Student demonstrations against a proposed increase in tuition fees have grown into the most potent protest movement in North America of the day. Like Occupy, the ‘Red Square’ movement demands less emphasis on neoliberal values. And like the Arab Spring, young protesters in the streets want to bring the government to its knees.
By Frank Kuin in Montreal
Night has fallen in Montreal, and that means time for a new battle ritual. Thousands of young people have gathered in Place Émilie-Gamelin for a daily evening march through the streets of the French-speaking metropolis. Most demonstrators have pinned a small red square to their clothes. They chant “À nous la rue!” – the street is ours!
Without obvious leadership and flanked by police officers in cars, on motorcycles and bicycles, the sea of youth winds an uncharted route through the city, its progress traced live on Twitter. Like protests under the ‘Occupy’ banner, slogans are chanted against capitalism, but also against the Liberal provincial government of Quebec. Helicopters are hovering overhead. “Shame on you,” a woman yells to the protesters from a balcony.
The large-scale demonstration is part of a growing student rebellion that has dominated Quebec for three months – and that has grown into a powerful protest movement, the largest in North America at this time. What began as a regional conflict over tuition fees has in recent weeks escalated to deep, and sometimes violent, unrest over neoliberal cuts in social spending in the name of fiscal discipline and the right to demonstrate against them.
Supporters of the movement of the Red Square – a symbol for the fight against poverty – take inspiration from the Arab Spring. Like in Cairo, demonstrators in Montreal are aiming to bring the government to its knees from the streets.
They are supported by the sovereigntist opposition in the province, and by leftist personalities like author Margaret Atwood and filmmaker Michael Moore. The popular Montreal rock group Arcade Fire boosted the movement this weekend by wearing red squares during a performance on the American TV show Saturday Night Live.
Where ‘Occupy’ lacked a concrete goal, the Red Square movement has a laser focus on access to education. “The government wants to raise our fees and reduce services, but we won’t let it happen,” says Tommy Demers, a 21-year-old film student at the Université de Montreal, who is walking in the march. “Education is an investment, and should be more important than profits of large corporations.”
Red Square movement has a laser focus on access to education
Since February, Demers has been taking part in the action that launched the Red Square movement: a large-scale boycott of classes by students in Quebec, in protest against a plan by the provincial government to lift a long-standing freeze in tuition fees.
The government wants to raise the contribution of students to their own studies by 75 per cent over seven years, from almost $2,200 to $3,800 per year. The measure, which comes down to an annual increase in tuition fees of about $250, is intended to better finance universities and colleges and to combat the budget deficit.
Although Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in North America, student groups are adamantly opposed to the plan. Education should be free, they argue. They don’t compare Quebec with other parts of Canada or the United States, but with Europe, where affordable access to higher education is seen as a fundamental right for everyone.
About 155,000 students of a total of 475,000 take part in the boycott, which they call a strike. The action marked its 100th day yesterday with a giant manifestation of more than 100,000 demonstrators in the streets of Montreal. The academic semester at participating institutions has been suspended.
In recent weeks, demonstrations have led to riots and vandalism. Students have blocked bridges and highways, shut down Montreal’s metro system with smoke bombs, and the evening demonstrations have often produced clashes with police and dozens of arrests. Earlier this month, angry students blockaded colleges and stormed a university to prevent others who wanted to attend their lectures from doing so – even though a court ordered that those students should have access to their classes.
Last week, the government of Premier Jean Charest responded to the unrest by introducing an emergency law to restrict the demonstrations. Under this law, ‘Loi 78’, protest marches are banned if the route is not provided to police in advance. The same goes for demonstrations within 50 meters of an educational institution.
“We need to bring back social peace,” Charest said in defense of the legislation, which takes a page from protest rules in other large cities, including Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. “We cannot accept that access be blocked, we will not bow to violence and intimidation. Our laws need to be obeyed.”
The severe measure, while supported by sections of the population who are tired of the unrest, has caused a wave of outrage among students and other citizens, as well as newspapers and civil rights organizations that have strongly denounced it. Instead of ending the protests, the step has led to larger manifestations, now also in defense of the right of free assembly. The rule to provide routes to police is ignored.
Indeed, the law has enabled the Red Square movement to take on the aura of a liberation movement against a repressive regime. In a pun on the Canadian symbol of the maple, the movement is described by some as printemps érable, which sounds like the French term for the Arab Spring, printemps arabe.
“We are appalled by this Bill 78,” says Sophie Toupin, a participant in yesterday’s huge protest march. She is carrying a flag pole with a large square red flag. “Such a bill should not exist, it is not a way for a government to respond to protests. The Red Square represents a movement of the whole against neoliberal values like individuality and property. We should be thinking more about collective rights like education. We have critical mass.”
Quebec, with its two language groups and aspirations to sovereignty, has a long history of outbursts of social unrest. In conflict-averse English Canada, however, daily images of riots on the TV news are watched with growing horror. According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, the conflict is no longer about tuition fees, but “about whether decisions made by a democratically elected government can be overcome by force.”
“The state owes us everything, and if we don’t get it, we’ll riot in the streets”
Many outside Quebec believe that Montreal has been taken over by spoiled children. Some compare the province, a net recipient of billions of dollars in federal tax revenues, to Greece. “These are the children of the celebrated Quebec model,” wrote columnist Margaret Wente, referring to the province’s extensive system of social services. It “shares a mindset with the not-so-celebrated Greek model: the state owes us everything, and if we don’t get it, we’ll riot in the streets.”
Meanwhile, the nightly protest march is winding its way through the streets of Montreal. Jeremy Searle, a bystander and former city councillor, is watching from a sidewalk. “I admire the students for their tenacity, but they have gone too far,” he says. “They could win, because the government is weak. The students know what they are doing, the police and the government don’t.”
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