“On ne lâche pas”* slogan of the student mobilisation
Part One of a two part series by John F. Conway
A society at war with its children is a society in deep crisis. Quebec’s student strike mobilisation has set world records for duration and size. The organisational ability of the students has been remarkable, and escalating levels of disciplined popular support nothing short of astonishing. Tens of thousands are mobilised day after day, week after week and now month after month, and student support for the boycott of classes grows and becomes more solid.
The propaganda efforts of the Quebec government and the establishment media to smear the students as entitled, self-seeking brats, whining about modest tuition increases and seeking mayhem for its own sake have failed on two fronts. The students have responded with their own, well-organised information system which has found its way into the world press, and is transmitted instantaneously by cell phone and iPhone to hundreds of thousands. Those who follow the social media are better informed than those relying on the dailies and the big TV networks. The students simply dismiss the established media with the contempt it has earned. The smear campaign has also failed to turn Quebec society massively against the students. On the contrary, their popular support keeps building, with growing numbers of sympathisers joining the students in the streets – often joyously banging pots and pans.
Nevertheless the events we are witnessing should disturb us all. The spectacle of gangs of riot police clad in ominous black dispersing clouds of tear gas and pepper spray, wading into crowds swinging truncheons, boot-stomping the hapless victims they manage to seize, firing rubber bullets and throwing percussion grenades, and dragging dozens off to jail are images long associated with police state repression. And it is being done to our children on the streets of our cities
So far the physical casualties have not been deeply tragic: split scalps, minor concussions, bruises and contusions, a few broken bones, a lost eye, and relatively minor property damage. But that could change in an instant as Quebec Premier Jean Charest continues to roll out the police state to the applause of far too many Canadians, and to the cheers of much of the established media. All it takes is one trigger-happy cop, or one over-zealous truncheon blow, encouraged by the calls for repression and the chorus of denunciation directed against the students.
Charest’s political motives behind his handling of the student uprising were clear from the outset. When the expected student mobilisation against the tuition hike – 82 per cent staged over seven years – began in February 2012, Charest made it clear he would not relent. He had been criticised as weak and soft on previous occasions for backing off tuition increases when confronted by student protest.
In 2012 Charest was already a defeated premier. The consensus was, and the polls confirmed, he faced certain defeat in the next election. The recent revelations about deep corruption in the relationships between the government, the construction industry, and organised crime only made that defeat more certain and probably more catastrophic. By refocusing public attention on getting tough with students and imposing law and order on “mob rule”, Charest’s panic and desperation became clear. He was gambling on riding the defeat of the students to victory, or at least a less humiliating defeat.
Charest miscalculated badly. He believed a refusal to negotiate, and a tough, no compromise stance, would finally break the back of the student mobilisation, especially as final exams loomed and students faced the loss of academic credit.
The opposite happened. Charest’s hard line resulted in an even more massive mobilisation galvanising even more student support, leading to huge demonstrations day after day. Charest panicked and opted for naked state repression to crush the students.
Bill 78 was rammed through the Quebec National Assembly on 18 May 2012. Officially titled “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend”, the law would be better identified as “The Temporary Quebec Police State Act”. The police are now the arbiters of, and gatekeepers to, the practice of democracy in Quebec. Any gathering of 50 or more must give police notice including the itinerary, duration, and time. Police can refuse permission, or order changes in the plan. Demonstrations and picket lines are forbidden within 50 meters of the boundaries of post-secondary institutions. Teachers, leaders of student and teacher union organisations are required to “induce” students to obey the law or face prosecution. The fines imposed for violations are nothing short of legalised financial terrorism: $1,000 to $5,000 for individuals; $7,000 to $35,000 for student leaders; $25,000 to $125,000 for unions and student organizations – to be doubled for the second and any subsequent offence.
To be continued
*We’re not backing down.
John Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist and the author of The West: The History of a Region in Confederation and Debts to Pay: The Future of Federalism in Quebec.
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