PROVINCIAL AND FEDERAL REPRESENTATION:
A CRITICAL OVERVIEW
Quebec university and CEGEP students have a long history of organizing through provincial student federations. As the Canadian constitution grants the provinces jurisdiction over education, provincial student federations play a key role in influencing education policy through lobbying and mobilization efforts, and have been a uniquely powerful force in Quebec.
In the 1960s the first province-wide student federation, the Union générale des étudiants du Québec (UGEQ), was formed to fight for free tuition and was a key player in mass student strikes that took place in 1968. This early period of student syndicalism was entwined with the linguistic and political movements of Quebec’s ‘Quiet Revolution.’ The ‘68 strikes sought to make higher education more accessible for francophones, and came to an end with the creation of ten provincially run, francophone public universities (l’Université du Québec).
The UGEQ was followed by l’Association nationale des étudiants du Québec (ANEQ) formed in 1975. When university students in Rimouski went on strike in 1978 to demand free tuition, ANEQ backed them up, and over 100,000 students across the province participated in a general unlimited strike, which ended with the government announcing major financial changes to the loans and bursaries program. ANEQ played a key role in mobilizing another general unlimited strike in 1988.
In 1989 the Fédération étudiant universitaire du Québec (FEUQ, originally Fondation de la Fédération des étudiants et étudiantes du Québec) was formed. While a successor to the francophone student syndicalism initiated by UGEQ, the FEUQ moved away from combative syndicalism, preferring to represent members through lobbying tactics rather than mobilizing students. Alongside lobbying, FEUQ put significant resources towards research on student issues. Over the course of nearly three decades, SSMU voted to affiliate to and disaffiliate from the FEUQ three times.
In 1990 the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) was created to provide provincial representation for Quebec’s CEGEP students, adopting a lobbying strategy similar to FEUQ. As of 2020, FECQ represents 27 CEGEP associations and is now the longest running student federation in the province.
In 2001 l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE) was formed to re-engage the student movement around syndicalist principles, rejecting a lobbying approach in favour of student mobilization. The different approaches of FEUQ/FECQ and ASSE were related to their respective political structures, with ASSE requiring member associations to be governed by direct democracy/grassroots principles and have a General Assembly as their highest governing body. FEUQ membership was primarily composed of associations governed by representative democracy principles with elected Councils as their highest governing bodies, like SSMU.
In 2005, a general unlimited strike was called in response to government plans to convert bursary money to loans, with 185,000 students mobilized at its peak. FEUQ, FECQ and ASSE took part, but FEUQ and FECQ withdrew pressure tactics once a partial agreement was reached, while ASSE continued to strike until internal pressures and mobilization problems caused the strike to fizzle.
The 2005 strike set the stage for the famous ‘Maple Spring’ of 2012 – a mass mobilization in response to proposed tuition hikes that lasted for over 100 days and was, to date, the largest student strike in Quebec history. The strikes were largely driven by ASSE, as the key organizational player in a temporary coalition called CLASSE, but FEUQ and FECQ suspended their lobbying efforts in favour of combative action against the hikes, enabling a more united strike front than in 2005. Confronted with draconian anti-protest measures by the provincial government, the 2012 strikes persisted and were successful in stopping the tuition hikes, and contributed to the downfall of the Liberal government in provincial elections that fall.
In the spring of 2015, students again mobilized through strikes and demonstrations, this time as part of a broader and less centralized movement that saw student associations coordinating with labour unions and other collectives, in response to a range of austerity measures. The ‘Printemps 2015’ movement was short lived and did not achieve government concessions, but saw the emergence of a new level of collaboration between organized groups and enhanced relationships across different social movements.
In the spring of 2015 disagreements between the member associations of FEUQ led to suspension of the federation’s activities. A key point of contention was the proportional weighting of member association votes that allowed large associations to effectively dominate decision-making at FEUQ. In the wake of FEUQ’s collapse, associations from around the province began meeting to form two new provincial student federations, the Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec (AVEQ) and the Quebec Student Union (QSU). AVEQ adopted a ‘one member, one vote’ structure aimed at giving voice to smaller associations that were marginalized at FEUQ, while QSU adopted a two-part voting structure aimed at balancing proportional weighting with equality between associations. QSU maintained the lobbying approach of FEUQ and remained largely dominated by francophone universities, while AVEQ focused on engaging students in social issues and increasing the engagement of anglophone and smaller, non-urban university students. SSMU played a key role as an observer and active participant in the creation of both AVEQ and QSU. A referendum on joining AVEQ was held at SSMU but did not succeed.
In 2019 both ASSE and AVEQ, hobbled by internal pressures and organizational problems, suspended operations and were dissolved, leaving the QSU as the only remaining provincial student federation in Quebec, while discussions of forming a new federation among non-affiliated student associations remain active. SSMU remains observant of developments in the student movement and participates in accordance with SSMU’s positions and policies.
Looking forward, SSMU seeks to build a contemporary student movement that builds on the strengths and successes of historic provincial representation, but moves beyond past inefficiencies and inequalities. The Quebec student movement has been predominantly driven by francophone, white students, and mobilizing anglophone and racialized students is a priority for SSMU as the representative association for a diverse, international, and primarily anglophone student body. The student movement is not immune to toxic dynamics that corrupt political action and discourse, and SSMU is obliged to build a movement that centers students with oppressed racial, gender, sexual, physical/mental, economic, and other identities. As the structure of Quebec’s student movement has been largely shaped by divergence between combative syndicalist and lobbying approaches, SSMU seeks to build coalitions around strategies that best advance the interests of its member students and that build meaningful relationships for those who have been historically marginalized.
Student representation at the federal level has been much less of a force mobilizing students than the Quebec provincial student movement, but plays an important role in advocacy around nationally relevant student issues. SSMU is currently not affiliated with a federal association.
The Canadian Federation of Students was formed in 1981 through the merger of two smaller federal federations and five provincial federations, with the intention of creating a united national student movement and the capacity to provide student-oriented services and representation at all levels of government. The CFS is the largest student organization in Canada, representing over 530,000 students. A number of disputes have arisen between CFS and member associations over the federation’s management of member fees and its internal disaffiliation procedures. Both the Concordia Student Union (CSU) and McGill’s Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) have recently disaffiliated from CFS following lengthy disputes.
Founded in 1990 by representatives of student associations that did not belong to CFS, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) represents around 350,000 students, and is formally partnered with the Quebec Student Union (QSU).
“30 Ans Au Service Des Étudiant.e.s.” FECQ, n.d. https://30ans.fecq.org/.
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