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The Secret of Joy: Six Lessons From Quebec’s “Maple Spring“

Lessons to learn from the brave students of Quebec.

As I read more about the student movement in Quebec, known as the “Maple Spring” or the “Casserole Revolution,” it brings to mind the final scene from Possessing the Secret of Joy, by one of my favorite authors, Alice Walker. In that scene, the main character — Tashi, a minor character from The Color Purple— discovers a truth. From Wall Street to Wisconsin, and Cairo to Quebec, people the world over are realizing that same truth every day.

Today, that truth is echoed in the chants, protests and placards of protesters in the streets of Montreal. It’s the same truth Walker spelled out in huge block letters near the end of her novel: RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY.

It started simply enough, as a provincial story familiar enough to resonate around the world. In February, the Quebec government announced a 75% tuition hike at universities in the mostly French-speaking Canadian province. The tuition hike is due to cuts in education supplements, which Quebec’s government says are necessary to tackle its budget deficit. Students responded by boycotting classes, blocking bridges, and holding smaller protests in what quickly became the longest strike in the province’s history.

When the Quebec government responded with draconian legislation, banning gathering of more than 50 without a permit, and threatening student unions and associations with heavy fines, the movement only grew. On March 22nd, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 students from all over Quebec marched in the streets of Montreal, in what organizers called the “largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”

The government’s response also had the effect of causing the movement to transcend both the issue of tuition and the borders of Quebec itself. In truth, the issue has always been about more than tuition. As one student protesting the austerity-driven tuition hike, “It will be the middle class that pays for this.” The Fight Tuition Increases website, created in response to government’s decision to increase tuition fees, explains the cost to students and the whole of Quebec society.

“The $1,625 tuition increase has nothing to do with the quality of teaching or the value of a university degree. In fact, this fee hike (the largest in Quebecs history) will force students to take on more debt, second jobs, or even drop out of school. The Charest governments proposal directly compromises equality of access to the benefits of a university degree for individual students and hurts Quebec society as a whole.”

While tuition fees would still be significantly lower than in other Canadian provinces, and in the U.S., the Quebec government will increase tuitions by 143% by 2017, since the 2007 “defreeze” on tuition fees. The increase will have the effect of making higher education less accessible.

The students of the Quebec movement understand their protest is bigger than tuition increases. The Fight Tuition Increase website notes that sacrifice is anything but “shared” in Quebec.

“In 2007, the Canadian government transferred more than $700 million in additional federal funding to the Quebec government. The Charest government could have invested this money in education, which would have far exceeded the $325 million currently collected by tuition fee increases. Instead, the richest individuals and corporations got a tax cut and students were left with nothing.”

As Linda McQuaig writes in the Toronto Star, “The Quebec students, more attuned to the outside world, have figured out that this self-denial has more to do with dogma than with some new reality allegedly necessitated by the global economy.”

As it continues to grow, the Quebec student movement holds some lessons for the home of phenomena like the Occupy Movement and the Wisconsin movement that recently forced a historic gubernatorial recall elections. Here are six lessons from the Maple Spring.

1. Remember what you already know. Martin Lukacs writes in The Guardian that the Occupy Movement was a “game-changer” that inspire the Quebec student unions with its “spirit of direct democracy,” and gave students “a fresh language with which to understand the 1%’s attempt to pass the buck to students.” That spirit of “direct democracy,” the results of the Wisconsin recall notwithstanding, has resulted in “a progressive movement that is deeper and broader than before.” That “fresh language” changed the focus of our national discourse from “shared sacrifice” to inequality and economic justice.

Digby points out progressives are going to have to remember both, if we’re to be the change we seek, and that the country so desperately needs.

“However, if you still believe that progressive principles can be successfully applied to democratic government, then supporting progressive candidates for congress is one way to do that. It’s less glamorous than the ecstatic “Camp Obama” experience of 2008 and it’s long term project that goes forward in fits and starts and features plenty of disappointment —- but it can result, over time, in changing the way government works.

But we need progressive political leaders to do that, leaders who are not beholden to the big money interests or to the Party establishment apparatus, who are committed to liberal principles and are smart enough to work the levers of state power for the benefit of the people. The four Blue America candidates who are on the ballot tomorrow are among those leaders.

I’m all for doing whatever it takes to save the country. Social movements are necessary and I hope that everyone is thinking about how they can participate. Local involvement is also important, whether in politics or some other form of community work. Education and persuasion on a personal and public level must be among our priorities as well. But you can’t leave the national government solely in the hands of the plutocrats and the authoritarians. We have to at least try to influence the state. It simply holds too much power over all of our lives and the lives of people all over the planet.”

2. It doesn’t happen overnight. At Waging Nonviolence, Zoltán Glöck and Manissa McCleave Maharawal write that what seems like a movement sprung up overnight was actually a long time in the works. The tuition increase have been on the table since 2010, and student unions across Quebec spent two years working to build the movement that has spilled into the streets of Montreal, and brought the government to the bargaining table, at least for a time. The unions have provided students a way to “organize politically, granting them both legitimacy and power.” They made possible the “longer-term mobilizing strategies” and campaigns that built support for the strike.

Progressives need to emulate that the movement-building that led to the Quebec movement. Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in the Washington Post.

“And in the last 15 months, Wisconsin’s progressives have shown us that the battle against bankrolled austerity can be bravely waged by an army of dedicated people committed to protecting working families. They’ve reminded us that good organizing is our only chance to withstand the blitzkrieg of corporate funded advertising and better yet, leave a lasting mark. Their movement, with thousands of new Wisconsin activists mobilized, energized and educated, can be permanent and it can keep growing.”

3. Sustained resistance is effective. Biola Jeje and Isabelle Nastasia, at Alternet, write that “occupation of physical spaces” will continue to be essential to the success of student movements. This, they say, is one lesson of the Occupy movement. Yet, it’s one that conjures up memories of the coordinated eviction of Occupy encampments in several cities, followed by questions about the movement’s viability without a space to “occupy.”

Perhaps occupation is better employed as a tactic, within a larger strategy of sustained resistance. Chris Hedges sees the Quebec movement as an example of the kind of sustained resistance that progressive should engage in here at home, in solidarity with the Quebec movement, and similar movements around the world. Hedges cites the crackdown on Occupy movement as a sign of its success, because “the corporate state understood and feared its potential to spark a popular rebellion.” That fear is reflected in the Quebec government’s response to the “Maple Spring.”

Sustained resistance is already underway. Though ignored by the media, the Occupy movement has been busy spinning off an Occupy Our Homes movement focused on helping people keep their homes, rallying agains NATO, reviving May Day and restoring its message. In Wisconsin, progressive forced Governor Scott Walker into a recall election he barely survived.

4. Realize that social conditions are not inevitable. The contrast between Quebec students and American students is stark, in more ways than one. The Fight Tuition Increases makes it clear that the Quebec students’ protest against tuition increases is also resistance against the inevitable, insidious result of those increases: increased student debt.

The tuition increases represent a “massive burden for middle class students,” 75% of whom remain excluded from financial aid. Their choices are: more work, more debt, or no college education. The tuition hikes mean a nearly impossible burden for low-income students. The running debt clock of the Canadian Federation of Students puts the total amount of Canadian students’ loan debt at $14.5 billion, most of which falls on low-income students.

That’s why Quebec students painted Montreal red. The squares of red felt pinned to jackets and backpacks, taped to shoes and baby carriages are symbolic of both the crushing debt carried by Canadian students, and Quebec students resistance against tuition increases that will yoke them with even more debt. The red squares originated from the Quebecois phrase, “squarely in debt,” which is where more and more middle class students will find themselves if the tuition increases go forward.

Perhaps being “squarely in debt” with graduation loomin, repayments coming due, and a dismal job market on the horizon would make students easier to control, or at least less likely to resist. Jeje and Natasia suggest that’s why no similar student movement has occurred in the U.S. Despite a few rallies here and there, American students have largely accepted the inevitability of increased tuition and the burden of increased debt.

Thus, the first and most necessary “occupation” is internal.

“Given how profoundly US students have been cut off from channels of power at universities, the road before us may be long. But if we hope to achieve our goals, we first must realize, collectively, that the social conditions we face as students are not inevitable. We cant just erect tents in the middle of our campuses and expect the world to change around us. We need to take control of our own minds, as well as take space. Only then will we breathe new life into our educational system.”

Or, to borrow a line from Funadelik, “Free your mind… and your ass will follow.”

5. Remember the consequences of enduring political paralysis. I can’t put it any better than Chris Hedges.

“If these mass protests fail, opposition will inevitably take a frightening turn. The longer we endure political paralysis, the longer the formal mechanisms of power fail to respond, the more the extremists on the left and the rightthose who venerate violence and are intolerant of ideological deviationswill be empowered. Under the steady breakdown of globalization, the political environment has become a mound of tinder waiting for a light.

…Those of us who care about a civil society, and who abhor violence, should begin to replicate what is happening in Quebec. There is not much time left. The volcano is about to erupt. I know what it looks and feels like. Yet there is a maddening futility in naming what is happening. The noise and cant of the crowd, the seduction of ideologies of hate and violence, the blindness of those who foolishly continue to place their faith in a dead political process, the sea of propaganda that confuses and entertains, the apathy of the good and the industry and dedication of the bad, conspire to drown out reason and civility. Instinct replaces thought. Toughness replaces empathy. Authenticity replaces rationality. And the dictates of individual conscience are surrendered to the herd.

There still is time to act. There still are mass movements to join. If the street protests in Quebec, the most important resistance movement in the industrialized world, spread to all of Canada and reach the United States, there remains the possibility of hope.”

6. Resistance is the secret of joy. We already know this, of course. We’ve seen it. We’ve felt it in the streets of Madison, WI, at Zuccotti Park, and Occupy encampments in other cities.

“Young Americans, joined by everyone from airline pilots to labor unions and U.S. Marines (about as far from “hippies” as one could imagine) have occupied Wall Street for weeks now, because they know who “broke” the economy. Americans are occupying Washington, D.C., because they know who “broke” the economy, who allowed it to happen, and who still hasn’t done much of anything about it. We have been living with the consequences of “sins” not our own, because our government failed to protect us from the sins of others. Namely, Wall Street.

Americans are occupying their own cities all over the country, because we know in a crisis this big, the scene of the crime is in our own cities, our neighborhoods, and sometimes even in our own living rooms; because we have friends or family who are getting laid off because of local/state budget cuts that state/local jobs cuts that are slowing down what passes as a recovery; because we are or have children who are graduating off a cliff into a jobless recovery and an economy with no place for them; because foreclosures have left our neighborhoods struggling with blight; because the future we dreamed up for our children is in peril.

For all these reasons and more, Americans are taking to the streets. There’s a line that runs from the Wisconsin protests, connecting them. Instead of hardening our hearts against each other, the economic crisis has “sharpened our instincts for empathy” and, as President Obama said in his Tucson speech, caused us to “remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” We have not used it as an opportunity to turn on each other. Instead, a sense of shared struggles empowers us to demand accountability and justice.”

We are seeing it again in the streets of Montreal.

“As this movement goes on, and grows by leaps and bounds, it is increasingly clear that it is not a movement of anger, of rage or of hate. It is a movement of love, of community and of hope. People who would be alone in their houses watching TV take to the streets and march with neighbors they never knew they had. Back when we had real communities, they were driven by the coming together of neighbors each night. Instead of watching TV, we met in the street, we exchanged details of our day and we made plans for our future. Just as the “casseroles” cause us to do now.

Perhaps the most lasting effect of this movement will be to build stronger, more connected communities. Every day that it goes on, more of us meet in the street, build relationships and talk about what kind of a society we want.

This is what Charest is afraid of. This is what keeps the powerful awake at night. If we talk, if we exchange ideas and debate the future of our society, we will want to change it. And nothing terrifies the powerful more than a change to the system which gives them their power.

The most honest reason which can be given for why people are in the street is the simplest. We do not see ourselves reflected in our government. But we see ourselves, our concerns, our hope, our love and our aspirations, reflected in every smiling face we see on the street.For the first time in a long time we are having a real conversation about what kind of society we want. We’re having it with each other, every night when we meet in the streets. And slowly, but surely, we are realizing that we have the power to make our dreams a reality.”

Resistance is the secret of joy.

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