Reflections on the Montreal Student Movement Convention
By Michael Russo
Several weeks ago, I traveled to Canada to attend the Montreal Student Movement Convention. It was my first time ever leaving the country, and I had to scramble to have my passport expedited, as well as put together gear for the trip. It was also the first time I’d ever gone somewhere entirely by myself. Upon arrival, I experienced a flush of incredible excitement and fear. This was something I had always wanted to do, and for the first time I felt an incredible sense of direction and agency in my life. For the time being, no longer was I merely a passive actor, a student scurrying to keep up with the ebb and flow of institutional demands for the sake of grades and an uncertain future; instead I was lured by the promise of an amorphous dream on the horizon. A promise of change, which I, all of us, could effect with our own hands. And perhaps just as importantly, I felt that I was there with a specific duty to learn and relay the lessons and ideas back home. I became all at once aware that I was in a place that was different from my own – it had effected victory in a way which was unheard of to us. From what I’d been told, for instance, all public universities in Montreal had equalized tuition throughout the entire province at decidedly lower rate than ours. There were anarchist graffiti tags everywhere, and a great anarchist bookshop. The presence of half a dozen leftist newspapers lining the stands within the UQAM campus, many with militant titles and flagrant use of Communist symbolism, struck me especially. Then of course there were Trotskyist groups that tried to get us to buy their newspapers.
But of course, before I could get to any of that, I had several days to tour the city. I booked a reservation at the Alexandrie-Montreal hostel and tucked into my bed. Then I did the usual thing; walking tours, bike rides, food sampling, concerts, etc. It was a quaint and lovely city. When the convention finally approached and it was all said and done, I felt very sad to have to leave my new acquaintances and living circumstances behind already. I also really just wanted to keep sleeping in a bed; the efforts of the students hosting the MSMC to provide free food, room, and board were heroic, but it still relegated us to sleeping on a gymnasium floor. The next day we were given a brief tour of the UQAM campus, and then immediately set off to begin choosing between the various lectures as though we were in a university that taught nothing but radicalism.
We divided the work amongst us, taking detailed notes about anti-racist, anti-sexist organizing in the student millieu; building alliances with workers and grad students, learning about neoliberalism and its implications for education, and perhaps most importantly talking with fellow students from all across North America, making friends, and swapping contact details. The days passed in a blur as we spent morning to night listening to lectures and discussing, taking lunch breaks at nearby cafes, and wrapping up our nights by getting drunk in public Quebecois parks. We even encountered the Montreal chapter of wobblies, and with other wobblies from the country, stood in a bar 30-strong booming out in IWW song all in unison. We had an especially wonderful time with members of the Chicago IWW, trying to cram seven people into a four-door sedan in a panic to get back to the gym before they closed the doors. I had to sit on a heroic Fellow Worker’s lap, and try to pretend like everything was cool as we rolled by police in search of our warm beds, making wrong turns and getting into arguments at every available opportunity. Only to discover that the rush was in vain, as they just left the doors unlocked.
The last day of the convention was the most exciting: we took all of the things we had been learning and formed various caucasus and groups, ready to bring proposals and discussions to the MSMC’s “mock” General Assembly. The General Assembly proceeded over a hundred and fifty strong, and we began to bring a stream of proposals forward, of all imaginable character: so dense were the suggestions that we quickly began overrunning our time limit. I never personally spoke, being very shy in front of audiences, but was riveted to my seat with excitement. I followed the tense and at times even angry and hostile arguments, threw my vote into the count, and remained fixed even as the night drew long. I was politicized well after the Occupy protests, and so this experience was very new to me. The GA was hemorrhaging constituents however, and at the end we faced extreme danger of losing quorum. We were given the option to simply table the programme of the General Assembly until next year’s Student Movement Conference: assuming there was one. Or, we could continue to the end, and fight to the final proposal to host a conference call to discuss the final implications of the conference and establish a committee to help host a new one.
My comrade was hovering around and practically imploring me to leave, but I was determined to see it through. My vote ended up being the tipping vote that prevented us from tabling the conference; with it, we proceeded forward to pass the proposal to establish a new committee and closed the general assembly. I wish I could describe it in all its political nuance, because it really was fantastic, but this is already long. With the MSMC’s General Assembly closed, a loud cheer and applause boomed from the auditorium, and the final remnants straggled out to go home. I was riding an awesome high; the thrill of feeling like I was part of a genuine process of direct democracy, of a movement that would bloom into something greater. That night, however, was more somber. No longer were there spontaneous bands of radicals marching into the streets and randomly coagulating in the same park. It was very quiet, the air warm, and the night closing in around us. We had a quiet dinner and lodged at the place of a friend for the night, ready to fly back home the next day. The excitement, learning, and exploration had passed.
I must admit that my week-long trip was much more exciting and magical than a mere couple of pages will permit. When I came home, I felt kind of melancholy for some time, wanting to be back in Montreal instead. But we went to the MSMC for a reason: and I personally didn’t and don’t want to see it have gone to waste. I’ve been trying to be much more active in our local student union, and my comrade and I have been trying to apply and disseminate some of the lessons we learned and the enthusiasm we brought home with us. The success and growth of student power has definitely taken on an apocalyptic character for me now.
I do believe that things are on the rise for student and worker power in the United States; it just needs the enthusiasm of the students and a united movement to bring it forth. And talking with one another is easily the greatest thing we got from the conference: because now we’ve established an real international movement of students and friends that we can build dialogues with, share lessons learned, and try to realize that great collective dream on the horizon. And as I remember Erik Foreman writing once; if we can’t make democracy work in the schools, where everyone is brought together under one body for several years regardless of race, beliefs, or gender, before they set out into the world to be torn asunder — then I don’t know how we ever will.