Le Printemps Érable
They’re calling it le printemps érable, a Quebecois pun on Arab spring—sounds almost the same but érable means maple in French; the maple leaf is the national symbol of Canada.
Students in Montreal have been on strike for 14 weeks against a 75% tuition raise, massing in the streets for festive, mobile, red-flag-draped marches that visit different neighborhoods every night. They are fighting the same austerity measures people are fighting everywhere; while Canadian banks continue to make record profits (and have received secret bailouts), social welfare is being attacked and tuition raised. The government says tuition in Quebec is lower than the rest of Canada; the students respond by saying education should be free and subsidized by a new tax on banks.
My friend Ariane, who lives near the university, has been keeping me posted. As in NY, the police have militarized and in every demonstration there are helicopters overhead—“no higher than the steeple of the nearest church,” she says—monitoring the students as their marches wind through the streets. The students monitor the movements of the police in turn, and communicate by text message. Last night the government proposed a new emergency law to stop the demonstrations. Ariane wrote:
“Right now this is the 23rd night of demonstrations; it’s 11:30 pm and I evaluate about 15,000 people spontaneously got out on the streets after the news tonight about the special law. 350,000 students just voted to continue demonstrating and defy the law. Unions are calling for people to show their solidarity to the students and protect students. Violence is likely in the coming days. I hear the drones over my house and saw them when I went out to join the demonstration an hour and a half ago. Older people and ‘Grand-parents in solidarity with the students’ were out tonight. Coming back I saw news on Al Jazeera, the BBC and TV5, the French network, talking about the students’ uprising.”
It’s 1970 all over again—only this time, all the violence is coming from the state.
October, 1970 was the peak of the Quebecois national liberation movement. The FLQ (Front Liberation Quebec), a leftwing armed group that wanted an independent Quebec, bombed the Stock Exchange and kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and Pierre LaPorte, the Vice-Premier of Quebec. There was a big student strike in support. The weekend of Oct. 17, a few of us from Boston drove to Montreal to see what was going on. Our timing was bad. The FLQ had just announced that they had killed Pierre LaPorte, and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, declaring a state of emergency. In this he had the support of most of the public and the Parti Quebecois, which wanted self-rule but denounced violence. By the time we got to Montreal, our contacts in the student movement wanted us to turn around and go home.
There is no violence coming from protestors this time, just a peaceful student strike met with accelerating police repression by the most conservative government Canada has ever had. Ariane reports, “There were division among the minority of students wanting to get back to school and those continuing the boycott. Tonight all the students came together against the special law. Students blocked the main bridge of the city yesterday and that made the police extremely violent. 121 students were arrested and jailed; 10 students beaten up and hospitalized this past week; 2 lost their sight because of tear gas.”
Like the Israelis and Egyptians, the Montreal police seem to be firing tear gas at people’s eyes.
Most of the student demonstrations have featured music, dancing, and good humor; there was even a joke “nude demonstration” to symbolize the way the government was skinning them or at least stripping them to their underwear. Ariane says some of the girls wore crocheted pasties and the boys crocheted jockstraps—nights are cold in Montreal.
But such good humor is unlikely to continue with a government strategy designed to remove civil liberties. Ariane wrote last night, “The Québec government just decided to present a special law to force students to stop demonstrating. The law closes colleges and universities till August and clearly refuses to back down on the rise of school fees. Any students demonstrating on the premises of schools and universities will be fined up to $5000. Students’ organizations could become illegal if they continue to call demonstrations on school and university premises. A demonstration has been called by students’ associations for May 20th, supported by unions, human rights organizations, and feminists, to ask the Prime Minister to step down and call elections.”
UPDATE MAY 18:
has just posted a piece by a Canadian student journalist on Bill 78, the fascistic piece of emergency legislation designed to end the student strike (and all future popular protest as well) by barring gatherings of more than 49 people without permits arranged the day before, imposing huge fines, and criminalizing even the discussion of demonstrations. Such legislation is undoubtedly unconsitutional and will be appealed; however, it has passed the Assembly and is thus in force while the courts were considering whether and how to take up the appeal.
Canadian law provides for an emergency response by the people to stop a bad law, if a petition against it gets 100,000 signatures. The students spent the day circulating such a petition and it got over 100,000 signatures, but I think the law is already in effect, at least for the moment. Despite this, the students are continuing to protest, as Ariane writes below:
"The students are reacting, the big March of next Tuesday is still on and they are contesting the law in courts. And the student leaders have announce they intend to organize themselves big time for the coming September provincial elections. And tonight there will be demonstrations in Quebec City, Gatineau, Sherbrooke, Drummonville, Trois-Rivieres and of course Montreal. This is way far from being over."
Update May 21:
Here's a lovely video of one of the student songs: