May 2012, Week 5


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Tue, 29 May 2012 21:20:47 -0400
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Quebec's Student Revolt Goes Viral

Mark Engler
May 29, 2012
Dissent Magazine

Quick: name the Canadian Prime Minister.

If you got it, congratulations. Otherwise, don't worry.
Those of you who drew a blank, or who took an
uncomfortably long time to come up with an answer, are
within a safe majority in the United States.

It is a testament to American insularity that people in
the United States feel no obligation to pay any
attention to the country that shares thousands of miles
of our northern border. About a decade ago, one of the
more popular comedy bits on Canadian television was a
segment called "Talking to Americans," in which the host
convinced ordinary people stateside to do things like
congratulate Canada on completing its first 800 miles of
paved road or to sign a petition protesting the
government's reinstatement of the "Toronto polar bear
slaughter." (It wasn't just yokels off the street,
either; prominent individuals also got punked.
Then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, for one,
famously showed that he was not in on the joke when
asked what he thought of an endorsement by Canadian
Prime Minister "Jean Poutine.")

Given this long-standing neglect of Canada, maybe it's
no shock that it took some 100 days of massive,
concerted protest before the student strike in Québec
finally started getting traction in the U.S. media.
Maybe the surprise is that it broke through at all-and
that the strike may yet provide a resonant example for
young people in this country suffering an epidemic of
student debt.

It's always interesting to watch a social movement
become a mass media phenomenon, as the Québec student
strikes have started to become in the last week. It is
rarely remembered that Occupy Wall Street was a virtual
non-story through its first week, even in most of the
alternative press. Many of the stories that did run
sentenced that movement to irrelevance. It was only
around day nine or ten of the occupation in New York
City, after some startling video of police abuse started
circulating online, that journalists decided that this
was something they should be paying attention to. The
movement snowballed from there.

I think we are now witnessing the same sense of
escalating momentum with regard to the Québec students.
The details of the protests against rising tuition fees
and mounting student debt, which began in February, have
long been available. Yet, as of late April, one of the
few stories on the subject in the United States
accurately dubbed the protests "The Biggest Student
Uprising You've Never Heard Of."

The lack of attention wasn't due to a lack of numbers.
Hundreds of thousands in Québec had rallied on March 22.
That's more than either the Tea Party or Occupy ever
turned out for their protests-and the Québécois were
drawing from a much smaller population.

Nor was the neglect a product of insufficient
confrontation. As the Chronicle of Higher Education had

     The strike has been supported by near-daily protest
     actions ranging from family-oriented rallies to
     building occupations and bridge blockades, and,
     more recently, by a campaign of political and
     economic disruption directed against government
     ministries, crown corporations, and private
     industry. Although generally peaceful, these
     actions have met with increasingly brutal acts of
     police violence: Student protesters are routinely
     beaten, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed by riot
     police, and one, Francis Grenier, lost an eye after
     being hit by a flashbang grenade at close range.
     Meanwhile, college and university administrators
     have deployed a spate of court injunctions and
     other legal measures in an unsuccessful attempt to
     break the strike, and Québec's premier, Jean
     Charest, remains intransigent in spite of growing
     calls for his government to negotiate with student
     leaders. In part, the protesters didn't need the
     U.S. press. Students at French-speaking
     universities in Québec have a stronger history of
     activism than their Anglophone counterparts, and
     French-language media gave the story serious
     coverage in its early months. But that's no excuse
     for the English-speaking media's slow response.

What finally seemed to do the trick was an act of
government overreach: the passage of an anti-protest
bill called Law 78. As Salon's Natasha Lennard reported:

     In a move indicative of a leadership grasping for
     control, the provincial government passed Law 78 in
     mid- May. Attempting to end the strikes and force
     the reopening of the universities, the law in no
     uncertain terms makes protest illegal. Groups
     planning demonstrations with more than 50 expected
     participants, according to Law 78, must inform the
     police in writing at least eight hours in advance
     of the protest with details of time, location, size
     and duration. More perturbing still, expressing
     support for demonstrations and strikes deemed
     unpermitted under Law 78 renders one guilty of that
     offense and liable to face the same steep fines.

Last week, coinciding with the 100th day of the student
strike, massive crowds took to the streets in defiance
of Law 78. Organizers hailed the demonstrations of
Tuesday, May 22, when as many as 500,000 people marched
wearing red squares (the symbol of the protest), as the
largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
Daily protests have continued, and total arrests from
the strike now exceed 2,500.

In the wake of the strike's hundredth day, I was pleased
to see stories about the Québec students start popping
up like spring tulips, with viral videos like this one
sprouting widely through Facebook feeds.

Welcoming the newfound attention, one well-put "Open
Letter to the Mainstream English Media" had this to say
to reporters joining the fray:

     Thank you; you are a little late to the party, and
     you are still missing the mark a lot of the time,
     but in the past few days, you have published some
     not entirely terrible articles and op-eds about
     what's happening in Québec right now. Welcome to
     our movement. Some of you have even started
     mentioning that when people are rounded up and
     arrested each night, they aren't all criminals or
     rioters. Some of you have admitted that perhaps
     limiting our freedom of speech and assembly is
     going a little bit too far. Some of you are no
     longer publishing lies about the popular support
     that you seemed to think our government had. Not
     all of you, mind you, but some of you are waking

     That said, here is what I have not seen you publish
     yet: stories about joy; about togetherness; about
     collaboration; about solidarity. You write about
     our anger, and yes, we are angry. We are angry at
     our government, at our police and at you. But none
     of you are succeeding in conveying what it feels
     like when you walk down the streets of Montreal
     right now, which is, for me at least, an
     overwhelming sense of joy and togetherness.

     The author is right to call out the smug op-eds
     that have appeared. There are plenty to choose
     from. Social movements in Québec have long helped
     keep the cost of tuition low, and this is now being
     used against the students. Since they pay less than
     students in other Canadian provinces, the argument
     goes, young people in Québec must be insufferable
     whiners if they object to rising fees. This is the
     same logic with which all unionized U.S. workers
     with decent health care and pensions are told they
     should have to give up these benefits upon entering
     a contract fight, since so much of the workforce
     doesn't get them. It is the local incarnation of
     neoliberalism's famous race to the bottom.

Kudos to students in Ontario, who pay some of the
highest tuition in Canada, for refusing to buy in.
Instead of begrudging neighboring Québecers their lower
fees, they're ready to demand some for themselves. And
given that the strike seems only to be gaining momentum,
they might not be the only ones outside Québec to join
in protest against crippling student debt.

Better late than never. I'm putting on my red square.


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