What the hell is going on in Quebec?


(Photo by Philip Miresco)

Quebec is in the throes of mass protests. A prolonged student strike over tuition hikes triggered a law placing broad restrictions on the freedom to protest, and giving the police the power to arbitrarily declare even "approved" protests to be illegal. Over 500 were arrested in a single Montreal protest, after a prolonged and totally unjustifiable kettling incident. Kate McDonnell of the Montreal City Weblog was on that march, and she's graciously written us a piece on the experience:

Downtown Montreal midday Tuesday, thousands upon thousands of people poured into Place des Festivals and the surrounding areas to begin a march. Montrealers march more readily than most Canadians, but this was a special day – the 100th day of the student strike against the tuition increase ordained by the Quebec government under Jean Charest.

Charest has been premier of Quebec since 2003. A Conservative at the federal level, he jumped for the chance when the Quebec Liberal Party needed a new leader. He has nudged the party steadily rightward ever since. In recent years his government has been rocked by multiple charges of corruption and collusion, but it was the party's planned increase in university tuition fees that sparked the real furor in Quebec.

Early 2011, Charest announced his intention to end a tuition freeze with an increase of $325 per year until a university year (two terms) ends up costing $3,793 in 2017. Sporadic protests were held, but the demo of February 17, 2012 was the beginning of daily protests, mostly in the evenings, most peaceful but with occasional outbreaks by "casseurs" breaking windows, throwing rocks and bottles at police, painting things red.

Concerns about access to education were foremost: yes, Quebec still has some of the lowest tuition fees around, but Quebec taxes are very high, a fact that's tolerated because Quebecers have nearly European expectations for collective health care, education and other services. Statistics show that fewer Quebecers progress to higher education than other Canadians, probably the legacy of a time when the Catholic Church dominated the culture (a hegemony that only ended with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s). Pundits are in disagreement whether rising tuition rates will lower university attendance.

The most recent ratcheting of tension was last week's passage of a new law, Bill 78, the loi spéciale which limits freedom of assembly, protest, or picketing on or near university grounds, or anywhere in Quebec without prior police approval. A more vaguely worded part of the bill would criminalize the act of encouraging people to demonstrate.

At the same time, Montreal adopted a new bylaw banning face coverings at demonstrations – a prohibition the mayor had attempted before but had not been able to squeeze past freedom-of-expression rules. This time the bylaw passed like butter – but it was Bill 78 that put the public's back up. Newspapers printed legal opinions that it would never withstand a rights challenge. Protesters announced immediate intention to flout the new law. Websites tauntingly demanded arrest for civil disobedience.

Tuesday's march was technically illegal from the top, because the marchers immediately broke the new rule about sticking to a route previously vetted by police. Most wore some red, as the photo shows, but it was striking how tuition wasn't the issue on the minds of the crowd: Charest's dereliction of duty and disgust with his government was the theme of the day. The presence of many people older than the usual student age was also an indicator that this is no longer simply a student revolt. Charest's failure to resolve the tuition issue by bringing in a "loi matraque" (bludgeon law), was mocked and derided with chants and signs.

This "illegal" segment of the march circulated peacefully through the heart of Montreal's downtown and business district, passing by the gates of McGill University, the headquarters of SNC-Lavalin, federal government buildings, Hydro-Quebec. There was a festival ambiance with drumming and intermittent chanting: La loi spéciale, on s'en câlisse!

The march made its way to Lafontaine Park – the goal of the initial route submitted to police – but the crowd pushed along through the park and was clearly going to keep going even as the rain started in earnest. Evening demos have started around 8:30 every day for a month, and this demonstration looked set to meld directly into it.

Later, after dark, while most of the demo remained peaceful, the usual incidents of police charges, cat-and-mouse chases and arrests that have accompanied the night demonstrations for a month came back into play. By the end of the night, 100 demonstrators had been arrested.

Now a new kind of protest has popped up: the cacerolazo or casserole demo. This is a very old grassroots form of protest, also known as rough music, the charivari – in which people come out of their homes banging on pots and pans to make a racket. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, people all over town were banging away on metal bowls and pots in their back alleys, on major street corners, coalescing into marches that moved noisily through the neighbourhoods.

Wednesday night's downtown demo was estimated at 3000 people and was peaceful but, based on Bill 78's ban against any demo not cleared with police, it was declared illegal and 400 people were rounded up and arrested.

As I write, 1:30 a.m. Friday, the Thursday evening demo that arose from a combination of the "traditional" downtown march and the neighbourhood casserole protests, is winding down peacefully. It's a lovely warm night in Montreal.

There's both a feeling that this is the end of a régime, and a tacit understanding that something drastic may happen to end the demonstrations before June 8 – Grand Prix weekend, the biggest tourism event of the year and the beginning of the city's summer festival season. As I write, news media are saying talks will reopen between the government and the student leaders early next week if both sides can clear away conditions that would make talks futile.