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By Martine Jacot (Montreal, Canada, special correspondent) June 25, 2012
Place Emilie-Gamelin, Wednesday June 13, 8 p.m. As on every night since March 24, crowds are starting to gather at this central Montreal location that is more a park than a square, at the apex of three metro lines and a stone’s throw away from the lecture halls of UQAM, one of the francophone universities of Quebec’s metropolis. It is a festive and friendly atmosphere. Young and old gather around the guitar strummers or the Amerindian Metis and his blonde cohort who is distributing peace and friendship tobacco. The police presence is minimal.
8:15 p.m.: Young people are arriving from all directions, some wearing the sardonic black and white mask of Anonymous, the cyberactivist collective that advocates freedom of speech. A group of 30 or so Montreal police officers (the SPVM) in florescent yellow vests have suddenly formed a row at a good distance north of the park.
8:35 p.m.: Police make a megaphone announcement: any demonstration for which an itinerary has not been provided at least eight hours in advance is illegal and will be dispersed on the second warning. The crowd forms a circle chanting: “Who owns the streets? —We do!” An immense red flag is raised, brandished by a young blond man who starts making his way towards René-Lévesque Boulevard, followed by the crowd.
The procession takes shape and continues to grow, winding its way rapidly through the downtown core, passing the open-air stages of the FrancoFolies and following the improvised route of the flag-bearer, who is different every night. Police circulate in cars and on bicycles. They’re having a hard time anticipating the next turn and closing off adjacent streets in time. Banners feature rhyming slogans like: “Des sous pour l’école, pas pour les monopoles.” (Money for school not for monopolies.)
Meanwhile, in certain Montreal neighbourhoods—mostly but not exclusively working-class and francophone—a rising clamour can be heard. Since May 18, every night at 8 p.m. sharp, people spill out into the streets clanging pots and pans together in rhythm. Young and old, families with kids in pyjamas and strollers greet one another and talk, first on sidewalks then eventually blocking entire intersections for one or two hours, without interrupting the concert. Police monitor the activities from their cars. Most demonstrators have the same distinctive red cloth square pinned to their lapels signifying “our bank accounts are in the red.” It’s the emblem of the Maple Spring.
Traditionally, as Quebec’s June 24th national holiday approaches, supporters of the francophone province’s independence from the rest of Canada display blue-and-white fleur-de-lys flags on their balconies. This year, large swaths of red cloth are making an appearance on front stoops. On Mont-Royal Avenue, one of them reads: “The strike is student, the struggle is popular.” That same morning, some 200 protestors chanted: “Your solutions are not ours; enough is enough, the social truce is over.” They were gathered in front of The Hilton Montreal Bonaventure Hotel, where the International Economic Forum of the Americas was taking place in the presence of the former chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, Alan Greenspan, and European Commissioner Michel Barnier, among others.
So what’s happening in this Quebec that has been a haven of peace and tranquility since the question of independence was laid to rest in the 1980 and 1995 referendums? Entering into its 19th week, the longest strike in the history of the province continues, affecting 154,000 of its 250,000 students and 14 of its 48 pre-university colleges (CEGEPS). With summer vacations approaching, the crowds have thinned somewhat. However, the movement continues to gain support beyond the student core. Artists, unions, citizen groups, social movements and anticapitalist factions will be joining students once again on Friday, June 22 for large demonstrations in Montreal and Quebec City. The demos of March 22, April 22 and May 22 drew record crowds of up to 250,000 each.
Is it a revolution? No. The former New France, very North American, detests violence and trouble in general. To date, the numerous gatherings organized since mid-February have claimed no victims. The large majority of demonstrations have been peaceful, even though a few black-clad, masked rioters have broken the windows of businesses and banks, as they have sometimes done after sporting events in recent years, either in jubilation or in rage at their teams’ loss. The unprecedented misconduct and mass arrests (close to 1800 in Montreal since mid-February, according to Commander Ian Lafrenière of the SPVM) have left the silent majority watching at home on TV stunned. The government, not helping to dissipate concerns, was quick to stigmatize “the trivialization of violence,” as well as the “Marxists” and “Communists,” who have infiltrated a student movement that is at this point still not very politicized.
According to most observers, by raising the question of university funding and access to education, the students have sparked a larger social debate that concerns most western democracies, even the wealthiest—especially when taken together with all of the financial austerity measures presented as consequences of a potentially prolonged economic crisis. However, in Quebec (and in Canada generally), the economic situation is not particularly worrisome: the GDP growth rate, which was slightly negative in 2009 for the first time in 18 years, is expected to regain its 2011 level of 1.6%, and unemployment, including youth unemployment, is relatively low. But basic political debates, such as the left-right divide, have long been overshadowed by the national question. The governing Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) is federalist and against independence, while the opposition Parti Québécois (PQ) is for a sovereign Quebec. “In spite of this major difference, the QLP and the PQ have, in turns, governed more or less the same way for the past 36 years,” says 30-year-old Montreal lawyer Rémi Bourget. “The old guard of both parties has failed to address other issues—the economic, environmental and ethical issues at the heart of citizens’ concerns.”
“The student crisis came out of nowhere with very little forewarning,” notes Alain Dubuc, influential economic editorialist at La Presse. “It took everyone by surprise.” To begin with, Jean Charest’s government, worn down after nine years at the helm, was sure of its established Liberal politics and preoccupied with the impact of corruption scandals over government contracts. A temporary public inquiry has just begun that will potentially further damage the ruling party’s reputation. Taken off guard by the student uprising, Premier Jean Charest didn’t handle the crisis well. His government’s mismanagement has been criticized not only by the opposition but also by some devoted Liberals and analysts like Alain Dubuc who are actually in favour of the partial privatization of public services and tuition hikes.
The conflict crystalized around the issue of increasing tuition fees, which are historically the lowest in North America. Lower fees in Quebec attract students from all over Canada as well as a number of young people from France, who have mostly kept a distance from the turmoil. Tuition fees were frozen at $547 CAD (€425) until 1990, when the Liberals doubled them after a month-long student strike. The PQ tried in vain to increase tuition in 1996. The QLP backed down on transforming $103 million of bursaries into loans in 2005, following an eight-week student strike. However, in 2007, the same Liberal government managed to raise tuition to $2168 without major opposition.
The 75% tuition increase over the next five years was seen as too much. In addition to a new $200 annual health tax, it was presented as part of a “necessary rebalancing of the budget” in the deficit aftermath of 2009. In the government’s view, “everyone should contribute their fair share” and the students’ portion remains modest: their contribution now represents only 13% of the cost of university studies, and, with the increase, it would only go up to 17% in 2016. According to authorities, it has become urgent to remedy the underfunding of Quebec universities so they can compete with their Canadian and American counterparts.
The students, for their part, argue that tuition fees of $3800 would make access to university education difficult for students who are already in debt (averaging $14,000 by the end of their degrees, according to spokespersons). A majority are working to fund their education. “In Quebec, 26% have access to bursaries and, as elsewhere in North America, a lot of wealthier parents prefer to let students work rather than contribute to their education,” explains Alain Dubuc. Overall, however, young Quebeckers are less educated than their neighbours—35% have a bachelor’s degree at 22 years old, compared to 45% in Ontario, for example.
The first establishment to go on strike February 13th was the CEGEP of Valleyfield, 30 kilometres southwest of Montreal. Students voted to strike by only 50.2%. “I didn’t think the movement was going to last more than two weeks,” admits their local organizer Jeanne Reynolds. She soon became one of the spokespersons for the most radical of the three student federations, La Classe—Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (the extended association for student union solidarity).
The student leaders, generally hailing from middle-class backgrounds, have a lot in common. Apart from being elected and re-elected nearly every week, they are all brilliant, pugnacious and eloquent. They are also the recipients of academic excellence awards. Jeanne Reynolds, at 20 years old, even received the Lieutenant Governor of Québec Award—the highest distinction at the college level— on May 22, right in the middle of the crisis. “They are worthy representatives of an educational system that values speaking and encourages students to debate with each other and adults. In contemporary Quebec society, decisions are no longer imposed, but rather explained and discussed. To accept decisions, they have to be convinced,” observes Jean Isseri, director of Montreal’s Carrefour jeunesse-emploi de Côte-des-Neiges, one of the centres created by the PQ in the late 1990s to help youth aged 16 to 35 find jobs, return to school or start their own businesses.
Contrary to anglophone Canada, where comparisons tend to be limited solely to the United States, “the social universe of Quebeckers, including that of young people, does not have North America as its only reference,” notes Jean-François Lisée, director of the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal (CÉRIUM). “Since the 1970s, our social policies have been compared as much to Norway’s as to Wisconsin’s, for example.” “In Quebec,” he adds, “the difference is also due to the French language and culture.” Via the Internet and Quebec media, which devotes more coverage to international and European news than to that coming out of the rest of Canada or the United States, Quebec students were well aware of the Puerta del Sol “indignados” demonstrations, to cite just one example.
The demands of this young generation, referred to by many Quebec commentators as “spoiled brats who can’t take no for an answer,” left the Charest government mute for 10 weeks, presumably convinced the movement would die down, as previous ones had. As a result, the students became omnipresent in the media, denouncing the authorities’ contemptuous dismissal of their concerns. When negotiations actually began in the 12th week and the government proposed to spread the 75% increase over seven years instead of five and improve bursaries, the student leaders responded from a position of strength, demanding nothing less than a tuition freeze, eventually even free tuition, which had been a goal of the Liberal Party itself in the 1960s. The students’ detailed calculations basing the tuition freeze on university cost-cutting at no expense to the government left Charest’s ministers cold, as did student concerns over the partial privatization and “commodification of education.” The standoff was total, each side refusing to budge.
Non-striking students, furious over the show-of-hands voting system often used by the student associations, were encouraged by the government to take their case to the courts to have their right to education respected. And they did. But the injunctions against picket lines had barely been pronounced when, on May 18, the government adopted a “special law” ordering, among other things, a suspension of courses at the striking establishments until August. “The government basically abandoned us,” complains Coralie, preferring to remain anonymous like many of her colleagues who agree with the tuition hike. Saying that she was attacked and “threatened with rape” by masked strikers for having expressed her opinion, she decided to leave Montreal and is now registered in a non-striking college in Quebec City.
Directors of the educational institutions are also dissatisfied. “The government has forced us to bring in the police to respect the injunctions: this is not our role. Neither the courts nor the police are the right way to assure a return to class,” says Monique Laurin. Director of the Cegep Lionel-Groulx in Sainte-Thérèse north of Montreal, she used all of the diplomatic means at her disposal to just barely curtail clashes between striking students “defending the cause with their lives” and non-striking students, accompanied by their parents and police—all in the midst of smoke bombs. Add to that the complaints of professors in solidarity with the student cause. Monique Laurin is dreading a repetition of the same scenes at the front doors of her establishment, attended by 5400 students, when classes recommence in mid-August.
Beyond the suspension of classes, the severity of the special measures adopted in Bill 78 has shocked humanists of all stripes. Not only does the Bill prohibit any spontaneous gathering, student or otherwise, without the provision of an itinerary in advance, but it also gives Quebec’s education minister the power to deprive student associations of their funding sources, premises and property, if any of their members “participate in a contravention of the Bill, either by act or omission.” The same minister also has the right to modify other laws to adapt them to Bill 78. Many lawyers have seen this as a violation of the freedom of association as well as a serious breach of the separation of powers. Nearly 140 organizations have joined forces to contest the Bill in court, in virtue of the province’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The adoption of Bill 78 fuelled the fire and brought about the almost spontaneous combustion of clanging pots and pans in the neighbourhoods. “In studying this text closely, we consider it to be dangerously detrimental to fundamental rights. It will most likely increase defiance of the law and exacerbate civil disobedience. Using excessive legal force to politically position oneself as the defender of order runs counter to the evolution of the law since the dawn of time,” says lawyer Rémi Bourget. In his opinion, Bill 78 recalls the tyrannical era of the 1940s and 1950s, a period also known as the “grande noirceur” (the great darkness) under the reign of Conservative leader Maurice Duplessis.
With the help of a few colleagues and the social networks, Mr. Bourget organized a silent protest, which, to his pleasant surprise, was very successful: over 700 lawyers in their black robes marched from the courthouses to the famous Place Emilie-Gamelin, to a background of applause, without a word, without a banner. A historic first.
The opposition Parti Québécois under Pauline Marois, hesitant at the beginning then finally rallying to the student cause, has not benefited much from their position, according to polls. This, in spite of the fact that dissatisfaction with the Liberal government has been hovering around 70% for the past year.
As is often the case in Quebec, it is the artists who have most effectively relayed the students’ anger and the general population’s dissatisfaction. Director Dominic Champagne, one of the leading opponents of the government’s proposed shale gas exploitation, which has been put on hold pending a study of its impact, raves about the “social awakening” initiated by the students. He celebrates the “casserole” gatherings that “bring neighbours together to talk and socialize,” the sudden awareness of the need to “subordinate private interests to public and environmental interests.” “We no longer live in societies; we live in economies,” he says. “Economic rationale has replaced the social vision of the state.” He is not alone in his concern over the “pillaging of natural resources by government-owned Chinese or private Indian companies without any benefit to Quebec or concern for sustainable development,” referring to the Plan Nord project promoted by Premier Charest. On April 22, with environmental groups and Green Party members, Dominic Champagne managed to bring together 250,000 people on Mont Royal. For the time being, Bill 78 seems to be reaping the harvest of its own wrath.
This public outcry probably explains, in part, why Bill 78 has not yet been applied to date. Police invoke the Civil Code or municipal by-laws when making arrests for “disturbances of public order” or infractions to … the Highway Safety Code. They came down heavy at the end of May, arresting up to 500 people in Montreal and 200 in Quebec City in one night. The roundup included minors and senior citizens who were not involved in the protests.
Under pressure on the opening day of the Grand Prix in Montreal on June 10th, police indulged in a free-for-all of “preventive arrests” targeting young people, some of whom were were found “guilty” simply for wearing the red square. This abuse of power created a scandal. Commander Ian Lafrenière of the Montreal police acknowledged that some “errors” may have been committed. He admits to fatigue among his troops (4500 officers for 1.6 million residents of Quebec’s 8 million citizens), after more than 115 days of interventions all over Montreal. He’s clearly hoping for an end to this conflict, which could pan out in the anticipated upcoming elections. His wish is shared by a majority of the population who see going to the ballot as a possible way out of the standoff.
Martine Jacot (Montreal, Canada, special correspondent)
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
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