The student strikes in Quebec, which began in February and have lasted for three months, involving roughly 175,000 students in the mostly French-speaking Canadian province, have been subjected to a massive provincial and national media propaganda campaign to demonize and dismiss the students and their struggle. The following is a list of ten points that everyone should know about the student movement in Quebec to help place their struggle in its proper global context.
1. The issue is debt, not tuition.
In dismissing the students, who are striking against a 75% increase in the cost of tuition over the next five years, the most common argument employed is that Quebec students pay the lowest tuition in North America and therefore should not be complaining. Even with the 75% increase, they will still be paying substantially lower than most other provinces. Quebec students pay on average $2,500 per year in tuition, while the rest of Canada’s students pay on average $5,000 per year. With the tuition increase of $1,625 spread out over five years, the total tuition cost for Quebec students would be roughly $4,000.
The premise here is that since the rest of Canada has it worse and Quebec students should shut up, sit down and accept “reality.” This is false. In playing the numbers game, commentators and their parroting public repeat the tuition costs but fail to add in the numbers which represent the core issue: DEBT. So, Quebec students pay half the average national tuition. True. But they also graduate with half the average national student debt. With the average tuition at $5,000 per year, the average student debt for an undergraduate in Canada is $27,000, while the average debt for an undergraduate in Quebec is $13,000. With interest rates expected to increase, in the midst of a hopeless job situation for Canadian youth, Canada’s youth face a future of debt that “is bankrupting a generation of students.” The notion, therefore, that Quebec students should not struggle against a bankrupt future is itself a bankrupted argument.
2. Striking students in Quebec are setting an example for youth across the continent.
Nearly 60% of Canadian students graduate with debt, an average of $27,000 for an undergraduate degree. Total student debt now stands at about $20 billion (compared to a trillion in the U.S.). Roughly 70% of new jobs in Canada require a post-secondary education. Half of students in their twenties live at home with their parents. A four-year degree for a student living at home in Canada costs $55,000, and those costs are expected to increase in coming years at a rate faster than inflation. In 18 years, a four-year degree for Canadian students will cost $102,000. Defaults on government student loans are at roughly 14%. The Chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students warned in June 2011, “We are on the verge of bankrupting a generation before they even enter the workplace.”
This immense student debt affects every decision made in the lives of young graduates. Owing so much money for so many years severely curtails spending, which is where the economy most needs a boost. With few jobs, enormous housing costs, the cutting of future benefits and social security, students are entering an economy which holds very little for them in opportunities. Women, minorities, and other marginalized groups are in an even more disadvantaged position. An informal Globe and Mail poll in early May found that students across Canada share a similar anxiety over rising tuition fees as that felt in Quebec, and roughly 62% of post-secondary students said they would join a similar strike in their own province. In Ontario, which boasts the highest tuition in Canada, 69% said they would support a strike against increasing tuition. Since governments underwrite student loans, if students default it could be catastrophic for public finances. If the bubble explodes, it could be just like the mortgage crisis.
3. The student strike was organized through democratic means and with democratic aims.
The decision to strike was made through student associations and organizations that operate through direct democracy. While most student associations at schools across Canada hold elections where students choose the members of the associations, the democratic accountability ends there – just as it does with government. Among the Francophone schools in Quebec, the leaders are not only elected by the students, but decisions are made through general assemblies, debate and discussion, and through the votes of the actual constituents. This means that the student associations that voted to strike are more democratically accountable and participatory than the government. The Anglophone student associations that went on strike – from Concordia and McGill – did so because, for the first time ever, they also began to operate through direct democracy. This has naturally resulted in insults and derision from the media. The national media in Canada – specifically the National Post – complain that the student “tactics are anything but democratic,” dubbing it “mob rule.” First they ignore you, then they mock you…
4. This is not an exclusively Quebecois phenomenon.
I am an Anglophone. I don’t speak French. I have only lived in Montreal for two years, yet I feel that the strikers are struggling as much for me as for any other student, Francophone or Anglophone. Typically, when others across Canada see what is taking place here, they frame it along the lines of, “Oh those Quebecois, always yelling about something.” But I’m yelling too – in English. Many people here are yelling in English. It is true that the majority of the students protesting are Francophone, and the majority of the schools on strike are Francophone, but it is not exclusionary. In fact, the participation in the strike from the Anglophone schools is unprecedented in Quebec history. This was undertaken because students began mobilizing at the grassroots and emulating the French student groups in adopting direct democracy.
5. Government officials and the media have been openly calling for violence and “fascist” tactics to be used against the students.
With all the focus on student violence at protests, breaking bank windows, throwing rocks at riot police and other acts of vandalism, it is worth noting that student leaders have never called for violence against the government or vandalism against property – they have, in fact, denounced it and spoken out for calm, stating: “The student movement wants to fight alongside the populace and not against it.” In fact, it has been government officials and the national media that have been openly calling for violence to be used against students.
On May 11, Michael Den Tandt wrote in the National Post, “It’s time for tough treatment of Quebec student strikers,” and recommended to Quebec Premier Jean Charest that he “bring down the hammer.” Tandt claimed that there was “a better way” to deal with student protesters: “Dispersal with massive use of tear gas; then arrest, public humiliation, and some pain.” He even went on to suggest that “caning is more merciful than incarceration.” Kelly McParland, writing the for National Post on May 11, suggested that it was time for Charest to “empower the police to use the full extent of the law against those who condone or pursue further disruption,” and that the government must make a “show of strength” against the students.
If that’s not bad enough, get ready for this: A member of the Quebec Liberal Party, Bernard Guay, wrote an article for a French-language newspaper in Quebec in mid-April advocating a strategy to “end the student strikes.” In the article, the government official recommended using the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s as an example in how to deal with “leftists” in giving them “their own medicine.” He suggested organizing a political “cabal” to handle the “wasteful and anti-social” situation, which would mobilize students to not only cross picket lines, but to confront and assault students who wear the little red square (the symbol of the student strike). This, Guay suggested, would help society “overcome the tyranny of Leftist agitators,” no doubt by emulating fascist tyranny. The article was eventually pulled and an apology was issued, while a government superior supposedly reprimanded Guay. Just contemplate this for a moment: A Quebec Liberal government official recommended using “inspiration” from fascist movements to attack the striking students. Imagine if one of the student associations had openly called for violence, let alone for the emulation of fascism. It would be national news, and likely lead to arrests and charges. But since it was a government official, barely a peep was heard.
6. Excessive state violence has been used against the students.
Throughout three months of protests in Quebec, the violence has almost exclusively been blamed on the students. Images of protesters throwing rocks and breaking bank windows inundate the media and “inform” the discourse, demonizing the students as violent, vandals and destructive.
In reality, the state violence being used against the students far exceeds any of the violent reactions from protesters, but receives much less coverage. Riot police routinely meet students with pepper spray, tear gas, concussion grenades, smoke bombs, beating them with batons, shoot them with rubber bullets, and have even been driving police cars and trucks into groups of students. On May 4, the 42nd anniversary of the Kent State massacre in which the U.S. National Guard murdered four protesting students, Quebec almost experienced its own Kent State when several students were critically injured by police, shot with rubber bullets in the face. One student lost an eye and another remains in the hospital with serious head injuries, including a skull fracture and brain contusion.
The Quebec provincial police have not only been involved in violent repression of student protests in Quebec but have also trained foreign police forces how to violently repress their own populations, such as in Haiti. Roughly 12,000 people in Quebec have signed a petition against the police reaction to student protests, stipulating that the police actions have been far too violent. In late April, even before the Quebec police almost killed a couple students, Amnesty International “asked the government to call for a toning down of police measures that…are unduly aggressive and might potentially smother students’ right to free expression.”
The Quebec government, of course, defends police violence against students and youths. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s spy agency, has recently announced its interest in “gathering intelligence” on Quebec student protesters and related groups as “possible threats to national security.” Coincidentally, Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismantled the government agency responsible for oversight of CSIS, making the agency essentially unaccountable. In reaction to student protests, the City of Montreal is considering banning masks being worn at protests in a new bylaw which is being voted on without public consultation. Thus, apparently it is fine for police to wear gas masks as they shoot chemical agents at Quebec’s youth, but students cannot attempt to even meagerly protect themselves by covering their faces.
7. The government supports organized crime and opposes organized students.
The government claims that it must increase the cost of tuition in order to balance the budget and to increase the “competitiveness” of schools. The government has ignored, belittled, undermined, attempted to divide, and outright oppress the student movement. The Liberal Government of Quebec, in short, has declared organized students to be enemies of the state.
Meanwhile, that same government has no problem of working with and supporting organized crime; namely, the Montreal Mafia. In 2010, Quebec under Premier Jean Charest was declared to be “the most corrupt province” in Canada. A former opposition leader in the Montreal city hall reported that “the Italian mafia controls about 80 percent of city hall.” The mafia is a “big player” in the Quebec economy, and “is deeply entrenched in city affairs” of Montreal, as “more than 600 businesses pay Mafia protection money in Montreal alone, handing organized crime leaders an unprecedented degree of control of Quebec’s economy.” The construction industry, especially, is heavily linked to the mafia. The Montreal Mafia is as influential as its Sicilian counterpart, where “all of the major infrastructure work in Sicily is under Mafia control.” In 2009, a government official stated that “it’s Montreal’s Italian Mafia that controls, from what we can tell, 80 percent of the contracts.”
8. Canada’s elites punish the people and oppose the students.
It’s not simply the government of Quebec that has set itself against the students, sought to increase their tuition and repress their resistance, often with violent means, but a wide sector of elite society in Quebec and Canada support tuition increases and the repression of a growing social movement. As such, the student movement should recognize that not it’s not just Jean Charest and his Liberal-Mafia government who are the antagonists of social justice, but the whole elite society itself.
As early as 2007, TD Bank, one of Canada’s big five banks, outlined a “plan for prosperity” for the province of Quebec, recommending that Quebec raise tuition costs for students. Naturally the Quebec government is more likely to listen to a bank than the youth of the province. Banks of course, have an interest in increasing tuition costs for students, as they provide student loans and lines of credit which they charge interest on and make profits. The Royal Bank of Canada acknowledged that student lines of credit are “very popular products.” Elites of all sorts support the tuition increases. In February of 2010, a group of prominent Quebecers signed a letter proposing to increase Quebec’s tuition costs. Among the signatories were the former Premier of Quebec for the Parti Quebecois, Lucien Bouchard. In early May they published another letter in the Montreal Gazette which stated that students need to pay more for their education.
9. The student strike is being subjected to a massive and highly successful propaganda campaign to discredit, dismiss, and demonize the students.
In the vast majority of coverage on the student strike and protests in Quebec, the media and its many talking heads have undertaken a major propaganda campaign against the students. The students have been consistently ignored, dismissed, derided, insulted and attacked. One Canadian newspaper said it was “hard to feel sorry” for Quebec students, who were “whining and crying” and “kicking up a fuss,” treating Canada’s young generation like ungrateful children throwing a collective tantrum. Of course, with hundreds of thousands flooding the streets, that characterization doesn’t hold water.
10. The student movement is part of a much larger emerging global movement of resistance against austerity, neoliberalism, and corrupt power.
In the coverage and discourse about the student movement, very little context is given in placing this student movement in a wider global context. The Guardian acknowledged this, commenting on the red squares worn by striking students (a symbol of going squarely into the red, into debt), explaining that they have “become a symbol of the most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent.” The article also adopted the term promoted by the student movement itself to describe the wider social context of the protests, calling it the “Maple Spring.” The protest is about more than tuition; it’s aimed at the elite class itself. “Those people are a single elite, a greedy elite, a corrupt elite, a vulgar elite, an elite that only sees education as an investment in human capital, that only sees a tree as a piece of paper and only sees a child as a future employee,” a student demonstrator said.
The student strike has thus become a social movement. The protests aim at economic disruption through civil disobedience, and have garnered the support of thousands of protesters who have blocked entrances to banks, disrupted a conference for the Plan Nord exploitation and linking the movement with indigenous and environmental groups. It was only when the movement began to align with other social movements and issues that the government even accepted the possibility of speaking to students.
Thus the Maple Spring continues. Solidarity, brothers and sisters!