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Laure Waridel — Doctoral candidate in anthropology and sociology of development
June 6, 2012
Do you know the red trillium, that extraordinary perennial which flowers in spring on our forest floors? It can stay in the ground for years without being noticed. Its seeds have to survive many hard winters before it can finally germinate. It will only flower 10 years later.
Having no nectar, it uses creative strategies for pollination. Its intense red and its strong and resistant odour attract insects which ensure its reproduction. Like all species, it is the fruit of an ecosystem made up of complex interactions often invisible to the naked eye.
The red trillium is the very image of the student movement in our society. (R)evolution at the heart of our (eco)system.
The “maple spring” has been preparing for a long time, and not only for the red trillium. Other species are still asleep, but it seems that we are at the dawn of a grand awakening. Our own.
For more than a decade, some might say three, of long and hard winters, we have been sleeping. The priorities of society have been reversed beneath the storms of the free market. Economic growth has become an end in itself, benefitting a minority, rather than a means to individual and collective well-being as so many economists have promised since the Second World War. If we ever believed in this utopia before, it is clear today that we were wrong. The increase in inequality, the impoverishment of the middle class and the multiplication of social, environmental and economic crises are symptoms of a crisis which has become systemic. We know that the emperor wears no clothes, but the lie persists.
In an insidious way, we have become variables in a market under the category “human resources,” “producer of goods and services,” “investor,” “consumer,” and “beneficiary”. Resources are needed to keep the consume-throwaway-consume-throwaway machine going, as profitable as it is for the dominant economy. Ever more material and human resources at the lowest possible economic cost.
Nevertheless, this “lowest cost” has a price, both environmental and social. In economics, one speaks of externalities. In this catch-all word we find a collection of problems which can be created by the dominant economic model: pollution of the air, water and soil, job loss and precarious work, physical and mental illness (including depression and suicide), climate change, poverty of low-wage workers, loss of biodiversity, and so on.
To put it simply, the dominant economic and political system privatizes profits and socializes costs. This method has brought States and households alike to record levels of debt, not only on the economic front, but also in social and environmental terms.
The last straw
Wearers of the red, white or black square who I know are not in the streets solely because of the tuition increase. Far from it. They are there because of what it symbolizes as a social choice. They still believe in the value of the word “fair,” and not just for the way their coffee is traded.
The government wants to find 300 million dollars in the pockets of students, while in 2011, tax cuts totalling 3.6 billion were given to Quebec businesses. Other billions disappear into tax havens due to leniency and a lack of political will. What can one say about the 25% extra we paid for our infrastructure? We are no longer surprised to hear about collusion and corruption, as the cases have become so numerous. All this to say that we have the resources. It is a matter of choosing our priorities.
Bill 78 was probably the last straw, but it’s likely that we were already close to our limit. Quebecois may cherish social peace, but they aren’t fools. The economic arguments offered by our governments, both in Quebec and Ottawa, are an insult to our intelligence.
Democratizing the economy
Recall that the economy is a social construction. It operates thanks to institutions which we created in a legal and political framework which we can control. Contrary to what our current leaders claim, we have the choice. The paths are many.
Ideas are abundant in modern Quebec. When History opens its doors as it is doing right now, anything is possible. We have the intelligence, the resources and the courage needed to take on a transition. It is up to us to choose which, and how.
For example, we could take inspiration from Iceland, a country which after the financial crisis of 2008 created a new Constitution for itself, drafted by and for the people. It is possible to conduct a similar process here, too. The idea is receiving more and more support. This is especially true because unlike Canada, Quebec does not yet have a Constitution. This could be a chance to begin a reform of our democratic institutions, which would certainly help democratize our economy, since it would allow for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Think of the potential for proportional representation, for example, and the importance of studying the way political parties are financed so that we might avoid the problems we have seen in recent years.
Resistant to change
Of course, taking up democracy can be unsettling. I think of my great grandmother who was vehemently opposed to giving women the vote. She had her reasons, just as those who oppose political and economic democratization have theirs today. Human beings are naturally resistant to change.
In the time of my great grandmother, it took (r)evolution to give legitimacy to women’s right to vote. I think this is what is happening now in the student conflict in Quebec. It has crystallized a general frustration with a system that runs on social and environmental exploitation.
I think that we can move forward with our heads held high as this transition process begins. Quebec has often proven its ability to take on big projects seriously and with intelligence. Our revolutions are quiet. But they are real revolutions. The time has come to choose what will be the Quebec of tomorrow.
This is not the first spring for the red trillium. And summer always comes.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.