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‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts’

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The Quebec Student Protest Movement and the Power of the Radical Imagination

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Posted on Aug 28, 2012
Andrew Morrell Photography (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

Current tuition fee increases would raise about $200 million from students; yet such fees could be completely eliminated and free education provided to all students if the Canadian government cut back on its bloated military budget.  Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his fellow apostles of neoliberalism had no trouble contributing $4.5 billion in 2011 to the $24.7 billion that “the Canadian government is spending…on its military budget, a budget that is proportionally higher today than it was during the Cold War” and now ranks Canada 14th in the world on military spending.[40] Downloading more costs to the provinces, the federal government refuses assistance by offsetting rising student tuition fees and pushing ahead with a military budget that includes “the purchase of 65 F-35 planes at a cost of $462 million each.”[41] Eliminating just one of these planes in the military budget would cover the cost of choosing not to raise tuition fees in Quebec. The asymmetry of the situation would be laughable if it weren’t so grotesque:  students are vilified as irresponsible for protesting against tuition fee increases, while the Department of National Defence spends billions at will and remains mostly unopposed.

Commentators in the national newspapers bleat about the putative naiveté or selfishness of Quebec youth, but remain conspicuously mute about the increased militarization of the culture, even as Canada attempts to extricate itself from a disastrous and costly war in Afghanistan. The current neoliberal governments at the federal and provincial levels express little or no concern about providing students with quality higher education or supporting investment in universities, libraries, health care, or a jobs creation program for young people. Certainly for the Harper regime, it appears such social investments are viewed as far less important than siphoning off billions to fund a culture of violence and permanent war machine. Misplaced priorities that shut down economic, educational, and political opportunities suggest that Canada has become a society that is waging a war on its children, even as government policies increasingly reveal the savagery of a system that considers profits more important than the lives of its citizens.

Confronting the Backlash of Smears, Insults, and Police Violence

The student strike emerged in February 2012 when it became clear that Premier Charest and the Quebec government were not interested in opening up a dialogue with Quebec’s major student unions.  Various student groups then joined hands and organized a massive strike of 40,000 students on February 21, 2012.  As the strike became more cohesive under the leadership of the CLASSÉ—the Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, Quebec’s largest student association and the most vocal in supporting direct action and rejecting the regime of neoliberal capitalism—the tactics employed by the students became both more disruptive and more effective. The strike in turn alarmed a number of business elites, conservative media pundits, and members of Charest government.

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Not surprisingly, the business community in the province supported both the government’s effort to raise tuition and its use of state force to crush the strike. Roger Annis notes that “The Conseil du Patronat du Québec (Employers Council of Quebec) issued the results of a survey of its members on June 1 showing 95 percent support for the government’s proposed hike in tuition fees that sparked the student strike last February and 68 percent support for Bill 78”—the latter referring to legislation whose purpose is largely viewed as an attempt to break the student unions, suppress democratic expression, bankrupt individuals, and undermine the unity and solidarity that has been forged among the largest student groups.[42]

A massive pro-government smear campaign emerged against the students, labelling them as “self-seeking brats, whining about modest tuition increases and seeking mayhem for its own sake.”[43] Margaret Wente, writing for the Globe and Mail, echoed the sentiments of many mainstream journalists and derided the student protesters by referring to them as “kids” who “are on another planet.”[44] According to Wente, the students were too immature to understand the nature of their own actions, never mind put forth a serious criticism of both market-based higher education and the wider neoliberal order. Apparently, she considers their complaints about tuition increases as meaningless since, as she put it to her well-heeled readership, they not only have “the lowest tuition fees in North America [but] the total increase would amount to the cost of a daily grande cappuccino.”[45] Of course, this would make sense if education were literally about nothing more than consuming a product. Wente has a substantial history of blaming young people for being narcissistic and of invoking clichés of “dangerous” youth. For example, she has criticized unemployed young men (code for poor minority youth) for creating what she calls a “huge social problem” because “they refuse to work.”[46] Yet Wente appears strangely untroubled by the billion dollar crimes committed by corrupt corporations, thus exhibiting what Alain Badiou calls “zero tolerance” for youthful protesters and “infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions.”[47]

In this view, the real culprits are the youth—characterized by their alleged moral turpitude and declining values—instead of a global financial meltdown caused by the willingness of finance capitalism to sacrifice the future of young people for short-term political and economic gains. For Wente, the issue that the protesters should really be addressing is the necessity to rid higher education of those academic disciplines not directly tied to the market because the only purpose of education in her instrumentalist world view is to train people for the neoliberal order she so fervently defends. 

Some critics have gone further than Wente and called for outright violence to be used against the protesters. Roger Annis claims that not only were many business leaders in favor of using the police to crush the strike, but many “politicians and editorialists were calling for greater use of police violence and court injunctions to break up student picket lines.”[48] Michael Den Tandt, writing in the National Post, was quite explicit in calling for the government to crack down on the protesters, going so far as to suggest dishing out medieval forms of punishment such as “caning.”[49] Bernard Guay, a member of the Quebec Liberal Party and head of the tax office in the Municipal Affairs Department, published a letter on the website of Le Soleil in which he unapologetically recommended “using the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s as an example in how to deal with ‘leftists’ in giving them ‘their own medicine.’ He suggested organizing a political ‘cabal’ to handle the ‘wasteful and anti-social’ situation, which would mobilize students to not only cross picket lines, but to confront and assault students who wear the little red square (the symbol of the student strike).”[50] Imitating fascist thuggery, Guay suggested, would “help society ‘overcome the tyranny of Leftist agitators.’”[51] In spite of their differences, these attacks all share what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has called in a different context an “emphasis on personal advantage over the public good.”[52] One might conclude that they all exhibit a hatred for democracy itself.[53]

While Premier Charest eventually agreed to open up talks with the main student groups, he held fast to student tuition increases, though he later made a paltry offer to lower the rate of increase. It is impossible to determine if the bellicose assault against the protesters in the mainstream media, along with the support of a large portion of Quebec’s business community, encouraged the Charest government to resort to repressive measures. However, it did just that by passing Bill 78 into law on May 18, 2012—and proceeding to implement anti-protest legislation that gave sweeping powers to the police and was designed to suppress peaceful protests and shut down student opposition, while violating the most basic rights of free speech, association, and assembly.[54]

Representing the dissent expressed by the students “as a criminal rather than political issue,” the emergency legislation was a desperate attempt to portray the protest movement as an act of criminality and students as figures of lawlessness, despite the validity of the issues being raised and the general peacefulness of the student demonstrations.[55] In the service of legitimating an alarmist set of regulations and substituting an emotional discourse for a reasoned and thoughtful attempt at dialogue, Law 12 (formerly Bill 78) proved to be a draconian piece of legislation so extreme that Montreal police have expressed reluctance about enforcing certain parts of it.[56]

The most prohibitive and irresponsible measures of Law 12 include: giving the police eight hours’ notice and a precise itinerary for any demonstration involving more than 50 people; fines running as high as $125,000 for unions and student federations and $35,000 for individuals that violate the law; giving police the power to prosecute a person if he or she offers support or encouragement to protesters at a school; making it illegal for any demonstration to be held within 50 meters of any school campus; giving the government the right to order faculty and staff to show up for work on any designated day; and doubling all fines for repeat offenders. But Law 12 is much more than a gross violation of the rights of students to engage in peaceful assembly and protest austerity measures aimed at curtailing access to post-secondary education. It also provides a green light for police violence, making clear that the state would employ aggressive levels of force against students and others in the face of its refusal to address major social and economic problems through peaceful public dialogue and debate.

Broadening the Struggle from an Event to a Social Strike

The government’s decision to assume a defensive posture on behalf of rich elites and corporate power backfired and the passage of Bill 78 in May 2012 signified a major turning point for the Quebec protest movement. Rather than succeed in creating a climate of fear in order to intimidate students, faculty, and other sympathizers, the law outraged both civil libertarians and ordinary citizens and became a catalyst for attracting a much wider following of non-student supporters. Not only did public anger explode in a massive demonstration on May 25 in which an estimated 500,000 people marched, it also inaugurated nightly demonstrations in Montreal neighborhoods in which people in the streets and on balconies banged their pots and pans at 8:00 pm to protest the law as an act of public support and solidarity for the students.

Inspired by the pots and pans movement that developed in Chile in the ‘70s, the “casseroles” demonstrations in Montreal and other cities functioned as a mode of collective performance and a loud but peaceful way to express public outrage and disgust at the Charest government. In addition, crowds of supporters embraced the red square as a symbol of resistance to a future of debt (being “squarely in the red”), pinning it on their clothing and waving red flags from their balconies, offering up a powerful symbolic image of defiance as a way to demonstrate their anger over a generation of young people being trapped in a ruinous system of usurious credit and loans.

As public support shifted in favor of the strikers, what initially emerged as a narrow set of protestations over tuition hikes evolved into a broader narrative of complaint and resistance towards a global neoliberal order, further providing an opportunity for students to connect their limited set of grievances to a much broader set of social problems.  What began as a student protest morphed into a social strike in which the assault on the university could be addressed as part of a wider attack on the social state, the environment, unemployed workers, the land rights of indigenous peoples, and young people across the globe.  The changing nature of both the debate and the politics that informed it was evident in the CLASSÉ’s three-pronged action plan and the “Manifesto for a Maple Spring.”[57]

These documents situated the Quebec movement in a broader historical context of social resistance, illuminating a shared opposition to “the laws of an unjust global economy that is mortgaging the future of all of us [and mortgaging] its youth as nothing more than an exploitable resource.”[58] In CLASSÉ’s Share Our Future Manifesto, the call for a social strike is presented passionately through a more capacious political narrative that is as imaginative as it is daring in its call to forge sustainable communal bonds, treat human beings with dignity, build democratic social relations, and construct a new vision of the future.  One gets a glimpse of this daring embrace of a revolutionary ideal in the following section from the Manifesto, which is worth repeating in full:

This burden is one that we all shoulder, each and every one of us, whether we are students or not:  this is one lesson our strike has taught us. For we, students, are also renters and employees; we are international students, pushed aside by discriminating public services. We come from many backgrounds, and, until the color of our skin goes as unnoticed as our eye color, we will keep on facing everyday racism, contempt and ignorance. We are women, and if we are feminists it is because we face daily sexism and roadblocks set for us by the patriarchal system; we constantly fight deep-rooted prejudice. We are gay, straight, bisexual, and proud to be. We have never been a separate level of society. Our strike is not directed against the people. We are the people. Our strike goes beyond the $1625 tuition-fee hike. If, by throwing our educational institutions into the marketplace, our most basic rights are being taken from us, we can say the same for hospitals, Hydro-Québec, our forests, and the soil beneath our feet. We share so much more than public services:  we share our living spaces, spaces that were here before we were born. We want them to survive us….This is the meaning of our vision, and the essence of our strike:  it is a shared, collective action whose scope lies well beyond student interests. We are daring to call for a different world, one far removed from the blind submission our present commodity-based system requires. Individuals, nature, our public services, these are being seen as commodities:  the same tiny elite is busy selling everything that belongs to us. And yet we know that public services are not useless expenditures, nor are they consumer goods.[59]


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