The Maple Spring

The Maple Spring

Quebec’s uprising started as a student strike, but it became something much larger: a revolt against power itself.

By Jesse Rosenfeld Sept. 17, 2012

Photograph by David Vilder.

It’s the evening of May 4, and Max Silverman and I are returning to Montreal from Victoriaville, Quebec, where fierce clashes erupted between student protesters and police outside a convention of the province’s governing Liberal Party. Although I had arrived in the rural town on a student-union bus, I leave in Silverman’s car; he’s an old high-school friend whom I first met in the small world of adolescent Toronto Trotskyists, and he hopes that my press pass will protect us from police looking to arrest remaining demonstrators. As we take the highway toward Montreal, passing squadrons of cop cars racing in the other direction, I catch word that police have boarded the same bus I’d taken hours earlier. Everyone is being arrested. The irony isn’t lost on us, and Silverman, a wry law student and activist at the Université du Québec à Montréal, doesn’t hesitate to point out that he saved me from the cops.

Quebec is embroiled in the largest and longest student strike in North American history, and the Victoriaville riot exemplifies the province’s fracturing social contract. Pacing around Silverman’s coffee table later that night, trying to call activists on the bus, I finally connect to a nervous voice whispering on the other end of the line. The voice says that the cops are not letting people use their phones, and that the bus has been turned into a holding cell outside a police station. The voice adds that all passengers will face charges, ranging from participating in a riot to unlawful assembly. Then the line goes dead.

It’s 1 am. After a few more unsuccessful calls, I check my notes and slump onto the couch. I’ve spent the last four years reporting on emerging popular uprisings around the world: in the Middle East, before and during the Arab Spring; in Europe, where austerity policies triggered massive street battles; and in New York, at the height of Occupy Wall Street. Today, I saw riot police use rubber bullets and tear gas to push back some 1,500 protesters, many of whom responded with barrages of rocks. The chaotic familiarity of the Middle East creeps over me. I can’t shake the sobering realization that this conflict—between a disenfranchised generation and unrepresentative state power—has dogged me across three continents.

On March 20, I had arrived in Montreal to cover what I thought would be the final weeks of a powerful yet routine strike against a proposed 75 percent increase in Quebec’s university tuition fees. As an undergraduate at McGill, I had participated in Quebec’s last strike, in 2005—students here regularly protest for accessible education—and I was curious to see if the upheaval sweeping the globe had poked the province’s consciousness. Instead, I found something much bigger. The demonstrations had turned into widespread social unrest, becoming a movement that contested the austerity agenda—and the legitimacy—of Quebec’s ruling class.

By then, more than three hundred thousand students were on strike. The dispute had been raging for over a month. Premier Jean Charest’s government refused to negotiate with the movement’s most active elements, and boisterous protests were met with a blunt police crackdown. Mass arrests, pepper spray, concussion grenades and batons were regular responses to the thousands of students walking picket lines, blocking bridges or occupying government offices on a near-daily basis. As the number of arrests grew and students’ demands went unheard, it became clear that the government was more interested in breaking the strike than in coming to a solution. This realization changed students’ understanding of what they were fighting, and transformed the struggle into a popular revolt.

“This has become about more than a simple policy,” David-Marc Newman says, referring to the tuition hikes. “We need to change what permitted that being an acceptable policy to introduce.” Newman is a Toronto francophone with democratic-socialist politics. He and I spent our undergrad years as activists, trying and failing to rally McGill’s masses. This year, as a graduate student in translation, he spent most of the spring organizing a strike at the Université de Montréal—with considerably more success than we saw at our alma mater.

Newman and I first bumped into each other on the evening of April 25, a night that epitomized the protests’ transition into what is often called le printemps érable, or the Maple Spring (a homophone of le printemps arabe, the French term for the Arab Spring). CLASSE—la Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, the biggest and most radical student federation—had just been kicked out of the first round of government negations. In the belief that participation is central to popular strength, CLASSE is organized around direct democracy; its demands are formed on the floor of local student-union general assemblies. As a result, when the education minister booted the group from the table, accusing it of violating an agreement to scale back disruptions, many students took it as a slap in the face.

Within an hour of the talks’ collapse, my email inbox and Facebook newsfeed begin filling with notifications of a spontaneous nighttime demonstration. My hopes that the negotiations would give me some downtime from a week of clashes and marches are dashed. I throw on a Hawaiian shirt, spark a joint and pick up my press pass. 

Arriving in Place Émilie-Gamelin just after 8 pm, I find hundreds of people packing the concrete square, an area usually occupied by commuters, punks and a handful of transit cops. Steady streams of demonstrators continue pouring in, wearing red felt squares—the symbol of the strike—and the occasional Guy Fawkes mask. Television-news vans line the park’s entrances. The air is full of anticipation and indignation.  

The crowd swells to perhaps ten thousand people. They bang drums and blow horns. Under the dark sky, the noise tapers off as a woman’s voice booms through the speakers: “Speak rich en tabarnak! As if we don’t know about how you lead a financial crisis.” Roaring cheers emerge as the crowd realizes that the speech—written by Marie-Christine Lemieux-Couture—is a modern adaptation of Michèle Lalonde’s “Speak White,” a seminal Quiet Revolution–era poem about the English domination of Quebec.

But Lemieux-Couture’s version speaks to this generation’s cosmopolitanism; rather than calling for national liberation, it challenges the global disparity of wealth and power. “From Thatcher to Reagan, in Friedman or von Hayek’s words,” the voice booms in English, “bring us to the Washington Consensus, enlighten us with the New World Order.” It ends in French, with a message for the elite of Quebec and the world: “Are you beginning to understand that you’re alone?”

We file into the streets. There is no predetermined route, and a police helicopter follows overhead. The crowd chants, in a mock-ghostly voice, “Charest! Oooooh!” After a few masked protesters trash an army recruitment centre on Ste. Catherine, police light up the night with flash-bang grenades. They charge, batons swinging and tear-gas canisters flying, into the crowds. While some protesters respond with rocks and bottles, others escape onto side streets, where many regroup and continue to march. Some aren’t so lucky. I see police in full riot gear corralling, beating and arresting demonstrators.

An hour later, Newman and I are still marching along St. Denis, trying to understand why everything now feels so different. This is the start of what will become months of nightly demonstrations.

A week earlier, I had interviewed Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, at the time a CLASSE spokesperson, at a café in Jean-Talon market. A well-coiffed and tightly handled student representative, Nadeau-Dubois is simultaneously a media darling and a controversial radical. He avoids slogans and buzzwords, and, although scathing in his critiques of Charest, he doesn’t come off as deluded. The government “is saying that collective action is not legitimate and that private rights of individual institutions should take priority,” he tells me. He describes the mounting student alienation as the result of an ideological impasse: “When Mr. Charest talks about education, in fact he talks of economy.” The government, he argues, is trying to change education from a collective right to an individual commodity.

In the weeks that follow April 25, the nightly protests continue and Montreal becomes ungovernable. Students seem willing to sacrifice their semester for the cause, and as the demonstrations and confrontations drag on, their resolve hardens.

Images of street battles play on television sets and computer screens across Quebec. So, on May 18, when the provincial government passes Bill 78 in an effort to curtail the unrest, the protests spread beyond students. The emergency law closes campuses for the summer, bars picketing at post-secondary institutions, and makes spontaneous demonstrations of more than fifty people illegal. Student- and labour-union leaders who encourage violating the law face massive fines.

Seen as an attack on democratic rights, Bill 78 further polarizes the province, and pushes labour and civil society behind the students. Quebec’s Liberals are also caught in a widening scandal over corruption in the construction industry, and Bill 78 arrives amid increasing cynicism about the political establishment. On May 22, around three hundred thousand people clog downtown Montreal to protest the law. It’s the largest demonstration in Canadian history.

People of all ages take to their balconies and streets to clang pots and pans in opposition to Bill 78. Inspired by similar movements in Argentina and Chile, these are dubbed “casseroles,” and, like the night marches, they turn into a daily expression of defiance. Police crackdowns are met by a more militant response in the streets; some demonstrators build barricades, light them on fire and throw Molotov cocktails at police lines. Neighbourhood general assemblies, similar to those organized by the Occupy movement, spring up around the city in an effort to move direct democracy beyond the student unions.

By this point, people are exhausted. Charest shows no signs of backing down. The night demonstrations wane through the summer, attendance dwindling from thousands to hundreds to dozens, and many commentators declare the movement dead. But the lull is short-lived.

On August 1, sitting at my laptop, I watch Charest call a widely anticipated provincial election. He declares it an opportunity for Quebec’s “silent majority” to decide the outcome of the social crisis. He accuses the sovereigntist Parti Québécois—a fitful ally of the student movement—of engineering disorder. In essence, he is offering Quebecers the chance to re-legitimize a political establishment that has repeatedly ignored their demands.

The hundredth night march is also scheduled for the evening of August 1. I join the masses streaming out of their homes at dusk. Their message—that democracy doesn’t start or end at the ballot box—resonates tonight. Thousands of casserolers march down St. Denis from the Villeray neighbourhood, encountering thousands more people in Place Émilie-Gamelin. Amid fireworks and packs of riot police, the divisions in Quebec society crystallize once more.

Later, as cops fight with students in front of Charest’s Montreal office, I think back to March 15, 2011. That day, I was in Ramallah as thousands of Palestinian youth, touched by the scenes from Tahrir Square, took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza, demanding the democratic transformation of their political institutions and a new, popular leadership. Both Fatah and Hamas, the two major Palestinian political parties, were increasingly seen as interested only in maintaining their own marginal power under Israel’s divide-and-rule occupation. Crowds packed Ramallah’s Manara Square, vowing to stay until their demands were met.

Fatah officials in the Palestinian Authority first tried to co-opt the protests, calling their youth wings into the streets of the West Bank. But news quickly spread of Hamas security forces beating student demonstrators in Gaza, and the same fate was in store for those in Ramallah. As darkness descended, the pageantry of co-optation ended, and PA security forces waded into Manara Square with clubs and rifle butts. Ambulances, their sirens wailing, whisked the injured away. The Occupied Territories’ fractured political establishments had unified to crack down on Palestine’s budding Arab Spring.

Although rooted in different social contexts and political dynamics, the awakenings in both the Arab world and Quebec are linked: they use the power of the streets to force a discussion that the elite would rather ignore. After the election announcement, the Parti Québécois—the alternate face of that same elite—tries to simultaneously appropriate and distance itself from the strike, pressuring students not to protest during the campaign and focus instead on ousting the Liberals. These demands are widely ignored, and the PQ’s cynicism is evident. On August 1, as I watch the street push back against the state, I am closer to the Middle East, straddling a growing fault line between power and freedom.