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Let us be clear: it is a surprise to no one that the streets of Montréal, and the various cities and villages of Québec, have become quieter over these hot summer months. There have been various condescending explanations for this: some believe that the current protest movement is a bandwagon that has fallen out of vogue. Others treat us as a collection of spoiled babies who are easily distracted. Contrary to the bad faith and intellectually lazy cries that we should “just get a job” as an alternative to participating in our democracy, those of us who have been protesting for five months now are also people with jobs, families, and personal obligations. At the beginning of the summer, Jean Charest tried to place us in opposition to what “the people of Québec” wanted, as though we were on the outside looking in. But we are also the people of Québec, and we refuse such an attempt to divide us; over the past few weeks, we have been dancing at summer festivals, we have been taking weekends to go swim in beautiful and clear lakes, we have been drinking beer on terrasses, we have been working hard at our day jobs, and we have been doing this all while remaining profoundly committed to the social movement that has awoken our neighbourhoods, our cities, and our province. Enjoying the summer and committing to personal obligations does not mean abandoning the cause.
It is hard work, sustaining a social movement that engages not just students, but all members of québécois society. It is even harder doing so in light of a government that pours tens of thousands of our tax dollars (when supposedly there is no more money for education) into advertisements meant to marginalize us, and that uses us as a foil in their heavy-handed and paternalistic election campaign. It is also hard when our corporate media outlets, whose objectives are to generate profits for their owners, rather than to be accountable to the people for whom they are meant to provide a service vital to democracy, decide that our moment is over and that we are no longer exciting or “new” enough to sell newspapers or ad space. And finally, it is hard because even we get tired. It has been a long five months, and we are ordinary human beings. Even the most dedicated demonstrator needs to take a break every once in a while, maybe because of previously scheduled holiday plans, family obligations, or maybe just because they have spent five months working 8 or more hours in the day and then taking to the streets every night, which is an exhausting combination both physically and psychologically.
For all of these reasons and for many more, we would like to counter the myth that the movement is over, or that it has died down, or that it is losing momentum. It is a mistake to assess this movement in purely quantifiable terms. We are more than the number on the street on any given night and our tenacity cannot be measured by the size and visibility of our donned red squares.
Rather, many people have referred to the events of the past few months as an éveil, i.e. an awakening, for the people of Québec. This movement remains centred not only on the proposed tuition hike, but also around students’, professors’ and ordinary quebeckers’ belief in the fundamental importance of accessible education to québécois society. The undemocratic imposition of Bill 78 and the parallel municipal laws in Montréal and Québec City unwittingly helped us make the connection between our belief in accessible education and other fundamental aspects of Québec society and identity, such as free and open participation in democracy, an opposition to state corruption and clientelism, the urgency of protecting our natural resources, and in general putting the common good above financial profit for a select few elites who do not represent the rest of us. The movement, as a result, is equal parts specific and general: we have a series of immediate problems to resolve, such as the proposed tuition hikes and the unacceptability of Bill 78, but we are also having deeper conversations about re-democratizing Québec, which are just as urgent but harder to pin down.
Our government seems to be banking on the fact that because we are not on the streets in great numbers right now, that we have gotten bored, or forgotten, or in general returned to the apathy that keeps them in power. This is where they do not understand what an awakening is. Brought on by the students, by our monthly marches, by the circulation of words and generative ideas that are new to many, and by the inclusive beauty of the casseroles, our awakening will not dissipate so easily. Of course we could not casserole forever! A form of protest that involves all kinds of people in all neighbourhoods, and not just the most hardcore activists, cannot take to the streets every night indefinitely. But that is the point; that the casseroles and related events did their job; they awakened all of us. And while we may have gone back to cooking with our pots and pans, we are still here, we are still fighting, and we have not forgotten. Our government wants us to have short memories. Québec is a place that has never had a short memory.
As Québec gears up for a fall election, this movement will engage with that phase of the discussion, but it will not be reduced to it. And just because we have not been on the streets every night in great numbers in recent weeks does not mean that we will not be out there again. The beauty of the casseroles was their spontaneity; rather than dwelling on the fact that they slowed down, we would do well to emphasize how organically they began, evolved, and quieted when they needed to. The bottom-up and people-driven nature of this movement is its greatest strength, and so the casseroles are evidence that there is more to come, arising when it needs to, evolving as it must. Such is the nature of creativity and necessity. Had the music of our casseroles remained static and been formalized and institutionalized, it would have lost its power and its message.
All that to say: We are still here. We are still fighting. We have not forgotten. Numbers, government paternalism and media apathy do not tell the whole story of this movement. Rather than falling prey to a “glass half-empty” mentality, let us be amazed and appreciative of our fellow quebeckers for our/their commitment to a more just, transparent, and participatory democracy. We have been at it for five months now. And we have not given up. We have only evolved. Our dreams have gotten bigger; what was once about tuition fees is now about taking our democracy back from elites who exploit it for their own gain. Where just a few months ago we were cynical voters who expected little from our democracy beyond a futile trip to the voting booths once every four or so years, we now dare to demand that “truly democratic decisions arise from a shared space, where men and women are valued. As equals, in these spaces, women and men can work together to build a society that is dedicated to the public good.” This is a shift that will not easily be undone.
We are looking to our youth; we are looking forward; we are listening. Together, we are dreaming up new ways to engage with the issues at hand, and re-engaging with those that have inspired us already. We will make ourselves heard in the voting booths, but we will also break our wooden spoons together again. And starting on July 22nd, yes, we will be in the streets again. We hope to see you there.
Anna and Patricia, Translating the printemps érable. July 12, 2012.