It’s Really Kicking Off In Quebec

Despite some news coverage and discussions on Twitter, we’ve seen little on the continuing educational and political crisis in Quebec. Hence, a guest post from our friend and colleague Philippe Fournier. Philippe teaches political thought and International Relations at the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal. He has published research on Foucault and International Relations, Governmentality in the contemporary United States and Violence and Responsibility. He is currently working on the government of security in the US and on the theoretical conflation of sovereign power and government in Foucault. His other research interests include critical cultural theory and political economy.


A little background info and some thoughts on the student crisis in Quebec, which has been going on for 101 days now and shows no signs of waning in the face of the government’s disturbing intransigence. The recent adoption of Bill 78, which circumvents the right to protest without prior notice and gives the police the right to change a demonstration’s itinerary, among other things, has shocked and angered many Quebecers and made the news worldwide. On Tuesday May 22, over 250 000 people expressed their discontent with the current government and it was quite a sight.

Ever since the ‘quiet revolution’ in the early 1960s, which saw the institution of important social provisions and the attribution of several socio-economic entitlements to the francophone majority, Quebec has been holding fast to its social-democratic heritage. Jean Charest’s liberal party, in power since 2003, is determined to fight off the modern-day antichrist of debt and rationalise state activity. The Charest government’s attack on hard fought social entitlements, including accessible post-secondary education (Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada), has been going steady since 2003 but has intensified since 2008. Quebecers were told that it was no longer reasonable to expect affordable public services and that it was high time that we join the pay as you go party.

What is at play in this conflict is no less than the fate of social-democratic expectations in Quebec. These expectations are actively discouraged and discredited by the current political elite. The demands for a tuition freeze by sizeable portions of Quebec’s students are considered unreasonable in many quarters, and seen as a plane expression of bad faith and overindulgence by a majority of Canadians, seemingly stuck in a Stephen Harper induced stupor. The words ‘pragmatic’, ‘realistic’ and ‘rational’ have been duly appropriated by the partisans of deregulation, free-enterprise and individual responsibility. Any suggestions that the latter orientations are based on an ideological choice are ridiculed; they simply express a sounder and more logical way to manage society.

Up to now, there seemed to be a dour resignation to the decimation of our social programs. This young generation of Quebecers, which many had touted as completely apathetic and apolitical, has taken a resolute stand against restricting access to a public good, against the further commodification of knowledge and against the uncompromising law and order approach of an arrogant and irresponsible government. Those that have taken to the streets day after day and sacrificed their terms and put their professional lives on hold for the students that will come after them, have shown extraordinary resilience and bravery. It came as a surprise to many, because they did it on their own, with little or no help from their political science professors, who have long abandoned critical thinking for functionalist replications of reality sanctioned by government money.

Here is the latest cover photo for Maclean’s magazine, showing continuing love for Quebec and its people.

Having said that, it would appear that a majority of Quebecers are in favour of the hike, if you believe what you read in the papers and in the various public tribunes. However, most people disapprove of the government’s handling of the crisis and believe that negotiations are the only way out of the crisis. What is most striking for a famously indecisive people with a dislike for confrontation is the fierce passion exhibited on both sides of the argument. Apart from independence, I cannot think of a more divisive issue in the history of our province. Myriads of commentators, journalists, politicians, professors and ordinary citizens have been having it out, sometimes quite virulently, in countless blogs, tweets, syndicated columns and tv programs for over 17 weeks. Sifting through it all can be overwhelming, tiring and in some many cases deeply depressing but most of us will have repeated peaks at the news in the course of a day, worried that we might miss a game-changing twist.

The strike has also sparked a wave of left romanticism, which, for someone steeped in the tradition of radical doubt, sits somewhere in between the comical and the genuinely inspirational. I admit I’ve been forced to reconsider the power of an ironic moustache versus good old street protest. I think that the current generation of students, equipped as it is with a more sophisticated understanding of power, will nonetheless try and reclaim the terms of political discourse instead of spending its time deconstructing them. Words like democracy, equality, rights and freedom seem to have a less hollow ring than before in various parts of the world. Amongst the Quebecois urban youth, there is a genuine sense that signifiers like “democracy” and “fairness” have been totality baffled by the current elite and by several decades of persistent neoliberal admonishing. Since it is already faced with high unemployment and pretty grim prospects, the youth of today might also just decide that to be led to destitution by an uncontrollable machine that requires more and more sacrifices to potentially return to its ineffective best is no longer an option. Young people might just reclaim the terms of political discourse with less cynicism than slightly older folk but also the resources they need to flourish. They might just shake us out of our irony-draped slumber and fashionably noir pessimism.

Beyond flights of fancy and dubious parallels like the “printemps érable” (a nod to the Printemps Arabe = Arab spring), what is happening in Quebec and more particularly in Montreal has a very precise context, even if some parallels can be drawn with what is happening elsewhere. The cartography of protest is often complex, and this one is no exception.

There are four large universities in Montreal, two English language ones (Mcgill, Concordia) and two french ones (UQAM and Université de Montréal), each steeped in their own institutional cultures, with their own social, economic and linguistic demographics, with varying propensities to protest, Mcgill being the least militant, l’UQAM the most. There are also many CEGEPs, French-Canada’s very own institutional pit stop in between high school and University, on strike. As it stands, roughly a third of all post-secondary students (154,855) are on strike. Many CEGEPs and Universities (and specific departments within the latter) have voted against such a course of action but have expressed a degree of sympathy for their colleagues. Amongst the key players in the conflict are the three main student associations, the more conservative and conciliatory Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec (FECQ), the moderate Fédération Étudiantes Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), and the more firebrand Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE).

Whilst they do not see eye to eye on the means of protest or the ideal ends, they have kept a relatively united front on the core issues and have all unreservedly condemned the government’s handling of the crisis. We have certainly seen and heard a lot of each of the organisations’ representatives over the last 102 days. One of the CLASSE’s spokespersons, Gabriel Nadeau Dubois, has emerged as a crowd favourite with his special brand of eloquence and poise, which has attracted the praise of poets, university professors and hordes of screaming fans. Well, those who oppose the student movement hate him with a burning passion. It is ironic that the CLASSE, with its complex horizontal structure, has the more inspirational ‘leader’ of the lot (no offense to the other ones). Perhaps Žižek’s assertion that no self-declared horizontal protest movement can completely do without the considerable elocutionary and organisational force that some individuals represent is right.

Now for some hard facts and a timeline. Tuition fees in Quebec currently stand at $2,168. Jean Charest’s liberal party is firmly intent on an 82% increase over the next seven years (these figures are part of the government’s latest ‘improved’ proposal), which would take the fees to nearly $4,000. This rather sharp increase is the reason why over a third of all post-secondary students went on strike in the first place. Over the last three months and a bit, the government has been extremely reluctant to engage in whatever dialogue with the representatives of the major student coalitions and has deliberately avoided the issue of tuition fee hikes. Shockingly, the PM himself has yet to sit down with the students.

Bowing to public pressure and repeated calls from the opposition, Line Beauchamp, the province’s education minister who has since resigned, invited student representatives, union leaders and university rectors to negotiate a settlement. After gruelling overnight negotiations, which involved the tried and tested wily tactics of sleep deprivation and shift negotiation, the government announced that a deal had been struck. The result was a highly convoluted, technocratic and most importantly conditional agreement over the notion that some money “could” be saved from a more efficient management of University budgets and that these savings could be used to reduce the ever-increasing administrative (not tuition) fees. In what some heralded as substantial gains for the students, the government also proposed improvements to loans and bursaries.

The next day, Prime Minister Jean Charest, the object of passionate dislike by important sections of Quebec’s population, made yet another faux pas by displaying more than a hint of triumphalism in front of the TV cameras. Worse, state officials and rectors publicly expressed their doubts about the already severely underfunded Universities’ ability to find extra money. As the agreement was diffused in the media and studied a little more closely, muted enthusiasm was replaced by incomprehension and disappointment verging on anger. The student representatives took the proposal back to their respective assemblies and the answer was a resounding NO.

As a result of the government’s obstinate refusal to go back to the negotiation table, students initiated a series of night protests in Montreal’s downtown core. The government’s response to the student’s determination was to pass Bill 78, a blatantly anti-democratic measure that flies in the face of our fundamental right to associate and demonstrate and of our socio-political culture. Under this new legislation, demonstrations are restricted to 50 (10 in the original proposal) people and an itinerary must be provided to the police eight hours in advance. Draconian fines are to be imposed for students and organizations that violate provisions of the law. An individual blocking access to a CEGEP or university could face a fine anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. Student leaders could be charged up to $35,000, while student associations and federations could face a penalty of up to $125,000.

The avowed intention behind these measures is to break traditionally strong and organised student unions. The bill was passed on Friday 18 and has since done everything but endear public opinion and restore calm. As soon as the news broke out, thousands of people took to the streets, and the tone was notably angrier. Up to 300 arrests were made on Saturday night. Last night alone, there were 700 arrests between Montreal and Quebec City. Still the protesters keep coming, and many fear that a tragedy is imminent. Bill 78 is an ultimate showing of irresponsibility; the state has effectively delegated the responsibly for social order and cohesion to the police, and calls on it to apply and enforce the law with discernment. Needless to say, cops are ill equipped for these pursuits to begin with and are getting less and less discerning with their truncheons, pepper-spray, tear gas bombs and rubber bullets, as the 31 nights of overtime and little sleep take their toll.

The protests themselves have been largely festive, creative and peaceful. They are usually made up of a majority of students, the inevitable Black Block contingent, a few disenfranchised youths from impoverished suburbs (although not as many as in England as the class structure is different), the odd weekend reveller and an increasing number of ordinary citizens. Demonstrations have been declared illegal at the slightest hint of disturbance, particularly in the last few days. The vast majority of clashes have taken place after the demonstrations were declared illegal, when police tactics veer from relative passivity to an aggressive and indiscriminate rounding-up of whoever’s in the way. After a three and a half-month long strike, close to 2,500 arrests, dozens of injured police officers and demonstrators (two of whom have lost an eye to heavy-handed police tactics), everyone is starting to feel a little cranky and tired.

In the last week, downtown Montreal has been plunged into an actual state of exception, warranting the full force of the law (send the tape to Agamben). Very worryingly, the authorities had recourse to anti-terror legislation to prosecute four students who detonated smoke bombs in the Montreal Subway a few weeks ago and the police used their newly-found discretionary power in the application of an ancient municipal rule last night, which resulted in the arrest of over 500 people, who were fined 600 bucks each (somebody’s got to pay for all that overtime). With the government discharging itself from the responsibility to govern and treating what is initially a political and social problem into a juridical/public order one, one wonders how a deep and lasting social fracture can be avoided. Within its new purview of responsibility, the police can now choose from an extensive menu of legislation to force protesters into submission.

The language used by government officials to describe the principled stance of some sections of the Student movement is equally troubling. Quebec’s minister of Public security minister, Robert Dutil, claimed that civil disobedience was just a pretty word for vandalism. Raymond Bachand, Finance minister of finance, came out saying that the student movement was led by a handful of radical Marxists. Most of the big corporate-owned media outlets (Journal de Montreal (the equivalent of The Sun in the UK), La Presse, etc.) have been pumping out disinformation, twisting statistics and putting out inflammatory editorials. It would appear that Quebec’s establishment dramatically underestimated the resolve and conviction of the youth. The current generation’s sensitivity to diffused power and to surreptitious prejudice turns into an appreciation of the full force of the state apparatus. Many young Quebecers now know what the state does when it is shaken to its core. In a desperate attempt to preserve its own biological existence against adverse life forms, it convulses and lashes out. One thing is certain, there nothing like police brutality to politicise and radicalise a whole generation.

It is difficult to see what the future holds. The government is now showing signs of faltering as a majority of Quebecers expresses its indignation with Bill 78 and mass arrests in the Province’s main cities. Quebec’s reviled minister of Education, Michelle Courchesne, has confirmed that talks would re-open with Student Associations in the next few days.

In spite of Wednesday’s mass arrests, people have come out in force again tonight in a massive show of civil disobedience. In clear defiance of Bill 78, no itinerary was given to the police. Thursday’s demonstration was the biggest and most diverse yet; we seem to have reached an apogee of enthusiasm and popular support for the students. If Bill 78’s purpose was to silence protest, it has failed miserably. Since the weekend, Quebecers from various corners of the province and various parts of Montreal have also embraced an old Chilean protest method against Pinochet’s dictatorship, by banging on pots and pants from 8pm to then swell the ranks of on-going or impromptu noisy processions.

There is a certainly a risk that a negotiated settlement will, apart from leaving some of the protagonists frustrated, dampen the collective impulse expressed in the last three months. But over the course of the last three months, which has seen the biggest mobilisation in Quebec’s (and probably Canada’s) history, hundreds of thousands of people including trade unions, community groups, environmental groups and women’s groups have all said no to corruption (of which the Charest government is widely accused), the unrestricted exploitation of Quebec’s northern territory, cosying up to corporate interest, clientelism, business models for higher education, repression over negotiation and all around irresponsibility. In what many have heralded as a new dawn or as the left’s long-awaited awakening in Quebec, it is my sincere hope that we will continue to march until our institutions start to reflect these principles and convictions. We may have to buy some good solid boots for that.

Now, Quebec is not the only place where it’s kicked off. Whilst the economic situation here is certainly not as bad as in many European countries, what is happening in Quebec can be seen as one more struggle in the global fight against austerity and against the obstinate and highly damaging reliance on finance capitalism as a model of socio-economic development. Ultimately, any significant transformation of the current model requires that it be a global initiative. As of now, and even if solidarity travels more easily than ever before, the people of Egypt, Syria, Greece, Spain and a whole host of countries about to or that should join in, are still directing their anger at their own heads of states. Perhaps the first steps in this struggle are going to have a primarily local and national character, even as we need to keep the Occupy Movement alive.

Finally, I am proud of my students and of all the others, I thank them for giving me a little tiny bit of hope and I ask them to keep demanding the impossible. And if you want to show solidarity with your comrades in Quebec, wear the little square-shaped piece of red cloth. We’ll need it for at least a few more days.

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9 thoughts on “It’s Really Kicking Off In Quebec

  1. This is thought provoking and fits in so well with John Holloway’s Crack Capitalism that I am currently reading. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you for a very passionate and informative post, Philippe. Law 78 should be struck down on the ground that is unconstitutional – as the majority if constitutional experts, lawyer associations, and human rights organizations in Quebec and Canada have argued. The politics of tuition rates is a little more complicated, especially when placed in some sort of comparative perspective. The rest of Canada (aka the “ROC”) doesn’t seem to like kicking off on this issue in general, and even within Montreal, as you note, there appears to be a clear divide between social, economic and linguistic identities on the one hand and on the other, as you say, “propensities to protest.” I am hoping you’d elaborate with some further thoughts. What I understand (from my reading the Cdn newsmedia, as well as from talking to some students protesters) is that all English-speaking CEGEPs continue to be open for business and that only a few dozen McGill U students have joined the strike. The student body of Concordia, the other English-speaking university in Montreal, appears to be mostly not on strike, much like the UdeM, which is usually described as the conservative francophone university. UQAM, in contrast, is all out. Prima facie, how would you explain these differences?

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    • Thank you for your comment Srdj. The CLASSE’s website (stopthehike.ca) has up to date information on the Universities (and within those which departments) and CEGEPS on strike. The University of Montreal is not known, as you rightly point out, for its militancy, but this time around they have a surprisingly large number of students on strike. It may be that mentalities are starting to change at l’UdeM. From its inception (it was created in 68 as a response to a shortage of accessible french-language Universities), l’UQAM has always had a more avowedly progressive agenda, although this does not entirely reflect the political leanings or research interests of its current social science faculties. Historically, it also has the more organized and militant student associations in Montreal. Concordia is generally known as the more arty, alternative anglophone University. In terms of student body, I think it’s the largest but the majority voted against the strike, except for a few postgraduate associations. Most teachers actually decided to ignore the votes and to go ahead with classes, exams and the like. The students themselves didn’t really contest those decisions with great conviction. Unsurprisingly, McGill (bar a tiny minority) has not really been affected by the strike and suffers little disturbances on its downtown campus. It likes to see itself as an Ivy league institution and most of its students are from outside Quebec (mainly from the rest of Canada and the US), which partly explains why they do not feel as concerned. Because they are a largely transient population, they are less likely to venture beyond the adjacent square mile, learn French or have extensive contacts with the locals. But this happens with a lot of Universities.

      McGill certainly has a reputation for being elitist, conservative and for not really being involved in the wider community (the latter may be unwarranted). In the not-so-distant past, it was decried by Quebec nationalists as a symbol of class domination and as a breeding ground for the ruling anglophone minority. Things have changed, but those memories linger and not all Quebec nationalists are discerning. I am not sure that there is such an enormous political divide between francophones and anglophones in Montreal itself, but there does seem to be a growing gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada, which is largely due to the conservatives’ social, political and environmental agenda. There has been a revival of nationalist/sovereignist sentiment which has been fueled less by a concern for the preservation of Quebecois culture or language than by the willingness to affirm a different set of values from the rest of Canada, that has, after all, voted for Stephen Harper. For a North American territory, Quebec is pretty social-democratic, anti-war (an estimated 150 000 marched against the Iraq War despite it being a little nippy (-30)) and environment-friendly. In that sense, you could say it resembles Europe more than the US.

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  5. Thanks for being so comprehensive and informative again. I think I am starting to understand the situation a little better, plus I recently learned that the HEC, UdeM’s (trilingual? international?) business school is staunchly against the strike, which supports your point about the socio-economic demographics. I also admit I hadn’t looked at the CLASSE’s website before, but the address strikes me as misnomer. waybeyondstopthehike would be more appropriate, methinks.

    I agree with you about the growing social and political gap between Quebec and the ROC. On top of the cultural/linguistic distinction, I’ve always felt that Que had a certain socio-political ontology on its own, a feeling that’s only deepened now that I live and work in Ottawa (uOttawa calls itself “Canada’s university” for a reason: our Quebecker students often know more about the rest of the world than about the ROC, just like our ROC students tend to know less about Quebec than places overseas). From what I can tell, the gap and the fact that it’s growing is also borne out in the soc-sci research on values (one of the first books on the subject I came across was Joel Garreau’s: http://www.garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3; and I’ve always wondered what status it has/had in Que). But I don’t know if this is about Harper and his party (“only” 5 point something million Canadians voted for him, plus as many a prime minister before, he did try to play the Quebec game early on, getting the House of Commons to declare francophone Quebeckers as a “nation within Canada”), so much as with the rise of the Western provinces (Could “Alberta, Fuck Yeah!” be an existing slogan somewhere?), which has the effect of provincializing Quebec further and defocusing federal politics away from issues regarded as too Québécois (which is to say, sadly, away from constitutional matters, too). This gap would probably continue to grow even with a Liberal or NDP government (or – gasp! – a red-orange coalition) in power.

    Having said that, you are probably right to say that a cultural-generational shift is taking place in Quebec that may be making the province act even more “European.” And, yes, the protests have had implications for, as you call it, the “nationalists/sovereignist sentiment.” Just today in La Presse I saw a CROP poll (I trust CROP the most) that says that the party representing this sentiment is up five points to 30 % (up six points in Montreal). But what surprised me was the fact that province-wide support for the Liberals (31%) did not at all drop since early May and it actually went up in the so-called regions, meaning that Charest might still have a very good shot at a plurality. Maybe I am interpreting it wrong, and of course polls are too short-term to be relevant for your point about the emergence of values different from the ROC. However, I must notice that since late 1970s/early 1980s support for “sovereignty” has more or less steadily hovered at or below 40% (exceptional moments like the run-up to the 1995 referendum notwithstanding). To get over 40%, the nationalists/sovereignist movement would probably have to rework both the values AND culture/language part of the equation and remake its version of Quebec identity into something more open and, dare I say, civic than we have seen before. This particular nationalist/sovereignist strategy may in fact be at play in Scotland, which many Québécois politicians are doubtless paying a lot of attention to these days.

    P.S. Heard this on the radio this morning: students at Dalhousie are learning how to voice dissent in a third year development class. The man behind it is Bob Huish: http://internationaldevelopmentstudies.artsandsocialsciences.dal.ca/Faculty%20and%20Staff/Bob_Huish.php

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    • Yeah Alberta should probably be the one to secede, they’re the special province. You’re right, it wasn’t a Harper landslide, but still, way too many people voted for him (especially in Southern Ontario). I think an NDP and Mulcair victory would reverse the growing split with Quebec a bit. Right now, Quebec students are certainly seen as a little too demanding by most canadians. I didn’t mean to say that the sovereignist movement was gathering a whole lot of steam but you do hear about it a lot more these days, which is not to say that the majority of Quebecers would vote for sovereignty. I totally agree with you that any such project would need to actively embrace a much more inclusive version of Québécois identity to be more palatable.
      As you say, there are a lot of Quebecers supporting the government’s law and order approach, and most of them tend to live outside Montreal. Quebec city has always been a lot more conservative. By and large, it is a montreal thing (read snobby, whiny left-wing artists for some people in Quebec) and Charest is fully aware of that. But he is walking a really tight rope and bill 78 didn’t boost his approval ratings, on the contrary. In general, Quebecers are very yes and no and have trouble expressing strong opinions, so what we have been seeing of late is unusual. Ideological debates are making a comeback.

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