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Last Updated: 06/06/2012
Quebec's Season of Discontent
Ross Ryan

An increasingly powerful protest movement has taken root in the Canadian province of Quebec. This article discusses its origins, its strategic development, and its potential impact on progressive politics in Canada as a whole.

The past year has seen a remarkable wave of popular protest, from the indignados and other anti-austerity demonstrations in Europe, to the already legendary (though increasingly complicated) “Arab Spring” from Tunisia to Syria, and the occupy movements, which spread from Wall Street across much of the Anglo-American sphere of influence and beyond. Similar protests have been seen more recently in Mexico, India, and Turkey.

Quebecers, particularly the youth, have clearly been inspired by these movements – their political consciousness has been reawakened and redirected – and they now have the advantage of learning from the methods and lessons of their own political history, as well as those of the ongoing protests around the world. They have felt the power of mass demonstrations, and they have learned to use social media to organize themselves and amplify their voices. They are also learning about the relative powers of violent and nonviolent strategies.

And despite the social fractures that have been revealed by the so-called “Maple Spring” – between the provinces, between generations, and among the students themselves – the movement is growing steadily in both popular appeal and political relevance, and helping to form a social-democratic revival that will shape the future of progressive politics in Canada, certainly in Quebec, and quite possibly contribute to the international culture of democracy that is currently gaining momentum.

The Trigger

Ostensibly, the protests that began on university campuses several months ago are about tuition fees. Higher education has become increasingly expensive for all Canadian students, and tuition hikes have provoked demonstrations in other provinces as well – although the scale is incomparable to what is currently taking place in Quebec. According to Statistics Canada, tuition fees have risen 111% in the province since 1990. The proposed hikes would see those fees rise another 75% over the next five years, beginning in September 2012.

Student groups have argued that this change threatens to put Quebecois youth on the same track of post-graduation debt that stifles the professional growth of US students, and can be expected to place the benefits of higher education beyond the reach of an estimated 7000 students per year, particularly affecting those from lower-income families.

This concern led to at least two related issues: the direction and purpose of higher education in Quebec, and the budgetary-priorities of the provincial government. Essentially, the protesters argue that higher education can (and should) be provided as a public good with taxpayer money that is currently used to subsidize corporations.

According to a study by the Fraser Institute, a leading Canadian economic research group, Quebec paid over 6 billion dollars in “corporate welfare” in 2007 alone, a number which other economists estimate to have risen sharply in more recent “bailout” years. Most frustrating to young people who are now being asked to pay more for their education is that much of that money has gone into the bonuses and dividends of corporate administrators and shareholders, effectively transferring the wealth of the general population to a select group of businessmen with political connections, rather than being invested into social services like education and health care.

The Broader Issues

The scope of the issues being discussed as well as the cross-section of Quebecois society engaged in the protests has widened considerably over the past few weeks. The primary reason for this change is Bill 78, an emergency law passed by the province of Quebec on May 18 that revokes the rights of Quebecers to freely assemble/demonstrate in groups of more than 50 persons anywhere in the province without government permission, and among other provisions, imposes significant fines for those who break the law, with particular reference to student unions and individuals who could be identified as protest “leaders”.

Bill 78 Jurists Protest May 29th

The unpopularity of this law has given the protests a certain degree of legitimacy and public approval, as the whole raison d’être of the movement has become a restatement of the value of dissent in a democratic society – an issue with much broader social appeal than tuition fees, or even corporate subsidies. Indeed, reframing the demonstrations as being for civil rights and liberties and against excessive police force and an unconstitutional government law have done much to swell the numbers of citizens on the streets, and distance the movement from the more aggressive fringes that had attracted such negative press earlier on.

In fact, at least some of the critical press, much of it international, is now focusing on the more than 2,500 arrests of peaceful protestors and reports that the judicial system is struggling to back up the government’s threats of legal sanction. The attention of journalists has also been attracted by the experiences of their own kind who have been pepper-sprayed and/or arrested by police while covering the protests – these have included Michael Forian of CJADnews, Jacques Nadeau of Le Devoir, and two journalists from La Presse.

Despite the setbacks, or perhaps becuase of them, the protests have grown steadily and provoked a healthy debate on issues ranging from access to higher education and corporate subsidies in the province to broader statements about the value of dissent and the freedoms necessary to build a participatory democracy. Although (sadly) there are still a lot of misleading political buzzwords being used carelessly and incorrectly by both the protesters and their detractors – words like capitalism, fascism, communism, anarchism, and terrorism – there is a certain appeal to social-democratic principles that seems to be emerging from all of this, which may help to consolidate and re-energize the progressive political agenda. Journalist Michel Boyer may have had something similar in mind when he told Russia Today that the protests have become an “ideological struggle”.

Violence and Nonviolence

As we have seen in the many protest movements that have recently preceded this one, nonviolence is again demonstrating its strategic superiority over violence as a means of attracting public support, building solidarity with like-minded groups, and, ultimately, applying effective political pressure. Mainstream media and the provincial government were quick to characterize the movement as aggressive and violent following early actions, such as the clash with police outside of the Liberal Party convention, which drew attention away from core issues and put the movement itself in an unflattering light. To their credit, students recognized what was happening and moved to discipline themselves, sometimes encircling and chanting-down individuals who engaged in property destruction or other acts that would compromise the overall message. As Nadeau-Dubois, an outspoken student representative, told the National Post: “The escalation of violence and confrontation doesn’t help at all our negotiations.”

By shifting to nonviolence, the movement has become much harder to dismiss, and has begun draw public concern regarding the violent methods used by police rather than the protesters. The video below is just one of many compilations of police violence that have gone viral on youtube, showing police beating, pepper-spraying, and shooting plastic bullets at peaceful protesters.

Another issue related to protest strategy and largely overlooked by the media so far has been the considerable use of humour and creativity. Colourful characters of the protest have included Bananaman and Anarchopanda, both of whom were arrested in their costumes, and the Rabbit-Crew who have posted numerous videos and photographs on social media sites depicting themselves as prankster insurgents. This has been part of a significant cultural ferment related to the movement, with songs and music videos like “Charest! Wouhou!”, and lots of witty graphic art spoofing the covers of children’s books, magazine covers, and other cultural memes. The importance of these artistic developments can hardly be overstated: they present a more acurate image of the protesters themselves than all the photos of thronged streets or huddled, tear-gassed masses put together, and they are helping to build a culture of political engagement based on creative expression, rather than discontent alone.

English Canada

Canada (especially English Canada) is currently at a high point of social and political conservatism. The violent and completely unjustified police response to Canada’s last major protests – on the occasion of the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto – was an indicator of just how far the country has moved from its once progressive image.

Perhaps most telling was the lack of sympathy or public outcry among Canadians for their fellow citizens who were physically and legally punished for exercising their democratic right to protest. This is almost certainly related to the initial media coverage of the events which focused disproportionately on property damage attributed to protesters rather than the many civil society groups who voiced opposition to the summit and raised legitimate concerns about the way it was organized.

(A recent report by an independent police review has found that significant errors in judgement were made by Toronto police in their handling of the situation, including the use of excessive force, unlawful arrests, and the conflation of protesters with “terrorists”. Despite the scathing report, the public remains largely apathetic, and, ironically, the same day that Toronto police were held to account for “kettling” G20 protesters, Quebecois protesters found themselves subjected to the same treatment by Montreal police.)

It is not completely surprising, then, that the Quebec protests have been met with similar indifference, if not a kind of haughty condemnation, by much of English Canada. This attitude is exemplified in Margaret Wente’s particularly flippant Globe and Mail opinion pieces, the first of which dismisses the concerns of students outright and questions the value of a liberal arts education to society, followed by another which depicts the protesters as overly aggressive and overly entitled; “the Greeks of Canada”. Wente concludes her second article with a surprisingly hostile and divisive sentiment: “Meantime, the rest of Canada looks on, appalled. If this is an example of Quebec’s distinct society, we want no part of it.”

Last week, however, solidarity protests were organized in Halifax, Hamilton, Toronto, Saskatoon, Vancouver, and several other Canadian cities, with organizers and participants pleasantly surprised by the turnouts and the support they received. These were primarily symbolic actions in support of the students’ right to demonstrate in Quebec, and they have done much to bridge the provincial divide and counter the alienating efforts of certain commentators in the English press. While the two national language groups remain unfortunately isolated (despite years of official bilingualism) there are some channels of communication being opened by volunteers who have set to work translating articles and documents from French to English in the hopes that the concerns and perspectives of protesters will have a greater impact on the rest of Canada.

Others are seeking to transcend the French/English divide by rephrasing the struggle in generational terms – a frustrated Millennial generation seeking to make a place for themselves in a socio-political and economic landscape dominated by Baby Boomers.

Perhaps the greatest potential of the Quebec protests to become part of a nation-wide movement, however, may lie in its ability to inspire and encourage a social-democratic revival, challenging Canadians to take a more active interest in both provincial and federal politics and present some counterbalance to the prevailing conservatism.

A good place to start would be calling attention to Bill C-38 – which proposes a complete undermining of environmental regulation so as to facilitate the extraction and transport of resources (especially Alberta’s oil) regardless of the social and environmental costs, packaged together with a long list of additional clauses that distance the country further from international treaties on the environment, reduce the number of national parks staff, repeal labour laws generally, and prepare for an "audit" of a wide range of civil society advocacy groups, among other things.

The Quebec protests have already come a long way, and if they continue to inspire cultural expression, embrace democratic and nonviolent principles, and grow until they reach the federal level, they may be exactly what the country needs.

Ross Ryan edits the Peace and Conflict Monitor. Carl Kouri, an independent journalist based in Montreal, contributed to this report.