Speaking Out in Quebec

From Wikimedia Commons Given my recent fascination with student protest movements, Montréal was an obvious destination for my spring break. For the past several years now, the province of Québec has been caught in the midst of the largest student uprisings in North American history. In response to tuition hikes announced several years ago, students launched a general strike that reached its climax last spring with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets. The strike led to the reversal of the original tuition hike, as well as the Liberal Party’s defeat in last November’s election. Eager to experience for myself what it feels like to be a part of such a vibrant student movement, I joined a small group of 50-100 student protesters near the University of Québec at Montréal for a demonstration. After the police declared the gathering illegal, under the city’s new anti-protest regulations that are enforced more or less arbitrarily, the students relocated via subway to the Plateau district roughly 2 kilometers away. After a rowdy occupation of the city’s main subway station and a brief, though energetic, march down snow-filled streets, a sizable police force caught up with the protesters, resulting in 45 arrests (in order to avoid deportation, I made sure to keep my distance).

While Tuesday’s demonstration had its moments of radical excitement, it was ultimately a quiet affair, quickly dissolved by the police. At first glance, this small gathering hardly seemed to fit with the impression I had of the student movement. There have been much larger protests in recent weeks, and students plan to stage several more ambitious demonstrations in the coming months. However, it is clear today that something has changed since the “Maple Spring” reached its climax during last year's strike. The movement, after a largely successful strike, is now facing difficulties as it moves into a new phase. Pauline Marois, Québec’s new premier, had campaigned on the promise to freeze tuition costs, sporting the students’ carré rouge in ostensible solidarity. Her government has since gone back on this promise, planning instead to index university tuition to inflation, amounting to an increase. Despite this perceived betrayal, few student general assemblies will likely vote for a second strike. Many participants have fallen behind academically, and even for the most zealous organizers, the months of constant organizing, clashes with police, and social divisions have taken their toll. In addition, it is now unclear whether or not ordinary Quebeckers who supported the strike will continue to do so now that the Liberal Party, whose corruption the students helped to expose, is out of power.

Given the movement's difficulties today, many of the students I spoke to express a sort of nostalgia for last year’s strike. Whereas today many students are now eager to return to their normal routines, fatigued from months of protests, last spring was characterized by an uncommon sort of radical culture. While students had no classes to attend during the strike, the movement became the center of their social lives. Politics was in the air; everyone, it seemed, was constantly debating, attending teach-ins, and sharing opinions via social media. Protests and other forms of direct action took place multiple times a day, and students diligently kept each other up to date on where to find them through Facebook. The culture of the student movement was a space for vibrant democracy, but this had a divisive effect on the students and the general population alike. Students quickly split into several factions, who made their affiliations known by wearing differently colored squares on their shirts: those in favor of the strike (red), anarchists and those focused on ending police brutality (black), supporters of the tuition hike (green), moderates opposed to both the hike and the strike (blue), and the small minority who simply didn’t care (yellow). This was more than a movement: it was a radically democratic culture in which anyone and everyone was absorbed in the milieu of the strike, regardless of whether or not they supported it.

Crucially, activities within the student movement were more than mere statements in favor of certain policies. They were manifestations of a transformed social life centered around the movement. Protests often took on amusing themes: flashmobs, mass bike rallies, streetcorner yoga protests, and other seemingly silly gatherings that embodied the students’ esprit de corps (it is perhaps no coincidence that these spontaneous forms of protest occurred in Montréal, the home of the Cirque du Soleil and a long history of circus and street performers). The movement even adopted an unofficial mascot, Anarchopanda, who is frequently seen at protests along with other costumed characters. These “social” aspects of the movement may appear to be no more than amusement, but they played an important political role. Students whose entire social life came to revolve around demonstrations quickly began to see their struggle as stretching beyond the technicalities of education policy. Radical groups such as the Association for Student Syndicalist Solidarity (ASSÉ) organized mass anti-sexist campaigns, in which students tagged advertisements with stickers reading “dirty sexist ad.” Protesters within the movement also made their voices heard about environmental and indigenous rights issues concurrently with their demands for affordable higher education. The movement culture, in which the distinctions disappeared between politics and social life, created a space in which mass numbers of students could find something worth struggling for.

On the surface, none of this was apparent during this past Tuesday’s small protest. It would have been easy to conclude, given the movement’s difficulties today, that it has faded since its climax last spring. However, from talking to students who were a part of the strike last year, it is clear that the movement’s radical zeitgeist has had a lasting effect that would be difficult to forget. Any social movement will have both high and low points of political momentum. A movement that creates its own social space, however, may have what it takes to withstand the inevitable difficulties that arise once the excitement of a general strike has passed. Tuesday’s protest, then, may not have looked like much, in comparison to the mass rallies last spring with hundreds of thousands in attendance, but the culture that had developed during the strike was present throughout. The protest was part of a familiar routine for the participants, lacking both a clear leader directing its movement and even a particular demand. Students also amused themselves throughout by singing protest songs and staging snowball fights as they marched. Though the protest was small and quickly repressed, it demonstrated that the students continue to retain an impression of last spring's democratic spirit. Thanks to this, despite the movement's difficulties, protesters are able to maintain an almost daily presence, small though it may be, in Montréal’s public spaces.

It would not do justice to Québec’s history of student syndicalism to conclude that the recent lull in the movement signifies any kind of diminution of what it could accomplish. Democratic syndicalist organizations have been a staple of québécois student life since the mid-1960’s. Student movements have consistently held the government accountable to their demands for affordable education. In fact, despite a lull in student activism in the 1980’s, the deeply-rooted syndicalist culture was able to revive itself in the following decades. The protest activity of the past year is a continuation of a longstanding tradition of a democratic syndicalist culture. Just as this tradition has lasted and evolved over the past five decades, despite the inevitable hiccup, the movement culture of the “Maple Spring” will undoubtedly survive its present nadir. The future of the movement is uncertain, but the spirit of radical democracy that was born during last year's strike may ultimately be a necessary condition for broad changes to the way higher education is distributed.