalist politics in the student movement because, while we want to radicalize the movement, we also have to keep the movement's strategic considerations in mind too. Also, since ASSÉ already has some very radical demands (such as free education), and its practices are very close to anarchist practices, there is not much room left for a discourse seeking further radicalization. In any case, within the UCL we find this difficult, especially since many of us are already active in ASSÉ.
Linchpin: It sounds like part of what you are saying, if we understood right, is that anarchists inside the student movement have to be careful not to use their influence in such a way as to push the militant wing of the movement too far left, too fast. Given that a majority of Québec students remain represented by student federations to the right of ASSÉ, pushing too far to the left now risks slowing down or hurting the growing influence of ASSÉ among Québec students. Is this what you mean by strategic considerations?
At the same time, UCL members and other anarchists presumably see their long term goal to be promoting anarchist ideas. Are the separate student anarchist and anti-capitalist groups on campus, combined with work within ASSÉ, an expression of an attempt to find a productive way to both build ASSÉ and also build anarchism on campus more explicitly?
Rémi: For sure, we cannot forget that we are talking about mass organizations that have to represent the majority of their members and not only their most militant segment. As far as strategic considerations, what must be avoided is self-marginalization or the launching of campaigns that are ''too radical”. For example if anarchists promoted the idea of an ASSÉ campaign to demand wages for student work, we would risk that less mobilized student unions would disaffiliate from ASSÉ.
As far as our role as anarchists in the movement, we of course should defend and spread our ideas. But as anarchist student militants inside the student movement, we should act so that our movement's campaigns are successful (though not at all costs) so that people build up their confidence and capacity for collective action.
Regarding the anti-capitalist and anarchist groups on campus, the objective is to promote anarchism more explicitly in a way that does not do damage to ASSÉ and to our ability to defend the interests of students. In fact, where anarchist student groups have not survived, it is largely because anarchists in these groups realized their absence from their student unions made them weaker. The failed attempt to launch an unlimited general strike in 2007 was a wake-up call for a lot of people.
Linchpin: We've talked a lot about the role of anarchists in the student movement. To reverse the order, what has the student movement and student militancy meant for the anarchist movement in Québec? You already mentioned that many UCL members are students. What weight or force do student militants have in the anarchist movement and the anti-capitalist movement more broadly? How important have the student mobilizations of the past decade been for radical movements? Is it going too far to say that students are the main force inside the radical movements?
Rémi: I think the student movement has played an enormous role in the dynamism of the anarchist movement and more broadly in other social movements. Not only does the student movement serve as a training ground for militants in the anarchist movement, it also puts a mass of people in contact with the practices of direct democracy and direct action. Even if this does not mean that all of these people end up in radical groups, they have had contact with anarchists and they have used anarchist practices and will likely be more receptive to our ideas.
Almost all of the anti-capitalist militants in Quebec have at some level or other, been active in the student movement. The high level of participation of anti-capitalist militants in the student movement is due in part to the nature of our education system. The CEGEP system means that a big portion of the population passes through the higher education system, either the CEGEPs and/or the universities. The low cost of education in Quebec also increases the number of people who go through the higher education system.
Further, most have participated in the 1996 or the 2005 general strikes, as well as other mobilizations. A lot of them searched for a place to continue organizing and chose the anarchist movement or the anti-capitalist movement. Several radical groups saw significant growth in numbers after successful general strikes.
These student victories inevitably have a considerable impact on other social movements, since they have been rare victories against governments in the last decades. Victories restore confidence in the power of mass mobilization and contribute to strengthen a political perspective that questions not only the government in power but also the entire neoliberal project and its supporters. So I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the student movement is the strongest force inside the radical movements.
Linchpin: That really puts the achievements of ASSÉ and the student movement in perspective. What is the mood like right now on the ground among anarchists and student militants about the current general strike? And, if we can ask you to do something always risky and look into the future, how do you think the current strike is going to develop? What are in your opinion the most likely outcomes, bad and good?
Rémi: For most of us, our reference point is the 2005 general strike. Thus, willingly or not, we are comparing almost everything happening now with that strike. At the moment, we are satisfied with how the strike is developing; the number of students on strike has been growing fast. Now we have to see if the strike movement will continue to gain strength beyond those student unions that traditionally go on strike. The current danger, and one that will worry us from now until the end of the strike, is evidently the corporatist wing of the student movement. In order to retain control of the movement, the FECQ and FEUQ are willing to play on students' fears of going on strike on the campuses that they control in order to avoid student unions affiliating with the Coalition large de l’ASSÉ (CLASSE) for the duration of the strike.
The worst outcome for the student movement and for other social movements would be a defeat. A second defeat in a row (following the failed attempt at a general strike in 2007) would be devastating. If the strike movement reaches its peak strength and the government still chooses not to give in, the movement could run out of steam and end without making any gains.
The other main fear that we have, besides a total defeat, is that the movement is co-opted by the FECQ and the FEUQ who would negotiate a weak compromise with the government. These student federations have the same demands as CLASSE but we know that they would be willing to negotiate concessions for students in order to be able to claim victory and retain control over the student movement. This is a real possibility but the task of the militant wing of the movement is to make sure that the general assemblies maintain control of their movement. And to see this happen, students must be as informed as possible about the possibility that student leaders may betray the movement.
The other possibility is a total victory for students. This would see the movement maintain control of its organizations, vote democratically for disruptive actions, increase the pressure on the government and win a freeze on tuition at 2012 levels.
The ideal but not very likely scenario would be one where the idea of a general strike takes hold in other segments of society currently in conflict with the government and the struggle expands beyond the student movement. Among others, day care workers are opposed to the government and are currently on strike for better working conditions (since this interview, their strike has ended in victory for the workers).