This article is not intended to take any sides in this on-going dispute. We’re not implicated, it doesn’t concern us in any way. That said, we’re located in Montréal, our staff lives and works and plays in this city which has also become the epicentre of the protest movement. And as such we are affected, there’s no way around this.
For the most part, I, like the majority of Montrealers, have not been adversely affected by the protest and strike, which is now about four months old. I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it in its many different forms. Only once have I been witness to violence between police and what I assume were protesters. It was very uncomfortable; it’s a hell of a thing to see large groups of people suddenly compelled to run in the same direction, away from the police with clubs raised yelling ‘bouge!’ (move!) – I can imagine it’s very difficult for police to keep track of who they’re pursuing in a large group of people in the heart of the city, at night. But that was only once. I see the marches go by, I hear the casseroles banging at night, and I see more police in my city than ever before. I don’t feel threatened – I feel safe despite the occasional outbreaks of violence.
The violence is a disturbing issue, but it is not unique to Montréal, nor to this student movement. Large masses of people riot for various reasons and it happens (or can happen) in any large city; Montréal is no exception nor any more prone to such violence than any other. Indeed, in Canada, Vancouver was marred by Stanley Cup related rioting and Toronto is still reeling from the G8/G20 protests. The student movement, at present in Québec, is now just the majority in a much larger protest and civil disobedience movement encapsulating many Québecois from diverse backgrounds demanding immediate solutions to a broad, inter-connected web of grievances. The raise in tuition is now just a component cause of this problem, and in my opinion, even if the Charest government were to a agree to a total ban on tuition hikes for the foreseeable future, this would not stop the movement. As the movement is inherently diverse and seeks to force the government to change its position on at least one issue, other groups with somewhat similar concerns and similar perceived enemies in government, the movement has attracted numerous other groups. There’s no reason to hide the obvious, anti-Confederation advocates, fringe extremist anarchist groups and anti-Capitalists are now regular staples of some of the more extreme attention-getting demonstrations and civil disobedience actions. And we also cannot ignore that there’s nothing better than a protest or demonstration to attract some of the very worst in our society – those who simply enjoy wanton destruction and violence. These aforementioned groups and individuals are found in every city and province, and indeed, can be blamed for hockey riots, concert riots etc. They were at Woodstock 99, they were at the Guns and Roses/Metallica Show or the McGill Francais riots. It happens. There’s no need to blame nor associate the non-violent, passive protest majority who have found far better ways to demonstrate their discontent. I personally feel it’s vitally important to distinguish between these groups. I find it fascinating that some nearly universal key elements of mass protest which have given to very positive results in other countries generally involve the following – that it be a strictly non-violent affair, that protest be done ‘dressed in one’s Sunday best’ and there be absolutely zero-tolerance of these two rules being broken by anyone participating in such protest actions. The group polices itself via dress – most people are disinclined from ruining their best clothing and therefore will conduct themselves accordingly. Similarly, police don’t generally club people wearing suits and ties these days. It’s just the way it is. So why hasn’t the Quebec protest movement adopted these tactics? Nude protesting will only ever attract the least helpful attention.
Québecois pay the most in provincial taxes than any other province. It helps us build powerful ‘crown corporations’, like Hydro-Québec, which have since become revenue-generators for the province. And yes, it affords us some nice luxuries, like seven-dollar-a-day daycare (Alberta does not pay a dime to support this program, and in fact, it too has become self-sustaining), or the CEGEP system, or our beautiful provincial parks and ecological preservation zones. These taxes also pay for a public, province-wide post-secondary education system composed of CEGEP general-education and vocational colleges as well as a provincial network of universities.
When these provincial education systems went online in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was another jewel in the Quiet Revolution crown – Québec finally had the means to offer the masses a chance at real social advancement, not to mention secure cultural and capital investment in various municipalities. As the years went on, however, the schools in Montréal began to draw on a disproportionate number of students, and had no choice but to expand while regional schools got smaller. Tuition has risen several times since the initial cost of $500 per semester. This new rise is a 75% increase over three years – quite a shock to the average Québecois student of today. The fact is that school now costs, on average throughout Canada, about 6 times what the average was 40 years ago. It has grown by a far larger percentage than inflation. In cities such as Montréal, with an estimated student population of more than a quarter million (roughly 14% of the city’s population), a part-time job and three months of summer work is just barely enough to pay for school, supplies, an apartment, transportation, clothing, food and utilities. And if there are any stresses placed on those issues listed, an individual may have a very hard time indeed trying to get their degree. For many students, living at home with their parents is simply not an option, regardless of how much money it would save. There are many stresses besides those created by money. And so, many students have taken on an additional debt. This is happening on a vast scale, and is going on under a cloud of very public hearings into corruption into the provincial construction industry, high-profile indictments of former political officials and the apparent stagnation of the local economy, seemingly while others profit immensely from resource extraction. The Charest government’s proposed Plan Nord may save the Québec economy and make the province an economic powerhouse within Canada, but at what environmental cost? These issues, though unrelated in one sense, are being and have been delivered via modern media one atop the other. And for today’s hyper connected youth, it shouldn’t be any wonder that they can only see a laundry list of problems – in Montréal, Québec and Canada. And thus, the increase in tuition is seen as emblematic of a larger state of corruption and ill will towards the general populace. Now I don’t believe Jean Charest wakes up each morning wondering what nefarious deeds he can commit against the people of Québec. I believe he wakes up and goes to work trying to make the province a better place, with a stronger economy etc. I think he wonders about what he can do to increase our standard of living and manage costs. Of this I’m actually quite convinced.
But if there’s one common denominator here, it’s that the province has been remarkably disinterested from embracing social media and digital communications to plead their case to the voters. They have all the tools they need at their disposal to isolate the legitimate protest movement from those simply interested in inciting violence, and they could probably get the public’s help too. Moreover, the Charest government could be making an air-tight argument in favour of their tuition hike plan, or the Plan Nord, if they were to simply commit to explaining why they need to do so, in the primary mediums used by Québec’s students and youth in general.
A great Canadian once said the medium is the message, and I sincerely believe this applies here and now more than ever.