Hundreds of thousands of students in the mostly French-speaking province of Canada have been involved in this year’s inspiring Quebec student movement – often referred to as the Maple Spring – which began in February as a response to the government’s announcement to raise university tuition costs by 65% over the next 4 years.
Quebec’s university tuition is currently quite low in comparison to our standards in the U.S, and students are protesting to keep it that way. The movement, however, with such massive participation and organized energy, has been a huge inspiration to students worldwide, as it has evolved into something beyond just tuition, beyond even education, but about government austerity measures and the underlying systems that are creating a difficult economic environment for students.
The movement gained momentum and attention in February, when students (along with many faculty) at the University of Quebec in Montreal went on strike. By the end of March, there were 310,000 students on strike. Mass demonstrations were going on in conjunction with the strike, and as expected, the Quebec government responded by cracking down on freedom of protest. They passed Bill 78: an emergency law that restricts the right to protest near a university, or anywhere in Quebec without prior police approval, and restricts the rights of education faculty to go on strike. The response to the new law was massive: on the 100th day of the student protests, between 100,000 and 400,000 people marched in downtown Montreal in what has since been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
Unfortunately, media coverage of the student movement has been largely dismissive, even demonizing of the student movement and their struggle. Focusing mostly on incidents of vandalism, left ignored is the complex organization of the movement. Also uncovered has been the intense incidents of police brutality against students. Police have continually used pepper spray, stun grenades, and truncheons (batons) on protesters, as well as massive arrests. At one point, government officials openly called for violent tactics to be used against the demonstrators.
Although the movement began in response to education tuition and debt, it has since expanded to include a wider range of issues beyond education, drawing awareness to the ways in which many current issues and forms of oppression, like racism and sexism, intersect under the larger economic system, and oppressive aspects of austerity measures that are being implemented by governments throughout North America and Europe. Many involved in Montreal’s student protests have included anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist work as a major unifying point of the movement.
Feminist activists have made a clear space in the student movement as well, much as feminists did in the Occupy movement. Often holding their own sections of marches, feminist activists are connecting the dots between the issues that sparked the movement with systemic gender oppression (one feminist march called itself “Against This Dirty Sexist Hike” while another held a banner that read “Fuck Patriarchy, Fuck Prisons”). Anger and energy also lingers from the Slutwalk movement, which began not far away, in Toronto, Ontario. In May, striking students held a nude march with slogans painted in red on their bodies.
Signs, chants, and make-up of the group change with each day, but energy remains high and Montreal citizens appear united under the slogan “Ceci n’est que le début! Continuons le combat!” (“This is just the beginning! Continue the fight!”)
Protests in solidarity with the people of Montreal occurred throughout the U.S., with large demonstrations in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and elsewhere. You may have seen the red cloth squares on jackets around your campus worn in solidarity with those also wearing them in the streets of Quebec.
The students of Quebec have set an example for students across the globe. Their incredible ability to organize horizontally, mostly though student unions/associations, has caused this movement to only get larger. At a recent protest, where 10,000 people marched near McGill University, a banner read This isn’t a student strike, it’s a society waking up. While financial access to education is a defining issue of this movement, it has grown to be part of a much larger emerging global movement that seeks to challenge neoliberal and corrupt policies around the world, and is without a doubt something to inspire and engage students all over the world.