Catapulting the Canadian province of Quebec into the spotlight, the four-month old student protests have become a symbol of the most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the North American continent. Recognizing that the students’ demands for an accessible and democratic public education constitute an implicit challenge to their entire social and economic strategy, the reaction of the Quebec government and Canadian elite has been implacable. Joshua Blakeney pinpoints the significance of the student struggle, sketching a picture tinged with hues of Pinochet’s Chile.
Massive Montreal demonstration of 27 April 2012: police arresting students on "illegal assembly" charges.
Canada has erupted in protest and dissent in recent months and weeks. Students in the Canadian province of Quebec took to the streets in a student strike, which gained traction in the latter days of February 2012, to oppose proposed tuition hikes of as much as 75% .
Les Québécois have a rich history of struggling for social justice and striving for a Scandinavian-style welfare state; an ideal which was popularized in the period of protest and social change of the 1960s known as the Quiet Revolution. In response to the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Quebec’s main cities the provincial premier Jean Charest, in a risible attempt to defer the tuition increases to future generations of students offered the “compromise” of spreading out the tuition increases over a period of seven years. Fortunately, the leadership of CLASSE, the main coalition of student groups in Quebec, resoundingly rejected this callow appeal to the self-interest of the incumbent generation of post-secondary students. Thus there are irreconcilable differences between the instinctively democratic and egalitarian people of Quebec and the intransigent one-percenters of the political class who seek to force-feed les Québécois the kind of corporatist educational models afflicting the rest of North America.
Joshua Blakeney analyzes the widening student protests in Canada, linking the election fraud of the 2011 Canadian election to the popularity of the Maple Spring. Interview conducted on May 31, 2012.
Canada being geographically the second largest nation on the planet poses logistical problems for activists who have pan-Canadian visions of social change. Canada’s lack of unity serves the interests of those who would like to keep the Canadian working class divided and parochial. Yet, the recent student protests have indeed proliferated throughout the country, with defenders of affordable education taking to the streets in major Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto but also less known jurisdictions such as London, Regina, Edmonton and Victoria. Many of the Canada’s bravest and most committed activists, who camped in their public squares in sub-zero temperatures as part of the Canadian wing of the Occupy Movement are instigating solidarity marches in their towns and cities in what many are now referring to as the “Maple Spring”.
What is noticeable is the transgenerational quality of the protests, with young and old alike displaying their distain for the attempted prohibition on working class access to post-secondary education. Many elders recognize that their children are having the ladder they erected and climbed kicked away from them by opportunistic neoliberal politicians who themselves are the beneficiaries of a less corporatized and more publically-oriented education system. Where the Occupy Movement largely failed, by not mobilizing vast swathes of the working class in solidarity with them, the defenders of public education in Canada appear to be making some headway. Trade unionists, and many ordinary Canadians are mobilizing in solidarity with the defenders of non-elitist education.
Rather than recognize which way the political wind is blowing, statesmen in Quebec have implemented a draconian crackdown with the goal of quelling the ballooning student strike through coercion. The most egregious expression of the state’s crackdown on democratic civil struggle was the enactment of Bill 78 on May 18th 2012, a piece of emergency legislation which ostensibly criminalizes protest and dissent by requiring protest organizers to effectively ask the police for permission to conduct a protest. Those who fail to conform with state-mandated routs for protests and who refuse to begin and end gatherings at times dictated by the state will either be arrested or fined tens of thousands of dollars, or both. Such criminalization of the defenders of affordable education has already led to the incarceration of 3000 protesters, some of whom are leading student negotiators, in what appears to have partially been an attempt to emasculate the student movement of its leadership. The Globe and Mail reported on May 29th “Philippe Lapointe, the negotiator for CLASSE, had just left the bargaining table at the end of Monday’s meeting in Quebec City to witness the arrests of protesters outside the building where the talks were being held. He was promptly taken away by riot police” .
Bill 78 stipulates that it is illegal for protestors to hood themselves or conceal their faces at protests, which appears to be an odd tenet seeing as the Quebec Provincial Police were themselves exposed as having infiltrated protests with masked, black-clad police officers acting as agent provocateurs during protests at the American Leaders Summit at Montebello, Quebec in 2007 .
Fortunately Bill 78 has backfired; rather than intimidating the protestors it has only made them increasingly determined and even more popular. The protests of 100,000 people morphed into protests of 200,000 (plus) with the passage of Bill 78. And now there is indeed a full-blown Maple Spring spreading like sweet, invigorating Canadian maple syrup smothering an arid and insipid MacDonald’s pancake.
It’s likely that Canadians’ willingness to come to the streets to demonstrate against the nefariousness of the political class en mass stems from the recent revelations that there was widespread election fraud in the May 2011 Canadian election which provided Canada’s branch of the global neoconservative movement, led by Stephen Harper, with a much coveted majority in the Canadian parliament. In more than two-hundred of Canada’s three-hundred and eight electoral ridings there is uncomfortable evidence of election fraud which leads many Canadians to view their government as illegitimate and anti-democratic .
Prior to the May 2011 election the Canadian Conservative Party, which at that time could only muster minority governments, was forced to compromise and water down its desired policies of permanent war and mass austerity. But now they have attained a parliamentary majority they have carte blanche to attack everything that ought to be cherished in Canadian society, such as education and healthcare rights. Where the U.S. experienced its full neocon takeover, with the 9/11 false-flag incident in 2001, the neoconization of Canada has only been able to come fully into fruition since the May 2011 stolen election. Thus Canadians have good reason to be on the streets in their hundreds of thousands as they are.
The protesters have made many astute moves in their struggle for affordable, if not totally free, post-secondary education. The first astute move was on April 20th 2012 when they strategically chose to protest outside a meeting to do with the development of Canada’s abundant natural resources. The Canadian Press reported “A speech by the premier was delayed as protesters disrupted a long-planned Montreal symposium on his northern-development project Friday. A group of students had managed to get into the Palais des Congres convention centre, leading to a standoff with police” .
How tenable is it that a country as wealthy as Canada, which has a relatively low population of 34 million people, requires its students to shoulder tens of thousands of dollars of debt merely to acquire a post-secondary education? Canada contains the third largest oil reserves in the world and has disproportionate stocks of gas, uranium, diamonds, coal and water the profits from which could easily be used to subsidize the costs of education throughout the nation.
Another tactic which demonstrates historical acumen and political astuteness on the part of the students is their incessant clanging of pots and pans at protests which is intended to make their protests as voluble as possible, indicating that they demand to be listened to.
This tactic was employed by Latin American activists resisting the draconian policies of dictators such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile. In the 1970s Pinochet privatized education making the main universities in Chile accessible only to the well-heeled in Chilean society. This led to mass demonstrations with pots and pans by activists who came to be known as the ‘cacerolazo’ . Now Canadians have emulated the tactics of their Chilean counterparts they’re increasingly referred to under the rubric of les casseroles. Analogies between the anti-democratic regime of Augusto Pinochet and that of Stephen Harper are apposite. Both leaders will be remembered for having foisted Milton Friedman’s disaster capitalism upon the people of their respective nations. Where Pinochet ascended to power in a CIA-backed coup on September 11, 1973, Harper seized control of the Canadian parliament more stealthily via a provably fraudulent election in May 2011.
The comparisons between the struggle of the cacerolazo and les casseroles was recognized by Camila Vallejo, the former leader of University of Chilean Student Federation, who recently stated: “The only thing I’d wish them [Quebec student protestors] is strength, that they keep their heads up, that they continue in this fight, which is one I imagine isn’t limited only to the area of education, but one that is much larger, that has to do with a vision of a distinct society.”
The fraudulent and anti-democratic Harper regime is spending millions of tax-payer’s dollars on illegal wars of aggression, on sponsoring death squads in Syria and on establishing a prison industrial complex in Canada and yet is brazen enough to claim along with his equivalents in Quebec provincial politics that Canadians can no longer aspire for a welfare state with decent education and healthcare due to a lack of funds and the urgent need for austerity. With student leaders being rounded up and incarcerated, comparisons with Augusto Pinochet’s Chile ought to be considered horribly relevant .