An old woman strings up red lights from her balcony and gestures to student protesters to raise the volume. Kids paint red squares on the windows of their schools, their teachers waving from behind as thousands march by. Neighbors in the English enclave of Westmount come out with glasses of water for demonstrators walking past Liberal Premier Jean Charest’s house. The chanting goes: “A qui la rue? A nous la rue!” [“Whose streets? Our streets!”]
Scenes like these mark the broadening appeal for the student strikers in Quebec who, since mid-February, have boycotted classes and staged public demonstrations to protest the provincial government’s decision to raise university tuition by 75 percent over the next seven years, from the current $2168 CDN to $3793 CDN (about the same amount in U.S. dollars). If that number seems low for those in the United States, where tuition can be as much as eight times that number and where student debt is now thought to be nearing the 3 trillion mark, it can seem equally so here where Quebec tuition remains the lowest in the country.
But le printemps érable has trickled through the far reaches of society here. More than the individual effects of the fee hike (or la hausse), the conflict is increasingly a complaint about the Charest government’s move to privatize public services and expand the utilisateur-payeur model. Failure to meet with students has exacerbated the situation, with Charest’s May 4 offer leaving the hike in place with a promise of cuts in other areas—including secondary fees, such as registration—shifting the burden of the increase onto the institutions themselves. After students rejected the deal, a resignation by the Quebec education minister Line Beauchamp followed on May 14.
“I disobey”: Les manifestations soirées
Since April 24, nightly walks—predominantly peaceful and festive in outlook—have animated the city. At times numbering in the thousands, students improvise a path through the city, stopping traffic and waking the neighbors with shouts of “Charest! Yoohoooo!,” taunting him for his vow to resist student demands.
With the passage on May 18 of the loi spéciale Bill 78, tensions in and sympathy for the strike have grown in response to the bill’s aggressive attack on the freedom of expression and the freedom to gather. Bill 78 suspends the current semester, imposes considerable limits on the rights of protest, allows for heavy fines, and holds representative bodies accountable for the actions of individuals. Considered unconstitutional by the Quebec Bar Association and many civil liberties groups, the law would likely be struck down in court, but it is slated to end in July 2013—well before legal arguments against it can be heard.
Since the bill’s passage, an accelerated delight in resistance has taken hold, as more and more neighborhoods experience la casserole, the 8 p.m. call for people to step out on their balconies, open their windows, stand on the corner, and bang pots and pans. Rowdy groups move through the quartiers, as cars beep and people pour out of bars and cafes to cheer. And everywhere, the red square: pinned to jeans or back-packs, taped to bikes and signage, waved from windows and cars, the red square plays on the phrase, “carrément dans le rouge,” or squarely in the red, and marks student opposition to taking on debt.
A qui le Québec?
It’s 1 a.m., and there are about 200 people out front—blowing horns, reclining in the street, setting off firecrackers—a splinter group from the night’s main manif. Well-organized, backed by the three largest labor unions in the province, the strike is now entering an unprecedented fourth month, and the momentum and ingenuity remains thrilling. In a province that benefits from national health care and high-quality, socialized daycare, people take the idea that a government must first serve its people seriously. There is a long history of activism and a healthy Left, mobilized historically around linguistic identity and the legacy of colonialism. Since the mid-’60s, the province has experienced eight student strikes organized around access and cost, with the result that Quebec’s tuition has remained the lowest nationally.
Accusations of violence have permeated the discourse, largely, I think, as a way to discredit the movement. Even as the university I work for hired private security guards to prevent strikers from disrupting class, strategies such as small picket lines, theatrical gatherings, and public discussions were standard practice. There have been incidents involving Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs, but the balance of the violence has come from the state at the hands of police armed with plastic bullets and C.S. gas. On May 4, police pursued and attacked dispersed demonstrators, sending nine people to the hospital. On May 23, over 500 protesters were cordoned off by police and arrested.
The situation is tense, and it’s hard to know where it will end. Increasingly, disparate groups cluster near the margins, ready to claim the movement for their own purposes. “A qui le Québec? A nous le Québec!” From anarchists to indépendantistes, the question of who exactly is the “nous” at this point is troubling. While some see an abundance of “rich” kids and “white” faces at demos and meetings, others note the mix of race, class, generation, and language. In Quebec, it’s easy to imagine nationalist agendas hovering, harder to know for certain.
The students, meanwhile, keep moving, moving us all into the deep end of the think tank with unsettling questions. The French media have done a far better job of coverage than the English: why? The humanities students have been more active than the engineers: why? The students are hollering, education for what? Should we pay up front, or later, in what Andrew Ross has called a form of “indenture”? Are we studying for jobs, or thinking towards social justice?
With thanks to Joanna Donehower, Hermine Ortega,
and Mark Sussman for comments and fact-checking.
Watch online: CUTV, the Concordia University student TV station, provides live coverage of the nightly manifestations, with commentary in French and English. cutvmontreal.ca.