By Francis Antoine
1 75% increase in tuition fees.
1 student’s general strike.
1 stubborn Prime Minister.
Approximately 200 days.
Start by making placards with slogans against the rising tuition fees, at this stage you should use all of your creativity. Gather students together in a public place and have them follow a route marked out in the city streets. Repeat several times nonstop. Use Facebook to establish starting points and provide routes. Carelessly stir in police repression gradually until you have a large well-kneaded and bloody student mixture (cayenne pepper, stun grenades and painful truncheons are important to give the mixture a certain bitterness and revulsion). If you do not like spicy food, there are several alternatives such as sit-ins, dead-ins (zombies) or silent protests.
Meanwhile, bring the media to a boil, which means making sure they know the starting points of your march and will film them. It is very important to capture any instances of police brutality and to publish these video clips on YouTube, and then share everything on Facebook. At the sight of police brutality, mass arrests and neglect by an arrogant Prime Minister who derides young adults, the population will begin to focus on this debate and finally the dough will rise. (if the desired effect does not appear immediately, find support from artists or put together a group of masked peace activists).
As the public debate takes shape, and all the different factions appear, the population will become divided and the student movement will become much more significant. The crashing of pots can then make their appearance, which will result in further tension already widespread in a population disoriented by the constant circulation of ideas and opinions. The trick is to cook the debate long enough for a vote of no confidence to be sparked in the government, which will ultimately lead to an election.
In reality, the spring protests in Quebec were not this easy; it all began with the matter of tuition fees. The Liberal government announced in March 2011 that an increase in tuition fees would take place in 2012 and extend until 2017. All in all, it was predicted that fees would rise from $2168 to $3793, an increase of 75%: an increase considered by many to be harsh and irresponsible. Consequently, in December 2011 student associations began preparations for a strike. Although opposition politicians and students contributed in large part to the creation and maintenance of the movement, timing and circumstances of several key events played an important role in reinforcing the movement throughout the period from 13 February to 5 September 2012. It is important to mention now that the events listed below would probably never have been so numerous and violent if they had not fallen on deaf ears among the Quebec Liberal Party’s administration (PLQ). Several politicians, students, and media personalities also played important roles in the maintenance and growth of ideological confrontation.
A combination of circumstances
Two factors contributed to the unusual mass of students flooding onto the streets last spring; the warm weather and the poor league position of the Montreal Canadiens (a professional hockey team and Quebec’s cultural flagship). These two factors, however arbitrary they might seem, led students to organize more intensive evening events on a day-to-day basis. Students, no longer caring about hockey (there are about three games a week, usually at night), took over the streets in large numbers and exhibited public dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to increase tuition fees. In their tens of thousands, the students came together every evening at Place Émilie-Gamelin, to then marched up Berri Street along the Îlot voyageur (a symbol of financial mismanagement by the university).
February 23: Students block access to the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, which angers the Police of the City of Montreal (SPVM). Two weeks later, a young student loses his sight in one eye after being hit in the face by a shard from a stun grenade during a demonstration. The young, blinded man becomes a symbol for his peers. Students “re-offend” and block access to the Champlain Bridge during rush hour in order to disrupt Quebec’s economy. The police respond by giving out the sultry sum of $494 to each protester.
During the first weeks of the Unlimited General Strike (GGI), students gradually abandon their classes, so that by March 1 the number of strikers has reached nearly 100,000. On March 22 comes the peak: between 300,000 and 310,000 student protesters (out of a possible 400,000) – making this the first large scale protest event in Montreal history. The student movement continues to grow and intensify. However, this is not the first time that Jean Charest (PLQ chief and then prime minister) has faced a student strike (there was a strike in 2005 due to a budget cut of $103M in grants and loans). He no doubt believes that the students will disadvantage themselves by abandoning their classes and will simply return to the school benches. So he remains inflexible and maintains his position on tuition fees.
April 16: Bags of bricks are thrown onto the subway tracks in Montreal, paralyzing the system for hours. At the same time the offices of four ministers are vandalized.
Line Beauchamp (the then Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports), says she has been the victim of intimidation by student activists. Her secretary’s glasses are broken during an altercation at her desk; she takes the problem of tuition fees personally and will not negotiate with the students. The decision has been made and is irreversible, she says. The government does everything to avoid discussion, considering the “rising tuition” as an “increase in funding for universities”. Jean Charest declares that accessibility to higher education is unaffected due to the improvement of loans and grants (29 March). An offer previously rejected by student associations.
April 20: Students, some of whom are masked, storm the Palais des Congrès in Montreal, where a job fair for Plan Nord takes place. Clashes with the police occur. Jean Charest is present, and mocks the protesters, inviting them “to find a job in the north, as far away as possible.” From this moment violence and intimidation become part of everyday government speech, as they seek to exclude student associations from table discussions. Protests become increasingly violent: banks, cars and shops are damaged and nearly a hundred people are arrested in the days that follow. The red square, a symbol of student debt, now becomes associated with violence.
April 22: More than 250,000 men, women and children participate in the “March of 22”, which is also Earth Day (see 22avril.org). Citizens of all ages and from all social backgrounds show their support and commitment to the Earth, and assert our ability to achieve great things as one. On this day, a giant hand is formed by the bodies in the crowd. This fresco symbolizes our willingness to take our destiny into our own hands.
Legitimate negotiations between the government and student leaders begin after eleven weeks of conflict. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (CLASSE), Léo Bureau-Blouin (FECQ) and Martine Desjardins (FEUQ) are given the responsibility to sit and discuss ways to fund universities with the government. The difficulty is that both sides do not want to compromise on the issue of tuition fees. On the one hand, students demand a freeze on fees, noting in passing the huge deficit of the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) because of the failed development of properties along the Îlot voyageur. On the other hand, the government suggests, instead, a staggered increase in fees over a longer period (27 April). This, in fact, would mean an even larger increase; an insult according to student associations as this offer would only promote debt.
May 4: At Victoriaville, the General Council of the Quebec Liberal Party turns into a riot when protesters decide to disrupt the meeting. The police decide to disperse the crowd without taking any precautionary measures and the scene turns to tragedy. Several are injured, of which one is knocked unconscious, leaving him lying on the ground bleeding from his head. There is panic among those protesting, a police officer is beaten with an iron bar, a police car drives through the crowd, fire and tear gas can be seen in the background. Images are distressing and are shown on primetime television. The clashes are reaching their peak.
Finally, on May 5, a tentative agreement comes after 20 hours of negotiations. This agreement seeks to inhibit the rights of protest in exchange for an easing of the effect of the increase in compulsory fees. Student associations do not look favourably on this agreement and the GGI is continued. Jean Charest therefore holds students responsible for the duration of the conflict.
May 10: Smoke bombs are launched at several metro stations in Montreal, causing an interruption to the service during the morning rush hour. The police then publish photos of the suspects taken by other passengers using their cell phones. The next day, the culprits give themselves up to the police.
May 14: Line Beauchamp has no other choice but to resign, this being the eventual compromise. While taking care not to attribute her resignation to violence, intimidation, vandalism or civil disobedience that formed part of the demonstrations, she blames student leaders, who have lost the will to come to a solution and genuine end to the crisis. According to her, the biggest losers are students who are unable to return to class. She leaves with the bitter conviction that the silent majority still back her.
May 18: the National Assembly of Quebec endorses Bill 78, entitled “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from postsecondary institutions, which they attend.” This law, strongly criticized, and which verges on unconstitutionality, is clearly aimed at restoring public order. Its implementation coincides with National Patriots Day. The result: Montreal’s Latin Quartier became the scene of fervent protests. Fires are started and barricades erected in the streets. People seated on terraces are pepper sprayed by police officers, who are accused of using excessive force. Under the new legislation, the police must be informed of the itinerary for any gathering of more than 50 people. On May 23, a protest during the night turns into mass arrests: 518 people are arrested in Montreal, amounting to $634 per offender under the special law. Meanwhile, the computer hackers group Anonymous disables the websites of the Ministry of Public Security and the Commissioner of Police Ethics (and several other government sites, including the site of the MERS).
May 22: The 100th day of the student strike, more than 100,000 protesters flooded the Place des Festivals in Montreal. “100 days of strike, 100 days of contempt.” On this day, a diverse crowd commits a serious act of civil disobedience: many people defy the law by breaking away from the planned route that they had provided to the police. The march of The 22nd is covered live by the media and is referred to as the largest student strike in the history of Quebec. It is named a social strike. Support for the student protest movement crosses borders. In Paris, New York, Toronto and Vancouver rallies of support are held.
Opposition to the special law (which has since been abolished) contributes enormously to the growth of the strike movement. From this moment, public debates become very animated and people start to become polarized on the matter. Images of “the street” diffuse across social media platforms, letters of opinion are copied and mass produced, and well-known symbols of the protests, like anarchopanda, become more prevalent in the media. Columnists are leading the hot ideological debate. The “pan” processions have multiplied across the province and attract crowds ever more numerous and diverse. Every evening at eight o’clock, people venture out onto the streets and throughout their neighbourhoods a clattering of pots and pans can be heard. Like a metronome, the exercise is repeated continuously for more than a month.
While student associations, unions and dozens of groups file two petitions in the Superior Court of Quebec for the suspension of Law 78 and its possible invalidation, Prime Minister Jean Charest meets for the first time with students, several months after the start of the conflict (May 29). He spends 50 minutes with the students, and then takes his leave. On May 31, Michelle Courchesne (MERS) abdicates and announces that negotiations are at a standstill.
Early June: The group Anonymous publishes personal information about SPVM. They then turn their attention to the Grand Prix du Canada claiming to have accessed the official website of the F1 in order to steal confidential data. A few days later they publish online the personal information of customers who have purchased tickets. They also release the “DVD gouverne(mental)”, which consists of more than two hours of footage from 2008, capturing the lavish estate of billionaire Paul Desmarais in Sagard, during the 80th birthday party of Jackie Maranger Desmarais. In the video political figures can be seen wandering about, such as Jean Charest (then Prime Minister), Jean Chrétien, George H. Bush, Brian Mulroney, Adrienne Clarkson, Lucien Bouchard … (Sagard is a hamlet in Quebec that Nicolas Sarkozy is rumoured to have visited in 1995 to develop a strategy for his ascension to power).
June 22: More than 100,000 protesters gather in downtown Montreal. The media attempt to spread misinformation, claiming that the movement is faltering and losing momentum.
July 4: 75th consecutive night of protest. Protests are now part of everyday life for Montrealers. The protest machine is well oiled and continues steadily towards its goal. Protesters get undressed, police control is more relaxed and brutality has become less frequent as citizens (other than students) join the ranks of the demonstrators. At the same time the police attempt to revive their reputation.
August 1: 100th consecutive night of protest and the election is announced for 4 September. A month of electoral campaigning is to follow. However, students thwart the plans of the government, trigger an election truce and gradually they return to class. The final outcome of this endless game of Ping-Pong could only ever be decided by an election. It was written in the sky. Jean Charest secretly prepares his election campaign.
August 22: 6th consecutive month of protest. Once again, tens of thousands of people gather in downtown Montreal for March 22 despite the fact that most students have returned to class. The student movement has relaxed during the electoral truce, and we believed it had come to an end. However, “the street” has not experienced such a lull, eager to determine the final outcome with an x on a ballot.
September 4: Pauline Marois becomes the first female Prime Minister of Quebec. The Liberal government of Jean Charest is narrowly defeated. An attack during the victory speech on election night results in one dead and one wounded. While most people are sleeping, the media broadcasts live images of the attempted murder. Many are affected and traumatized. It is difficult to explain what just happened. Nevertheless, we have turned the final page, the story is over. We have finally arrived at the desired outcome.
Risky game of democracy
The Liberals had counted on the support of the silent majority. Their mistake was not giving into pressure. They thought they could beat “the street” in the elections. 2012 has certainly left its mark on Quebec politics. The Parti Québécois, having won the election narrowly, enjoys only a minority in government (seats in the National Assembly: PQ 54, PLQ 50, QAC 19, QS 2). In percentage terms, the results are even worse (PQ 31.95, PLQ 31.20, CAQ 27.05, QS 6.03), reflecting the extent to which Quebec society has become polarized.,
The matter of tuition fees has not yet been settled. Currently, a summit on higher education is examining different approaches regarding the adjustments that should be made in terms of access and participation in higher education. What are the challenges? Which objectives are to be set in order to safeguard Quebec’s field of knowledge? These issues are still to be solved.
In recent years Quebec had become much too quiet. Now, young adults, armed with new technology, are forging their own future, casting doubt on the system that has been offered to them. Today we feel a desire to clean up politics. The Charbonneau Commission has already dropped several heads: mayors of Laval, Montreal and Mascouche have all resigned. The transition is in process. At the expense of the established order? No doubt.
The Quebec student movement has generated a lot of passion and energy, manifested in the willingness to honestly address the fundamental issues of society that infected the collective consciousness. We are survivors, attached to traditional values that make us unique and distinguished individuals. It is high time to seriously consider the issues of money and consider the future we desire for our education and culture of knowledge.