25 May 2012

Québec dans la rue (in the streets) . . .

This post is about a highly politicized on-going issue in Quebec.  
I am not purporting to know all the details, and acknowledge up front that my understanding 
of the situation is based on a range of conversations, news coverage, and personal observation.  
As most of the posturing has taken place in French, it is likely something has been lost in translation.  

This post is being shared in order to provide readers outside of Quebec with some basic awareness of the situation.  Period.

Students gather in front of the National Assembly,
in preparation for yet another night of demonstrating in Quebec City.

If you don't live in Canada, you may not have heard about something the media here (or is it the protesters?) are starting to call the Printemps Érables (Maple Spring).  A twist on the "Arab Spring" moniker, this label is attached to a student-led protest effort that has been underway in Quebec since early spring.

It started in reaction to proposed tuition increases in the Quebec university system.   Students protested, and eventually voted to go on strike - i.e., not go to class, and in some instances, not even do work (research, etc.).  As a result of concerted effort by student unions, the protests recruited 10s, then hundreds, and now 1000s of people (mostly but not exclusively students), and have thoroughly disrupted academic efforts, and more recently, commerce and daily life in certain cities.

Jerod and I have watched this all develop with the mix of fascination and trepidation.  We only know the bits and pieces we have picked up in our everyday exposure to Quebec culture, so we probably have a kaleidoscopic perspective.

A red square symbolizes the tuition protests,
signifying students being "squarely in the red."
Supporters and protesters alike sport the red
square, while more recently, opponents have
started wearing green squares, and pacifists
have taken to wearing white ones.  You can
spot a protester from some distance, due to
this symbol, which has also been spray-painted
across the province, stuck to light poles, etc.
Here are some snippets we've heard and noticed, which appear relevant:
  • Freedom to assemble and protest is a fiercely guarded provincial charter (constitution) right.
  • Students often protest various things...at all levels of education.
  • Strikes and protests appear common and frequent, across all sectors.
  • For several decades, tuition has not increased here, due to political promises made by previous administrations.  
  • Quebec students pay the lowest rates in Canada, and comparatively, in much of the developed world.
  • A very small % of students (initially) were active in these protests, and were often the only ones present during votes to skip classes, stop working, reject government proposals, etc.  The apathy and distance displayed by the majority of students left a vacuum of power which was filled by the vocal minority.
  • There was increasing media attention, and in the case of the Montreal protests, there appears to be 24-hr. media coverage at this point.
  • Initially, the government disregarded the whole deal, but the students gained momentum and garnered attention.  More recently, the government has been compelled to engage with the truant students in a way that mimics labor disputes, rather than students skipping class, demonstrating, and preventing other students from going to class.
  • Not surprisingly, the students have been joined, since the outset, by others seeking social change.  While the rallying cry may be halte l'hausse (stop the increase), the crowd reminds me a lot of the Occupy movement from last spring.  Indeed, many individuals interviewed by media outlets, etc., state direct association with local Occupy groups, or other activist organizations.  

I can sympathize with the peripheral considerations raised by various factions, which include concern about raising tuition fees while various other aspects of university administration remain over-funded (salaries, sports programs, etc. have been pointed out), and such funding streams appear to be less than transparent.  Additionally, the protesters state concerns about equal access to education, and the impact increased tuition may have on future students.

On the other hand, I don't understand the logic behind skipping classes one has already paid for.  I don't particularly approve of their actions to prevent other students from continuing to work and study (as has been the case throughout the province).  Additionally, the demonstrations in some locations have become ugly, with people vandalizing property, and clashes are now occurring between protesters and riot police.  However, these tactics appears to have gained the demonstrators a great deal of media and government attention.

Police have been present at all demonstrations, across the province, 
serving two functions (at minimum): 1) keep the peaceful protesters safe 
while on the streets, and 2) keep the public safe if the protests turn into riots.  
I can't help but wonder how much this has cost, given organized street 
protests in Montreal alone have been running for about a month.

Just a few days ago, due to yet another round of failed negotiations between students and the government and increasing concerns about the growing volume of protests, the provincial education minister resigned.  Shortly after, a law called Loi 78 (Law 78) was introduced by the prime minister, hotly debated, and ultimately enacted.  There are a couple of major elements to the law, as I understand it.

First, some new restrictions have been placed on any form of organized protest, which require providing advanced notice of an intended demonstration/march to police, and receiving confirmation of the route.  Associated with this, failure to prevent behavior deigned illegal by the law qualifies one as "guilty by association," and fines for infringement of the law are steep.  People who were previously unsympathetic to the student complaints joined them in the streets, resisting the perceived infringement on their right to public assembly and protest.  The flip side appears to be that many other democratic countries, and cities, have much more strict policies concerning protests, and do not appear to impede public expression.

Secondly, the spring 2012 academic semester will be suspended for all schools affected by the protests.  I have yet to find a list of the affected schools, but the suspension means 100s, if not 1000s of students, will have their spring semester "paused" as of some date earlier this spring.  The semester is meant to resume in August, which the government hopes will allow time for the situation to diffuse during the summer.  The tricky thing is that many students affected were not "on strike" and face significant issues as a result of this scheduling change.  Furthermore, the autumn and winter semesters will also have to be shifted, delayed, to accommodate the schedule.  I am curious at what point the calendar will revert back to normal.
Students attempt to recruit René Lévesque, Quebec’s 23rd Premier, during a Tuesday, May 1, demonstration in front of the National Assembly.
Note the red square on the statue's lapel.
On May 22, the protest reached its 100th day.  In an explicit backlash against Loi 78, a mammoth protest was organized in Montreal.  Media estimates I have seen suggest 150,000-300,000+ people marched in the streets of Montreal.  I was in Montreal the following day, and both hoped and dreaded encountering the massive protest.  However, it so happened the protesters were in a different part of the city, so the visit, in that sense, was anticlimactic.

It's hard to overlook something like that, and the protests have thoroughly disrupted Montreal.  Pressure is mounting to deal with the students, as Montreal business owners face a serious threat to their summer event and tourism revenues.  If the situation continues, it is estimated millions of dollars could be lost due to folks deciding to avoid Montreal this summer.  There is also the general discomfort of Montreal residents, and the preoccupation of the police force, as required to deal with the ever-growing crowds.  Finally, there is some talk of calling an election, to force Prime Minister Jean Charest to pose the question to the general public.  Of course, his political opponents are liking their chops at what appears to be a prime opportunity to overthrow the provincial Liberal government.

Being a peaceful "country mouse" from a different country, different language and different culture, I find this all absolutely riveting.  I wonder what will happen next.


Nicole said...

As another anglophone (and one who just arrived back in Quebec a few weeks ago), I'm having a hard time following the situation. I read this open letter a couple of days ago and it helped me understand the philosophical stance behind the protests: http://www.reddit.com/r/canada/comments/u08v2/an_open_letter_to_englishcanadians_who_might_be/  I won't share my personal opinions on the matter, mostly because I'm still experiencing mixed thoughts on the whole thing, but at least I understand why people are so upset.

I will also admit that I don't understand what the strikes accomplish. And that's not meant as a sarcastic "what do these kids think they're gonna accomplish?". But as you said, are people still paying tuition? Are they still registering for these sessions?  I'm not taking any courses, but I am still taking "research credits" as part of my PhD, so I just registered for the summer and autumn sessions, and paid my summer tuition. And yet my student association is on strike and the summer session is delayed. I'm really quite confused about the whole thing.

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Thanks for weighing in.  The article you linked was an interesting read, and definitely highlights some of the philosophical issues at play in this debate.  The aspect most interesting to me is that public opinion seems to have swung somewhat, since Loi 78 was enacted.  Interesting, because once the scope of government attention expanded beyond the students, markedly more people took offense.  

There is also a Tumblr-based blog (http://translatingtheprintempserable.tumblr.com/), operated by students or at least sympathizers, who are translating the French press news pieces into English.  They indicate they are doing it for the same reason that Daniel, mentioned in your linked article, decided to voice his opinion.  

Given my level of fluency, I can't consume the same volume of French press in any given day, so I find it interesting that the Francophones feel the English-lang. media is lacking to the extent that they feel compelled to make translations to balance the scale.
I wonder what others think of the "media balance" aspect of this situation.

Steph said...

Well, being a not-so-peaceful, usually outspoken Canadian from another province, I am equally as riveted and increasingly confused about this whole thing.  Enough so that I'm keeping my mouth shut generally, even though at times its killing me.  Thanks for the write-up Bethann!  I bet it was a hard one to piece together.  I've had some interesting conversations with some of the girls on my team and the people in my lab on this whole issue.  All I can conclude is that we have incredibly different views on how to essentially reach very similar goals based on very similar core values.  I have definitely found a huge dichotomy between English and French journalism, and have even witnessed government announcements done in the language that they think will best suit their party's ratings for the particular announcement.

fruit.root.leaf. said...

I think you said it really well, when you said, "All I can conclude is that we have incredibly different views on how to essentially reach very similar goals based on very similar core values. "

As for the dichotomy between different languages and the press, I can see how it would be useful to generate content in a particular language, based on one's motives.  I personally can't speak to that here, as I don't have enough exposure to the press (in general) to make a judgement.

I would be really interested to hear what folks in your lab, and on your team, have to say.  It seems to me everyone's take on this is slightly different, and that is part of what makes it so fascinating to me.

Gene & Linda said...

Thanks much, Bethann, for this excellent summary of what’s happening in Quebec.
You’re an excellent writer!
Gene & Linda

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Thank you!  I do hope it is a fairly level summary.  I have my own opinions, but so does everyone else who has any exposure to this situation.  One noteworthy recent development is that people have started going out in the streets, banging pots and pans, at exactly 8PM, nightly.  Evidently, this is a spin-off from demonstration techniques employed in more than one South American country, for various reasons.  Last night, there were about 6 people walking around my neighborhood doing so, this evening again, but in Montreal, there are hundreds, or more.

Gene said...

You mentioned people are banging pots and pans, and that reminds me… 
In November 1965, I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, when there was a near total solar eclipse the morning of the 23rd.
The Hindu astrologers had predicted it, and the whole time we watched it from the back porch of our house, people all around us were banging pots and pans.  The theory was that a bad god named Rahu was trying to swallow the sun, and the only way to prevent it was to scare him away with lots of noise.  So, we banged pots and pans too, and by golly, it worked!  The sun came back out and all was well.
So while you probably need to “watch and learn,” if it relieves your fears, it’s okay to bang on pots and pans… 

Lil said...

I don't know much about this student protest, but something I find interesting, if I get it right (not sure), is this difference between english and french point of view on strikes.
In France we (I'm french) have some sort of "strike culture". When discussions seem to be useless, or if the situation seems to be blocked, it is a common thing for workers to go on strike, to shake things up and force the gorvernment or their head department to discuss further. And in France student strikes also happen, as they could be considered like workers of some sort. Yes, they still pay their tuition and stop following their classes, which could seem stupid to some, but when you go on strike your boss stops paying you (except for some privileged jobs) and you also lose money. The point is to get noticed by this sacrifice, to be followed by medias and as many people as possible to be able to raise a voice and be heard. When it is not enough, the point is, often, to bother some people enough so they finally have to listen and act. Hence occupations, street marchs, and sometimes vandalism (imo the only thing strikers shouldn't ever do, even if sometimes people are so upset and desperate I understand why they do it, even if I don't approve).
I think in english culture things are different and strikes are seen as very extreme, and sometimes seen as useless, am I wrong ? I sometimes have the impression that english speaking countries consider strikers as lazy people preventing brave workers to go to work. Whereas in french culture, non-strikers are often seen as people not brave enough to have the guts to stop working and stand up :- /
What is your feeling on this aspect ?

JAG said...

You did a masterful job on this 'editorial!"  I think I'll forward this to a newspaper friend I know.  Is this article for your blog only or will it appear in the QCT?

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Thank you!  Feel free to share with others, just so long as they realize this is only one perspective on an increasingly complex situation.  :)

This is only for the blog.  The QCT is a non-political paper, and this whole situation (not necessarily this post) is too contentious and political to pass muster.

Lil said...

 I guess you are right when you say that english speaking countries are so huge (and so numerous) that there must be different strike cultures.
To answer your question about the differences between french and french-canadian people, I have to share with you a thing I have always found shameful : french people don't care a bit about french-canadian people, they hardly know their existence... :(
It's a tough way to say it, but it is quite true. We rarely hear a thing about Quebec in France, in fact I just saw a one-minute piece of news about those strikes, it was like "Quebec students are on strike, they don't agree with a new government decision *pictures of riots in streets at night*. Now, the weatherforecast by...." Never heard about it since.
I discovered this when I spent several months in Montreal as a student, years ago. I thought "wow, I know nearly nothing about them but they seem to know everything about France !" I would love to have more news about those I would consider as our cousins in America. We share the same roots, and they are constantly fighting to keep their culture safe in front of all the english culture all around them, in this France should support them, but all that the common french people know about them, is they have some nice singers (Céline Dion, Garou, Natasha St Pier, name them ! French people love them) and very snowy winters. Umpf.
Thus I am not able to answer your question about the differences between how the French and Quebecois use strikes, as I have no idea about how the Qebecois use strikes.
I tried to explain in my previous post how the french generally use strikes. I can add that if the french government can indeed enact some "back to work" legislation, they NEVER use it. Why ? Because there is so much respect for strikes in France that by denying this basic right (or considered as a basic right), the government would risk a revolution... Sometimes, they do send some policemen to end a fabric occupation (especially when the director has been kidnapped or when there is an artisanal bomb threat... yes, it happens...fortunately they threaten the buildings, not the people !) or to rule a street manifestation and prevent vandalism. And maybe once or twice they ordered what they call "minimum service" for train services because the whole country, and especially Paris, were totally blocked for too long. But it stays a very rare order, because it is seen as totalitarism.
France is a small country with a huge voice (latin side, I guess). We can't stand being gagged. ;)

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Hi again, Lil.
Thank you for your follow-up comments.  I find it very interesting that you feel the French are not well-informed about Québec.  After you wrote that, I started asking some of the French friends we have here, and they agreed.  In fact, one couple said they didn't really know anything about Québec until they moved here.

On the other hand, that is kind of true in our case, too.  We did not have a clear understanding of the Québecois culture until we moved here, and tried to settle in and understand it.  I imagine, in some ways, that is true any where.  If we were to move to another English-speaking country, it would be true, too...oh, wait!  It is true! :)  After all, we do technically live in Canada, although Québec does feel like a separate country.  And, I have traveled in New Zealand a bit, too.  Both here in Canada and in New  Zealand, I found that while we spoke the same language, there were distinct cultural differences which made being there both challenging and interesting.  Language, in and of itself, does not encapsulate a culture, although it can be an icon of a culture.  

It is also very interesting that the French approach to strikes does not seem very similar to that of Canada's.  As I mentioned, I don't understand it fully, but it appears if the government or private interests can make the case that the strike is having substantial negative impact on the economy, the government is likely to enact "back to work" legislation.  This effectively ends the strike, and I think it must also involve requiring the parties involved in the dispute to enter mediation, or find some other way of resolving their differences.

P.S. Out of curiosity, how did you come across this blog post? :)

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