On Strike

Why Québécois Students Took to the Streets
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The night before her final physics exam, Amy Bernier-Desmarais was arrested for the third time.  At eight o’clock on May 23, 2012, she had met up with 500 other protesters on the lawn in front of the Parliament Building in Québec City. They spent half an hour under those white stone walls, regrouping and talking about possible routes. Then they began to march through the cobbled streets of Old Québec, singing, chanting, banging on drums and waving signs.  It was a friendly protest — there were students who could not have been over 15, parents pushing toddlers in strollers.  But at the corner of St-Vallier, the protesters at the back heard the sounds of engines and boots. They were being followed by the riot squad.

To most of us, Old Québec is a tourist attraction, a network of cobbled streets for pleasant strolls and ice cream cones. But Amy and her friends had come to see it differently. To them, it was a battlefield, full of tricks and traps, a place you had to know how to escape. “We decided that the protest should finish in the Upper City, because it’s easier to get away than it is in the narrow streets of the Lower City,” she told me.

The protesters quickened their pace. This too was a tactic: they wanted to make it harder for the riot police to encircle them. They were practically running now. The parents with young children had slipped away, not wanting their toddlers pelted with rubber bullets or tear-gassed. The rest of the protesters continued marching towards the Upper City, turning onto the commercial strip of Rue St-Jean.

Afterwards, they would regret that decision. “It’s very closed off,” Amy said of the street. Very quickly, they found themselves trapped between two walls of riot shields blocking the street in both directions. Behind each shield was a member of the riot police, anonymous beneath a visor and layers of black padding, truncheon at the ready.

To most American college students, this situation sounds completely foreign. Yet for students in the Canadian province of Québec, Amy’s experience was a regular occurrence this past spring and summer. Hundreds of protests took over the streets of Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, and smaller protests erupted on campuses throughout the province. Some were peaceful family-friendly affairs, like the marches Amy attended in Québec City, but there were also nightly protests that got violent: Molotov cocktails were thrown, bank windows were shattered with bricks, students were beaten up by the police.  There were nude protests, feminist protests, protests in which everyone banged on pots and pans. Banks and office towers were blockaded, picket lines formed around schools. So many people donned the red-felt square — the symbol of the student movement — that there was a shortage of red felt.

We are talking about protests of more than 250,000 people. We are talking about 3,000 protesters arrested in the span of a few months.  And we are talking about over 300,000 postsecondary students on strike, out of 485,000.

At the root of all this was a rise in the price of education. Since 2007, a tuition freeze had meant that universities couldn’t charge more than CA$2,168 a year (Canadian dollars and U.S. dollars are roughly equivalent). Now, the Québécois government wanted to raise that amount by almost 75 percent, a proposed hike that would take effect over the next five years, increasing tuition to CA$3,793 by 2017.

To those of us who are paying up to $50,000 a year to attend private American universities, an additional CA$1,600 may seem negligible. It is exactly this mentality that Québécois student activists want to avoid. They view every tuition hike as an attack on the Québécois ideal, born in the ’60s, of a European-style social democracy — and as a step towards the student debt crisis in the United States.  As Amy put it, “The government announced that there would be a tuition hike, and we didn’t agree. Education is not a piece of merchandise. It shouldn’t have a price.  Knowledge is something to be shared.”

Amy is the least threatening person I know. She’s five feet tall and can often be found with her Girl Scout troop watching birds and insects. Her ukulele is seldom far behind, tucked under one arm or strapped to her back in a ukulele case that is more duct tape than case. Like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, her instrument has political writing on it: “Pour La Gratuité Scolaire” (“For Free School”) along with the dates of each of her arrests in permanent marker. But it has none of Guthrie’s abrasiveness — Guthrie’s instrument threatened to “kill facists”; Amy’s just asks for free school.  Her voice too is unthreatening: high-pitched, with a tinkle of a laugh.

But she can’t laugh away the fact that her arrests were traumatic.  The police kept the protesters trapped in a small perimeter downtown for two hours, from 10:00 p.m. until midnight, as they arrested them one by one.  Some of the protesters, prohibited from leaving “the mousetrap,” had to urinate squatting by a church wall.  Once the protesters were identified and handcuffed with plastic ties, they were loaded onto buses and driven out to the Colisée Pepsi, a stadium to the northwest of the Québec City center.  To kill time, each bus driver went for a spin, exploring the outer reaches of Québec City with their vehicle full of handcuffed protesters. It was 3:00 a.m. before the protesters were finally charged with a fine of CA$494 each and dropped off on deserted suburban streets.

By now, Amy had been arrested three times, incurred CA$1,482 in fines, failed a physics exam, and become a familiar face at the police station.  She had developed a fear of the police (six months later, she still ducks out of sight whenever a cruiser appears). But on June 19, she was back at City Hall, protesting again.

 

Amy is just one among a group of my friends whose lives became inextricably linked to the student movement last year.  I was a freshman at Yale, keeping intermittent contact with my friends back home in Montreal and in Québec City.  When I heard whispers of a student strike, I didn’t think much of it — strikes of all kinds are a part of life in Québec. But I took notice when, in March 2012, a mild-mannered friend told me he had begun to support vandalism as a means of political expression. I had a wild image of my opera-going friend, his faced covered with a balaclava, heaving bricks through the glass walls of a bank.  He assured me that he himself was breaking nothing, but I remained shocked that he supported those who were.

“I didn’t support vandalism at the beginning,” he explained, the connection on my cellphone crackling as I paced in the Vanderbilt courtyard.  “But given that nothing else has worked … At least now, the government is willing to negotiate.” He had been spending every day of the previous few weeks picketing in front of Université de Montréal. I had been spending every day running from class to class, too busy reading poetry to read the newspaper.

I couldn’t help dwelling on this discrepancy.  We had gone to the same high school, read the same books, had similar upbringings.  Back then, we had both taken a polite interest in politics, but the nuts and bolts of political change didn’t bother us much. So how was it that he was now obsessed with student politics while I was immersed in Proust?

To the English-speaking, non-Québécois reader, Québécois student politics can be a quagmire of comical acronyms and strange misnomers.  It is good to know, for example, that the Liberal Party of Québec is not all that liberal — in fact, it can be quite conservative. Also good to know is that, although some households came to view the ASSÉ, the FEUQ and the FECQ as dirty words, they have nothing to do with your behind or what you do in bed. Rather, they are province-wide student associations; the ASSÉ is the most radical, preaching strikes and economic disruption, while the FEUQ and the FECQ prefer lobbying. Most postsecondary student unions in the province of Québec are member organizations of either the ASSÉ or the FEUQ/FECQ.

I learned these distinctions from Jérémie Bédard-Wien, an old friend who is now a spokesman for the ASSÉ. He is a tall, handsome fellow who looks unmistakably like a European intellectual, with thick-rimmed glasses, wispy hair and an angular chin darkened with the hint of a beard.  Although he grew up speaking French, his English is impeccable, which comes in handy because being an ASSÉ spokesman means being careful with words. In our interviews, he reminded me that he could only express ideas and opinions that the group has settled on as a whole.

Jérémie met me on a typically dismal day at the beginning of January in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, the working-class neighborhood of Montreal where the ASSÉ has its office on the third floor of an old textile factory. Down a hallway, past artists’ studios and unmarked doors, what looks like a flock of red butterflies (but is actually a mass of red-felt squares) hangs over the entrance to the ASSÉ’s headquarters.

Inside, seated underneath a poster for a “dishonorary doctorate” awarded to Québec’s minister of education, I ask Jérémie how the student movement swept up Québec this past year. Part of the credit, Jérémie tells me, goes to the students of the ’60s.

During that time, the province was reinventing itself, and reinventing its education system. In 1967, the government opened CEGEPs — postsecondary schools for either pre-university or technical programs. “They were created with a clear goal in mind,” says Jérémie, “which was increasing accessibility to higher education.” But a year after the creation of CEGEPs, students faced a vacuum: there weren’t enough seats in university classrooms for all the students who would soon be pouring out of CEGEPs, and private university tuition was too expensive.  So the students went on strike.

That first student strike in 1968 sparked the creation of a network of public universities across the province, and an improvement in the province’s scholarship system.

Despite the power of this historical precedent, when the ASSÉ went on strike in 2007 to protest the hike that brought tuition to its current level, they failed. “The preparation wasn’t done, the demands were too ambitious,” Jérémie explained. Goaded by the memory of that failure, the ASSÉ vowed they would be ready for the next time.

Fast forward to 2010. The not-so-Liberal government announces that there will be another tuition hike.  They don’t give any numbers, but they say it will begin in the fall of 2012. “So we had two years to react,” Jérémie said. “This was a gift from God.”

Over the next two years, Jérémie spent less and less time thinking about his schoolwork, focusing instead on organizing a general strike.  That meant crisscrossing the province to visit as many schools as possible. It meant standing at campus gates and pavilion doors, speaking with students before classes, after classes, at breaks and during lunch hours.

“We had to talk to every student on every single campus,” Jérémie said. He handed out the ASSÉ’s newspaper — “Ultimatum” — to each student, using it as an excuse to strike up a conversation.  He asked them what they thought about the tuition hike, and addressed their fears of going on strike. He talked about his own hopes and fears for the education system. He walked them through the ASSÉ’s strategy for the next few months.

“We start with very small actions,” said Jérémie. “Calling up your member of parliament, signing petitions, sending letters. Over time, you build that up. You go on demonstrations, and they get progressively larger. You go on one-day strikes, which become three-day strikes. It’s building up towards our goal, in terms of tactics — the general strike.”

The more conservative student federations were also working against the tuition hike. At first the FEUQ and the FECQ were opposed to a general strike, but before long, they joined the ASSÉ in calling for one. On November 10, 2011, 30,000 members of the three organizations marched to the offices of Liberal Premier Jean Charest to demand that the proposed hike be canceled.

“This is something that is lost in the current age of Internet politics — actually talking to people,” said Jérémie.  He feels that this year’s general strike and protest movement, while building on Québec’s history of student politics, grew out of the thousands of one-on-one conversations he and other activists had on campuses from Abitibi to Matane.

Once activists ignited the spark with their newspapers and conversations, a different force helped fan the flames: the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a mass movement.  This is not to say that the protesters did not believe in the cause. Rather, trying to prevent the tuition hike made people band together who, under most circumstances, would not be caught dead in the same room.  Young anarchists mingled with the old guard of Québécois sovereigntists; Liberal families marched beside ardent communists. The movement was unmistakably multifarious: some people thought tuition should stay frozen, while others opted to get rid of it altogether. Others viewed tuition as the tip of the iceberg, and were protesting against corruption in the provincial government. But they all agreed to oppose the tuition hike.  By marching together, chanting slogans and banging drums, they created an electric feeling of community that ran through the city of Montreal.

I could see this mix of history, campaigning and community euphoria at work one evening last June in northeastern Montreal. It was rainy out, but at 8 p.m., residents began to emerge from their apartments and congregate on the street corners. All of them held some kind of kitchenware — spoons, forks, bowls, pots, cymbal-like pan-tops, and gong-like woks — and they were creating a neighborhood symphony of clangs and crashes.  Music students were playing a complex Afro-Cuban beat on a mailbox. An old lady banged her teapot slowly, making it ring like a seaside bell. There was a toddler with a frying pan, and his father, slapping together two metal spatulas.

This was one of the famous “pot-and-pan protests,” which emerged as a response to a law passed by the Liberal government to crack down on protests. The mood was undeniably festive.  Between clangs, one woman told me that it brought her back to her student days in the ’60s. “It is so nice to see young people involved in politics,” she said in her heavy Québécois accent.

I was banging away at my own saucepan, but I couldn’t help worrying that I shouldn’t be there at all. I had just spent freshman year at one of the most elitist universities around, reading Wordsworth and Flaubert, far from the militant missives of my friends and unsure what to think of them. I liked the idea of making university education accessible to everyone, but had my choice of school already spoken louder than whatever noise I could make with my spoon and pan?

By the time the newly elected government canceled the tuition hike in September 2012 and the protests in Québec began to die down, Amy had failed two classes and been arrested four times. Other friends had risked their semesters to picket outside schools.  Jérémie had come close to dropping out in his effort to mobilize the province’s students. That was not the kind of education I was getting during my first year at Yale. For a second, I wondered how high the price of a college education would soar in the U.S. before students refused to pay. What would it take for a mass protest movement to catch on? But then I looked up at the drummers and bangers and clangers around me, and lost myself in the noise.

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