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Maple Spring Blooming: How the Attempt to Hike Tuition in Quebec Set Off a Powder Keg of Unrest

What started as a general student strike has morphed into an broad social fight against inequality and the intense crackdown on protest.
 
 
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The CLASSE contingent passing under the Berri underpass during the May 22, 2012 demonstration in Montreal. CLASSE is the largest coalition of striking student unions.
Photo Credit: Justin Ling/Flickr

 
 
 
 

MONTREAL, Canada -- As thousands take to Montreal’s streets nightly banging pots and pans, a Canadian awakening dubbed the "Maple Spring” is beginning to paralyze the country’s second largest city. What started as a general student strike against a 75-percent hike in university tuition in February has morphed into a broad social fight against inequality and an increasing state crackdown on rights to organize and protest.

The issue of accessible education has set off a powder keg of social unrest in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec. Premier Jean Charest’s government -- embroiled in corruption scandals relating to the construction and resource extraction industries -- has tried to use riot police and authoritarian legislation to avoid negotiating with students.

More than 100 days of strike for 160,000 students has brought hundreds of thousands people into the streets. The backing of professors' unions, major labor federations and community groups has bolstered the movement. It is a conflict that has seen fierce clashes with police in Montreal's streets, at the governing Liberal Party’s congress meeting and on campus picket lines. As police use rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, batons and mass arrests, protesters have dug in their heels. Police charges have been increasingly met by overpowering numbers of protesters repelling or swarming their lines, returning teargas canisters or hurling rocks and bottles as the riot squad forcefully attempts to end protests.

Consistently stating its unwillingness to compromise on the choice to hike tuition, the government first tried to use the courts to end the strike by encouraging injunctions against picket lines at striking schools. Students responded by swarming the campuses in defiance, forcing them to remain closed. Then, on May 18, the government pushed through emergency legislation barring the right to demonstrate within 50 meters of campus buildings, eliminating the right of spontaneous protest for more than 50 people anywhere in Quebec, and imposing massive fines on people in breach. The law can also hold student representatives and labor unions guilty of organizing protests even if they aren’t present.

However, the law’s intent on quelling protests backfired. The immediate reaction was fierce confrontations on the nightly protest marches of thousands. The boisterous night protests that have been happening in Montreal every night for the past month have spread to other cities in Quebec.

Outraged at the law and the police violence and mass arrests during the night time demonstrations, impromptu evening neighborhood marches of residents banging pots and pans has taken off. Inspired by the Argentinian protest against austerity following the 2001 economic collapse, the marches quickly spread across the city and province, carrying social frustration against an increasingly isolated political elite into the streets.

Although disillusionment with a government seen to be serving the interests of the wealthy and their supporters has been building for sometime, education has become the proxy issue for a greater fight over the direction society takes through the global economic crisis. This is because there is large support for universal access to education, which is viewed as both a social right and a social good that doesn’t simply profit individuals. This principle has been the backbone of Quebec maintaining the lowest university tuition in North America.

“What is interesting is that the reforms that the Liberal government are trying in Quebec are based on the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education that is already applied in the US,” says Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for CLASSE, the largest coalition of striking student unions. “So we see the consequences of this model in the US, we see what will happen to our education system if we don’t mobilize enough to defend it,” he adds, referring to skyrocketing student debt across America.

 
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