On Thursday afternoon, four days of negotiations between student leaders and the rovincial government of Quebec over increased tuition fees ended in stalemate. With neither side prepared to make major concessions, talks that began with some optimism finished with the two sides entrenched in their positions, after 39 consecutive days of protests in cities across the Canadian province.
After the breakdown of the talks, Gabriel Nadine-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, one of the 4 student organisations, announced that Montreal will today witness the ““biggest casserole demonstration in the last two weeks", starting at 2 p.m. at the Parc Jeanne-Mance.
It is a bold claim. In the last fortnight, hundreds of thousands have marched on the streets, and thousands have banged their pots and pans each night to signal their discontent with increased student fees and Bill 78, the temporary law passed by the Quebec Government on 18 May to restrict the scope and effectiveness of the daily protests.
The law has been widely ignored by marchers in Montreal, amid some humourous disobedience, but the intent behind it has raised concerns --- and not just among a radical fringe --- that the government has reacted in an overly aggressive manner to legitimate frustrations.
On Monday night, hundreds of Montreal lawyers marched through the streets in their courtroom gowns to highlight how the new law violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And on Thursday afternoon, two United Nations experts on the democratic right to assemble expressed their dismay at the regulations One of the Special Rapporteurs, Maina Kiai, remarked, “It is regrettable that the authorities have resorted to a restrictive approach, rather than seeking dialogue and mediation to resolve the current situation.”
Opposition to Bill 78 helps explain the diversity of the crowds who assemble daily to manifest their anger. What began as a student protest at some universities and colleges has become a general demonstration aimed at the government of Quebec. Old and young mingle during the nightly casseroles, an "anarcho-panda" joins the crowds with a hug for everyone --- including the police --- and one lady has eschewed the fashion for fancy dress by cycling naked through the crowds.
The generally good-natured manner of the Quebec protests should not mask this is a fundamental conflict, between generations and ideas of social justice, reaching beyond Canada to modern democracies around the world. What is taking place in Montreal is an early and unofficial referendum on the global economic model of an elite that facilitated debt, government and personal, threatening to plunge the world into another Great Depression.
What the protesters in Montreal are rebelling against is the idea that spending cuts and austerity measures are required to rebuild the same economic system that caused the crisis in the first place. And some of the reaction to the reasonable desire among many students to take up the responsibilities of an adult citizen, without the de-humanising debt burden to get an education, is worrisome.
Bill 78 is warning enough, but consider this response to events by a member of the government alarmed by the peaceful student strikes.
One of Quebec’s principal dailies has published on its internet site a commentary from a senior Quebec government official that openly calls for fascist-type violence to be employed against striking students.
Titled 'To Be Rid of Student Strikes', the comment --- which was published by Le Soleil, Quebec City’s 'quality' daily, on April 12 --- urges that the actions of the 'fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s', employed to 'reconquer ground' from strikers and the left be emulated.
At the bottom of the Le Soleil 'Viewpoint' comment, its author, Bernard Guay, identified himself as a “long-time anti-strike activist.” Although not identified as such by the paper, Guay is also a senior official in the tax branch of Quebec’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
Much of the criticism that has been aimed at the protesters is their sense of entitlement to a cheap education. Disregarding the hypocrisy of an elite who benefitted from that education system, the dispute over tuition fees is about something much more fundamental.
Matthew Unger, an Instructor in the Sociology of Youth at the University of Alberta, explained in an article for the Montreal Gazette:
Previously, university education was a mark of distinction and honour but in today’s world it is merely a necessity. This necessity and the consequential credentialism that follows it profoundly affect young peoples’ lives and their ability to start the lives they would like to live. These economic changes made something very apparent to researchers: what was once (wrongly) considered a biological stage in life, youth, is actually a very social construct dependent upon many different social and economic factors.
If you take for example what a previous generation of researchers understood to be markers of adulthood --— independence, both social and economic, stable career paths, and stable life partners with offspring —-- very few people can fulfill these criteria at any point in their lives in this day and age. If you take an age designation for adulthood, we would find that the mean age for entry into adulthood where at least a couple of these categories are fulfilled would be around 35. That is 17 years of legal adulthood without the ability to function in society like an adult! This is bound to cause some tension.
It is not the cost of education that is blighting the current generation. It is the sense of despair that accompanies the debt required to purchase a university education.
Unger also takes care to include the paucity of aspiration for those who cannot afford, or do not want, to be students. As he notes, for those who are excluded from higher education, the situation is worse:
As a PhD student, I am all for education for the sake of knowledge but most people would prefer to enter into their careers early on to start building their lives. This has been made very difficult under the current global economic climate. Because of these conditions, some researchers have discovered that young people constitute a new “underclass”: a group of people stuck in dead end, temporary, service sector jobs for extremely low wages with little to no political power.
Even conservative David Frum, who has no sympathy at all for direct action in Quebec, arguing that it is the work of a “radical fringe", recognises that the Montreal protests are a legitimate concern with the critical decisions facing advanced democracies. In his article, "Grandpa's Free Ride", he points out the financial advantages enjoyed by those born before 1960, over those born after 1990, and concludes:
Whatever we think of the protesters, the protests point to a real and true problem. Throughout the Western world, politicians are confronting the question: Who will bear how much of the burden of adjusting budgets to grim new post-2008 realities? Canadian politicians have been more responsible and more concerned with fairness than most. But even in Canada --- and much more in Japan, Europe, and the United States --- the answer being heard louder and louder is: Spare the old, burden the young.
Despite this recognition, neither the aims or methods of the protesters currently enjoy overwhelming support in Quebec. Opinion polls indicate that the proposal to increase tuition fees, and the resulting demonstrations, has split the province. Some commentators have suggested the government should hold a snap election to break the impasse, although that idea was downplayed by Premier Jean Charest, who indicated on Thursday there was no rush to go to the polls.
That leaves the question of where the protesters go next to advance their grievances. Today's casseroles march will show if enthusiasm has waned after the breakdown of negotiations, but an ultimate resolution still looks problematic.
On the one hand, the Quebec government can hope that the protesters lose much of the sympathy for their cause by disrupting next weekend's Montreal Grand Prix and the Festival Season this summer. On the other, demonstrators in Quebec can take heart that their struggle is gaining attention in the rest of Canada and other countries because, as The Guardian commented:
There is now a very real chance that similar mobilisations may spread. Recent polls suggest that most students across Canada would support a strike against tuition increases, and momentum for more forceful action may be building in Ottawa and across Ontario; in Quebec itself they also show that an initially hesitant public is beginning to swing behind the student demands and against government repression.
That is an encouraging sign for the demonstrations in Quebec. But it also includes a warning. If the spread of action becomes all about “student demands”, then the momentum will fade rapidly. However, if the marchers in Montreal manage to communicate that their anger is aimed at government repression by an elite who are determined to “burden the young” for debts that were not their fault, there is hope that the Maple Spring may survive the summer.