A demonstrator holds a flag on top of a building during a march to protest tuition hikes and Bill 78 in downtown Montreal, Quebec June 2, 2012. Reuters/Christinne Muschi
What started in the bitter winter as walkout against a $1,625 tuition hike in Quebec has turned into a spring of mass social unrest, sparking Canada’s first major uprising against the austerity measures that have slashed social spending and public services around the world. Now entering its fourth month and with over 160,000 college and university student supporters, the protest is North America’s largest and longest-running student strike to date. But it has become much more than that too. The government’s refusal to negotiate with students over tuition and its new law curbing the right to protest has angered millions and transformed the struggle. Now it is about stopping premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government, who students—heavily backed by labor, civil society and community groups—accuse with tearing up Quebec’s social contract.
An atmosphere of defiance now cloaks Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, as people of all ages don red squares—the symbol of solidarity with the strike, originating from French expression of being ‘squarely in the red’ financially. The balconies of the city’s distinctive townhouses are dotted with red banners, and nightly pots-and-pans protests ring out through Montreal neighborhoods as they bring thousands into the streets.
Inspired by the protests against austerity measures during Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, these casseroles are the latest form of protest by a movement that has taken inspiration from the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s Indignados.
“Our generation in Quebec [has been perceived for a while] as a cynical or nonpolitical generation,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for CLASSE (the acronym for the coalition of striking student unions). “Now we are beginning to see the other face of this disillusionment—not cynicism but a disillusionment that has become effective and demands social change,” added the measured radical. In the May 22 march of hundreds of thousands in Montreal, Nadeau-Dubois sees a movement of resistance.
Dubbed by CLASSE as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, the May 22 outpouring of students, labor and community groups marked the hundredth day of the strike. It was held in defiance of what is known as the “Special Law.” Rammed through the provincial legislature on May 18 after the government made it clear that it would not compromise on fee hikes, the law bars protesting with fifty meters of campus buildings and makes illegal all demonstrations that don’t provide a route to police eight hours in advance.
The law also suspending the semester at striking schools until August and imposes stiff fines on people that violate it. Even more crippling fines can be leveled against student and labor leaders, and associations can be found guilty of breaching the law even if they are not present at protests. It is also a crime to encourage anyone to defy the special law.
Even before the law was passed, police were using batons, concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests to end street protests, and enforce court injunctions against campus picket lines. As arrests grew to over 2,000, students increasingly hardened their resolve, and police charges have been met with returned tear-gas canisters, rocks and bottles. Concrete street planters were ripped up to build makeshift barricades.
“Collective action is really the only way we can see social change ” said Holly Nazar in early May, a graduate student and then representative for her student union at Montreal’s English-speaking Concordia University. “Its a fight about a whole vision of how we want Quebec society to be.”
A vision of free, publicly accessible post-secondary education has strong roots in Quebec, where the concept of universal access to education is often seen as comparable to socialized healthcare. This common value is the result of the massive overhaul of post-secondary education in the 1960’s when, after mass student protests, the government created nine new university campuses and a free college system that was intended to open up higher education to those not part of the political and economic elite or clergy who then dominated Quebec. While tuition was initially justified to help cover the costs of the expanding campuses, students believed it would eventually be phased out.