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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.