Like sap rising in spring, the Printemps érable showcases the talents and humour of Quebec students. Here are some examples:
Red-clad students board subway cars during the morning rush hour on the orange line of the metro. One per car, they stand silently looking straight ahead. When the car stops they get out, position themselves at equal intervals along the platform so that when the metro pulls out of the station passengers see a blur of red.
Red, the colour of radical movements, has been taken over by the students, who wear red knitted or crocheted squares, or squares of red felt, attached with a safety pin. Or just a plain old square of red duct tape.
Music students perform a professional calibre Sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky to cheer the protesters, a piece that sent the Paris establishment into paroxysms of rage when it was first played in the spring of 1913.
Students build red cubes, using them as part of a piece of street theatre at the Earth Day demonstration, the biggest demonstration in the history of Canada and Quebec.
Videos, installation art, signs brandished by philosophy students in Latin and Greek. Fine arts students make picket signs with wonderfully detailed portraits of Quebec politicians.
Poems, songs, videos and music clips. If the purpose of an education is to learn how to think creatively, then the education system is working.
For 40 years, older people have lamented self-absorbed, apolitical youth. Now that so many have taken their ideas to the streets, many of those same observers are outraged, calling them spoiled, pointing to their iPads and Starbucks coffees as evidence. The unemployment rate for young people is at 14 percent and most of them end up burdened with huge debt when they graduate. Many students work while studying – 20 or more hours per week. They may have a Starbucks coffee from time to time. So what?
Supporters of the Occupy movement in New York speak admiringly of the Quebec student mobilization.
The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the newspaper of the movement, writes: "A deep democratic movement, something most of us have never seen and scarcely imagined, turned a small park near Wall Street into the centre of a global storm. Everybody knows the deck is stacked. But it turns out not everyone is willing to put up with it."
Beautifully written, and who would have thought that the Quebec branch of this worldwide mobilization, with 300,000 people in the streets, would have become the most stupendous of all? Quebecers in the streets are united, with the world marching. Everyone knows something is profoundly wrong – with the economy, with the environment, with the political system, corrupted with cash.
André Pratte, chief editorialist of La Presse, who is in favour of the tuition fee increase, compares the upheaval to May 1968. Students around the world protested against the war in Vietnam and demanded a voice in their education. In 1970, four students were shot down and killed at Kent State University in Ohio. You have probably heard the song by Canadian Neil Young that starts with the line, "Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming…"
When it was all over, students had a say in the running of educational institutions.
Quebec’s student strike perplexes, annoys, thrills. Montreal writer Elise Moser says she supports it for three reasons:
a) The more accessible education is, the fairer, more stable and richer a society is, because we can develop the resources of all our people, not just the thin layer of entitled wealthy who can pay for education. That seems obvious, doesn’t it?
b) The strike is not just against a tuition hike, it’s for a much broader vision of an equitable society.
c) The investment in an undergrad degree produces much higher economic returns to the state than an equal amount in subsidies to industry.
On March 22 at least 100,000 people protested peacefully in the streets of Montreal against the tuition fee hike. That was the first sign that something really big was underway. In another song of the 60s, Bob Dylan sang, "Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"
The tuition fee hike amounts to a 75 percent increase over five years – $325 per year for five years. About $325-million in all. The cost of the fiasco of a new building constructed by the Université du Québec à Montréal called L’Îlot Voyageur: $500-million. So why the insistence on the fee hike?
Ideology. An election promise. The need to be seen to be fiscally responsible.
After the World Trade Center attacks, social activism declined. The gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent grew. Now over ten years later a new generation of activists is looking around and saying, "Wait a minute, this system is not so great. The neo-liberal model led to a worldwide financial crisis that brought the world economy almost to its knees. Just what is so great about the status quo?"
It has always been easier to stand back, cross your arms and do nothing. To go along with things as they are. But the reason we have public education, votes for women, public healthcare, libraries and paved roads is because people who didn’t just go along with the status quo built systems that defended the interests of the people.
They were called names too – "communists," "anarchists," "agitators."
I was struck by an interview I saw with a government minister who said she doesn’t like demonstrations. No one likes demonstrations, Minister. It’s just that sometimes demonstrations are the only tool people have to make themselves heard.
Let the last word go to filmmaker Hugo Latulippe, excerpted from the poem he wrote called Nous sommes des millions published in Voir:
"Puis, raillé nos enfants insurgés.
Minimisé l’envergure du geste, la largeur des idées.
Minimisé les milliers d’entre eux dans la rue.
"Nous sommes arrivés à ce qui commence.
Le feu a pris pour de bon.
Nous sommes des millions."