YOUNG RADICALS looking back on their summer efforts — the peace marches, the demonstrations, the sit-ins — may wonder what the lasting results have been — if any. In Toronto, for instance, the young protesters concerned about Selma, Alabama, may have succeeded only in showing a few people where the U.S. Consulate is.
But one group that can look back with far more certainty than that on a summer of exciting yet coldly calculated rebellion against the Establishment is a band of carefully chosen, thoroughly briefed and shrewdly organized “student workers” from the 55,000-member Union Genérale des Etudiants du Québec (UGEQ).
Forty-nine strong, the Travailleurs Etudiants du Québec taught Montreal slum kids and dirt-poor farmers how to form effective pressure groups to get what they wanted. At the same time, they were testing the political muscles of the Union Générale, created a year ago by a merger of the major student unions.
“We are not interested in power or in taking over,” says Robert Nelson, the bearded twenty-three-year-old engineering student who directed the TEQ project. “We put our ideas into what we call social action. We go to the people, find out what they want, then show them how to get it. As soon as we see they have understood the lessons of organization, we pull out and go into another area.”
OCTOBER 2, 1965 VOLUME 78 NUMBER 19
As anarchists, they might be noteworthy enough — they say they’re fed up with government bureaucracy and university paternalism. But it is one measure of their drive and ingenuity that they managed to get provincial government salaries for their work — which almost certainly makes them Canada’s first subsidized anarchists. The arrangement goes back to last year when the Lesage administration enthusiastically okayed the student union’s request to do “research” in Quebec’s depressed areas. Thus the researchers went onto the provincial payroll — $200 a month for a freshman, $275 for a fourth-year student.
Long before they went to work, the TEQ organizers did their homework well. They spent 1964 researching problems in five specific areas of Quebec, then carefully selected the student workers to fit the needs. In rural Lac St. Jean for instance, a law student, an economist, a business administration student, and an agronomist moved into the area. They made contact with social and welfare organizations, and with leads from these agencies went to the people. The student workers sat down with small homeowners and helped untangle muddled mortgages, showed how to draw up a contract. And when they discovered finance companies were charging twenty-five percent on loans that some victims would never have a chance of getting out from under, laid the foundations for a credit union. Reports Nelson: “In Lac St. Jean there are twenty-two finance companies. A project for next year is to force at least two of them to close their doors.”
But TEQ’s most dramatic work was in the Montreal slums of St. Henri. The co-ordinator of that project was Paul Laurent, a slim and intense twenty-three-year-old social sciences major who worked ten to twelve hours a day with eight other students.
PETERSON ON THE PROWL
In St. Henri there were ten thousand children under fifteen using crowded playgrounds that were illequipped and badly run. The students showed them how to get maximum use out of the meagre facilities. They also held play classes for children in the interior courtyards that are typical of St. Henri tenements, and took youngsters on day-long outings.
But TEQ’s greatest victory took place at the Sir Georges Etienne Cartier pool. The pool, operated by the Montreal Parks Board, had been charging the slum kids twenty-five cents admission. The TEQ’s tactic was a sit-in. At the first demonstration 150 kids jammed the entrance chanting: “We want free swimming Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.” After ten minutes Montreal businessman Robert Desjardins stepped up and paid $37.50 admission for the young demonstrators. The kids caught on fast. By the fourth sit-in four hundred children were outside, waiting for their admission to be paid—and clamoring for free swimming. The demonstrations embarrassed Montreal Parks Board officials, who had stalled on the issue from the beginning. Pressured by city hall, they agreed to allow free swimming three days a week.
Then the TEQ students really went to work. By making a series of phone calls they persuaded a few people in key positions that free swimming five days a week had been agreed upon. Before a confused civic administration could straighten itself out, the parks board announced free swimming for five days a week.
After such a victory, Nelson, the TEQ director, feels more disdain than ever for the status quo. What it leads to, he says, is “a system of fear. We students are afraid to push the government too hard because they’ll say no. At the same time the politicians are afraid to say no too often because they’re worried the students will blow up.”
Now UGEQ is organizing a string of credit unions for the students (the membership’s buying power for 1966-67 is estimated at $159,000,000, by 1981 at $329,000,000) and the young economists predict they will soon be able to control fifteen percent of Quebec’s economy. Jacques Desjardin, union president says: “Channeling the students’ buying power will serve our economic emancipation.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.