On September 1, the start of the school year for Quebec primary students, nearly 20,000 people surrounded 260 public schools across Quebec in a human chain, each in their own neighbourhood. That was one out of 10 schools protected that day, by those who best understand why schools need protection.
It was initiated by a group of Montreal parents, joined by teachers. The target was the cuts to the primary and secondary school system by the Liberal Couillard government, and the turnout exceeded even the most optimistic predictions.
Quebec’s Liberal Minister of Education, François Blais, accused parents of manipulating kids for political ends: “What disappoints me is using children for slogans they don’t understand, to repeat half-truths that they can’t understand.” Pascale Grignon, parent spokesperson, responded that these comments sickened her because it is foremost children who are targeted by the budget cuts to school boards.
And in fact, Quebec parents are not the first to understand this.
Parents in British Columbia brought their kids to “play dates” to support BC teachers on strike for better teaching and learning conditions like smaller class sizes a couple of years ago. And at several secondary schools in Ontario last spring, students demonstrated support for their teachers by refusing to participate in things like class trips not run by their teachers, who were refusing extracurricular activities in order to secure a contract that would allow them to deliver the education students deserve. And during the successful strike by Chicago teachers in 2012, teachers, parents and students built a strong coalition to protect public education.
Ontario’s 55,000 Education Assistants—who have been without a contract for a year and began work-to-rule on September 10—would do well to remember the potential for such public support. They are key to providing resources to children with special needs, the ones that are on the frontline of harm in Quebec and other provinces where the cuts have targeted such “frills.” Parents understand this in Quebec: the human chain is not just about opposing cuts but supporting the teachers they know are being pushed to their limits to do the best for their students.
In Quebec, the movement against austerity has been very smart about clearly linking good public sector jobs to good public services, and opposing cuts to both. The “human chain” is another great example: not only does it protect the schools from neoliberal attacks from the outside, it unites teachers, parents and kids from the inside. It doesn’t manipulate kids, it gives them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The Quebec parents promise to bring back the human chain to protect public schools on October 1, and hopefully it will have even more links of solidarity then.