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(en) Canada, A note from Quebec for friends elsewhere - watching the 'maple spring' in, Montreal.

Date Mon, 28 May 2012 15:00:00 +0300


(note: Is this how the revolution will start? I. S.) ---- (note for non francophones: Maple Spring is a play on words - 'printemps erable' sounds like 'printemps arabe' (ie arab spring) ---- So it looks like the rest of the world is starting to notice what is happening here in Montreal as what began as 'student protests' just over 3 months ago against a hike in tuition fees snowballs into what is being described by media as a 'general social crisis' but is actually a genuine, powerful and inspiring social uprising like i've never seen up close before. For about a month now I've been mentioning casually to friends outside Quebec that things are 'boiling' and 'becoming revolutionary' in this unusual corner of north america… well as of the last few nights i'd say they are now in full boil or maybe even boiling over.

I just came back from one of the many, indeed many many, neighborhood
'manif casseroles' occurring all over the city tonight. At 8pm people step
out onto their balconies and onto the street banging pots and pans, gather
on street corners and take over intersections and then, leaderlessly,
organically, the massed random groups of neighbors banging pots take to
the streets and start heading off in one direction, gathering people as
they go, joined en route and encouraged by bystanders on balconies, cooks
and restaurant staff stepping out of street cafe's all joyfully banging
away at their own pots and pans and lids and coffee pots.

What is astonishing is how mixed the crowd is - a lot of families, kids,
older quebecois, folks on bicycles and scooters, wheelchairs and yes of
course younger 'students' - everyone wearing the carre rouge (red felt
square) that has become the symbol of this 'greve' (strike). As we
cling-clang-bang-tap-clanged our way through the local residential streets
this evening it was pretty astonishing to see how many people stepped out
on their porches or hung out of windows with their own pots banging -
hassidic families, wealthy french families, pensioners, north african
families. We were a 'manifestation' of about 300 people i would guess (all
spontaneously brought together) and there were several more roaming the
same neighbourhood and then probably tens or hundreds all over the city.

Those separate roving protests have now coalesced. A little while ago (an
hour or two ago) we watched several thousand people joyfully bang and
clang their way past the end of our street - interestingly headed not for
downtown but deeper into the suburbs and neighbourhoods- the manif
casseroles are directly bringing the neighborhoods into this struggle
rather than continuing what was becoming ritualized nightly confrontation
between 'students' and police in the downtown core. The police are
following and right now the air is thick with police helicopters. last
night the casserole protests ended with over 500 arrests when a group were
'kettled' at an intersection (apparently at the start of the night it was
leaked that the police had orders to conduct a mass arrest as a show of
force).. tonight the demonstrations are way way larger and who knows what
the police have in store.

Only a week ago this movement could have gone an entirely different way.
The student protests were getting very little public sympathy despite
thousands marching every night. Their basic demand was to reverse an 80%
hike in tuition fees that the provincial government is trying to impose.
As the government and confused onlookers from the rest of Canada kept
pointing out Quebec has the lowest college and university tuition fees in
north america and the proposed hike would still leave Quebec as having the
lowest tuition fees so the students were painted as whining, 'entitled'
and not facing up to the 'realities' of the world and that framing had
some traction with ordinary working class quebeckers too. Of course the
issue was never really about just 'tuition fees' as such - it was about
crippling student debt and the insanity of a corrupt neoliberal government
increasing that debt while simultaneously handing out tax breaks to
corporations, building contracts to the mafia and generous monies for
forestry and mining companies to industrialize the far north of the
country (known as the 'plan nord'). That there was more at play than just
'student' fees became obvious in late april when the usually tame 'Earth
Day" rally here in montreal attracted 300,000 people, many of them wearing
red squares - Quebec was pissed and a general anger was in the air.

It was also about that government going back on a promise. The reason that
Quebec has the lowest tuition fees is because this province underwent a
huge 'quiet revolution' in the 60's and 70's where a radical movement
threw out the catholic church and an english speaking elite and embarked
on a massive program of introducing european-style social welfare programs
to lift a poor and undereducated population out of poverty. Free education
was one of the promises of that quiet revolution and although it wasn't
quite achieved the reformers promised that they would continue to work
towards free university education as an ideal. When successive governments
tried to break that promise and increase tuition fees students fought back
and in every time won, maintaining a freeze on tuition. Within the last
decade even this government was already forced to back down on this issue
once before.

Probably the most insightful comment i have heard on why the student
protests have arisen here in Quebec and not elsewhere in Canada is an
anglo montrealer on english radio who pointed out that the rest of Canada
(ROC) tends to take USA as its comparison point, whereas Quebec takes
France and Europe as its comparison point. To the ROC it is inconceivable
to imagine free university education since no one in north America has
ever experienced such a thing and it sounds like a pie-in-the sky demand.
To those of us with roots in 'old europe' however, free university tuition
is what we grew up with, its normal and its right. To Quebecers being told
that they should accept the same level of student debt as the rest of
north america and give up on their social ideals is like an organic
farmer being told they should shut up and accept the same level of
pesticide contamination as industrial farmers… this is not the 'rest of
north america', Quebec is a "distinct culture" and it has principles and
they matter to Quebecers. A lot.

in effect what i see as really at play in these protests (and there's a
lot at play and many interpretations and explanations of the general
'colere' (rage) in the air) is a people standing up and defending the
social welfare model that makes their society distinct and special. Many
people in this province are actually proud to pay the highest taxes in
north america (i am) because they can also point to strong social
assistance programs, a thriving educated and cultured population,
excellent arts and culture programs, world leading filmmakers and
musicians, long government supported parental leave, excellent collective
insurance policies covered by the state, a good working healthcare system,
7 dollar a day daycare for all kids and much more. In many ways Quebec is
france.. or denmark or sweden and against all odds it maintains this
progressive -even mildly socialist - political culture surrounded by two
of the worlds most rampant neoliberal anti-welfare corporate economies:
USA and Canada. Taking apart the low tuition fees is rightly seen as the
first move in a much larger austerity package to take apart all of the
social welfare programs and replace them with what? more debt being
collected by the same banks who just reaped billions of free government
dollars from the financial bailout? Fired by both the occupy movement and
the protests against austerity and cuts in Europe the students have
strongly made the connection to the financial crisis and how they and all
who come after them are being asked to finance the mistakes of a
government still in thrall to big business.

I have to say i think they are right. There is a great article by Michael
Rosen, a UK writer of children's poems, who points out that the great
welfare states of Europe (and this is true for Quebec) were built in a
post war economy shattered by real war, poverty and hardship out of a
belief in helping our fellow citizens and all-pulling-together. yet now we
are being told that wealthy countries who haven't experienced war or
crippling general poverty for some time and who recently found money to
bail out banks and major corporations to the tune of several trillion
dollars, just don't have the finances to maintain those same social
welfare programs even though those same programs were considered feasible
back when we were poorer and the economy was truly broken. For anyone with
an inkling of history that argument doesn't wash. What is going on is a
larger ideological project to take apart the welfare state, using the
'shock' of the financial meltdown as an excuse - and that is the
undercurrent to the 3 month fight on the streets.

Last friday however that fight changed. The provincial government brought
in an emergency 'special law' called Law 78 that has been described as a
'truncheon law' - basically a package of draconian measures rushed through
to make the protests illegal and impose harsh fines - especially on
'student leaders'. Law 78 included ridiculous provisions which meant you
could be fined for inciting a protest on twitter, for wearing a red square
or if more than 50 people meet up in a public place without giving police
8 hours advance warning and a route map. It was an attempt to smash the
student protest through brute force.. and far from intimidate and quell
the protests it poured gasoline on the flames -

Actually it kind of poured ammonium nitrate on them.. the result has been
explosive. Basically Quebec people (at least Montrealers) have come out
en bloc against the repressive law. Immediate critics included the Quebec
Bar, the unions, leading legal professors, the Quebec human rights
commission and much more. It was perceived as a direct and
disproportionate attack on civil liberties… particularly the right to
assemble, and the right to protest and free expression. Quite how Quebec
prime minister jean charest could have so badly misjudged how that law
would light a touchpaper in Quebec is beyond me. Quebecers care about
human rights, civil liberties and particularly their rights to get
together and express themselves.

The few days after the bill was rushed through parliament the nightly
protests swelled, the city sent in riot cops and images of riots and fires
in downtown filled the newspapers along with 300 arrests. Then a large
student demonstration already scheduled for a tuesday afternoon (a work
day) turned into a red sea of 100's of thousands of people marching,
dancing, chanting through the streets of montreal against law 78 -
technically the largest act of civil disobedience in canadian history.
That night the 'manif casseroles' began. The next night they swelled.
Tonight - they exploded.. they are popular civil disobedience parr
excellence. There no information given to police ahead of time for the
route - in fact there is no route! the neighborhoods are alive with the
ringing of pots and pans. In my neighborhood at least red squares are
pinned everywhere and on almost everyone. And this is Montreal - a city
that likes to party, a city that likes to be outside. A city thats proud
of its traditions of social activism and a city thats at the beginning of
a long hot summer. Right now its hard to see how this movement can go
anywhere but bigger and louder with the cling clang bang of thousands of
people defiantly banging pots ringing into the night for weeks to come.

For a good overview of what has been happening check out two excellent
articles in teh Guardian by a local friend Martin Lukacs -
http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/martin-lukacs

there is also a collective website translating material from the protests
into english : http://translatingtheprintempserable.tumblr.com/
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