Canada Analysis: Almost 700 People Arrested in Quebec as Right to Protest Curbed --- Will the Message Spread?
Tens of thousands march in Montreal on Thursday
On Wednesday night in Montreal, police arrested more than 500 people, most of them for contravening new regulations brought in by the Conservative provincial government to quell protests over increases in tuition fees. A further 176 people were arrested in Quebec City for ignoring the law, Bill 78, which limits demonstrators' rights to assemble without informing police of their intention eight hours in advance.
Protests over higher charges for education have now been taking place in Quebec for more than 100 days. Sympathisers claim over 300,000 people marched through Montreal on Tuesday night in opposition to both Bill 78 and the proposed tuition fees. Student groups in Quebec have vowed to continue with their marches, despite the mass detentions, with participants wearing a red felt square, highlighting the plight of students who are "in the red" financially.
Until Wednesday, this challenge received little attention outside Quebec. This could be explained partly by the lack of English-language coverages of events in a French-speaking province. Partly it is because the tuition increases are modest, $325 ($316 US) a year for 5 years, with students paying $4,700 a year in total by 2017 --- the lowest charges in Canada.
However, in Quebec these increases are regarded by many as a fundamentally Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal attack on a social democratic ethos shared with France, where annual tuition fees for a B.A. in 2011-12 were just 180 Euros ($225 US) and student residences are heavily subsidised. The protest is also fuelled by resentment that the government of Premier Jean Charest is citing the province's financial problems while it is embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Now there is the added impetus of Bill 78, under which a group of more than 50 people must now give police eight hours notice of where they intend to assemble and where they wish to march, ostensibly so law enforcement can ensure public safety.
The hisory of Quebec, where the the use of the War Measures Act in 1970 was seen as an unwarranted peacetime repression of civil liberties, goes a long way to explaining resentment against "emergency measures". Even if, by the standards of other democratic countries, this is a fairly mild restriction on the right to protest, there are other elements that are disturbing, such as the "crime" of expressing support for a demonstration that is illegal.
Now there is the prospect of outside support and impact. Occupy Wall Street have been holding solidarity demonstrations in New York, urging supporters to copy Quebec's "casseroles" protests where the locals bang on pots and pans every night at 8 p.m. to signify their opposition to Bill 78. Natasha Lennard, who reports on Occupy in the US, writes:
The powerful message from Quebec, for me, is not the importance of strong student leadership. Rather, it is that thousands of individuals have taken risks, broken with their daily routines and found each other in the streets (despite numerous social and political divisions) to engage in a radical political experiment with no clear endpoint.
One of the main Twitter hashtags relating the Quebec actions is #manifencours, an abbreviation of “manifestation en cours, meaning simply “demonstration in the streets". As the proliferation of the phrase suggests, the situation in Quebec is no longer just about negotiating tuition fees; it’s a manifestation with an open trajectory.
Lennard is on the right track. The Quebec protests will only inspire a sense of solidarity in other countries if sympathisers avoid the superficial portrayal of events in Montreal as a "student rebellion". As the Montreal Gazette reported on Thursday, local academics see the recent outrage as a “societal debate more than a decade old", long before Quebec raised tuition fees. Professor Antonia Maioni argues:
The argument has been going on for more than a decade, seen in Premier Jean Charest’s 10-year attempt to re-engineer the state, and in the debate between “lucides” (prominent Quebecers who espoused higher tuition and electricity rates among other solutions to solve the province’s woes) and “solidaires” who called for a sovereignist, socialist provincial model.Maioni and other analysts note the generational aspect to the demonstrations. Not just students, but also young people in general are raisinng their voices in protests that are beyond the politics of right v. left --- this is more about rich v. poor, where the young see little opportunity of acquiring the material benefits enjoyed by their elders.
The criticism against the protesters that they are spoiled is being met head-on. A letter from Jean Puize, a 66 year-old baby boomer from Quebec City, argues:
Many people call the students who’ve been demonstrating for 100 days now spoiled brats [enfants-rois]. But is it really the students who are spoiled?
Who paid $600 a year to go to university? Baby-boomers.
Who could find a job on demand when they finished their education? Baby-boomers.
Who’s benefiting from retirement at 55 or 60? Baby-boomers.
Who’s enjoying or will enjoy Cadillac pensions? Baby-boomers.
Who gets to have pension income splitting? Baby-boomers.
I know: I am one, and I’ve had all of this. Young people don’t have all this and won’t have it because baby-boomers indebted society as they saw fit, and because, moreover, these young people will now have to continue paying their entire working adult lives to maintain these privileges for the baby-boomers.
Young people have had enough, and I completely get it. It’s up to the spoiled baby-boomers now [baby-boomers rois], and absolutely not up to the youth, to give more.
In Quebec, we are beginning to see the anger of younger people realising they will not have the same opportunities that were offered an older generation --- advantages which that older generation, or the elite of it, is protecting through its positions in power.
Perhaps that anger will stay confined to Quebec, as a peculiarity of the politics in that province. Then again, maybe not.