Quebec: Elites push democracy to the wall

The manners, in which Quebec’s Liberal government dealt with university students’ peaceful stir against proposed raise in their tuition fees, has put a big question mark on the health of democracy in Canada.

After the proposed raise in tuition fee became known in February, a section of the students of Quebec’s Laval University, the oldest centre of education in Canada, boycotted their classes under protest. The tuition fees were proposed to be raised from $2,168 to $3,793 in next five-year span.

With continued silence on the part of the authorities on the issue, students elsewhere followed suit. They asked Premier Jean Charest government not to raise tuition charges as they and their parents were already carrying loads of education debts.

Instead of resolving the matter, the government responded the other way and brought Bill 78 that forbade peaceful and democratic strike actions not only by students but also by others. This action of the government added fuel to the fire.

The police unsuccessfully tried to quell students’ protests by force. However, the struggle got impetus and more and more people joined them by wearing Red Square solidarity badges and participating in their protest marches in various cities of the province.

Now it looked more like a political awakening against the Charest regime than a mere students’ unrest limited to the university campus.

Canada’s biggest civil disobedience

As per reports, the unrest escalated in March after a demonstrator lost an eye when a flash grenade thrown by the police exploded on his face. Students’ non-violent reaction to state repression was applauded when the elite class, including the Jurists in official gowns and University professors joined the protesters. Students’ slogan of ‘accessible education, democracy and a life with a future’ became a catch phrase.

Two rounds of talks between the government and students failed to yield any positive results and the stalemate persisted. Both sides stuck to their guns; government won’t take back Bill 78 and students won’t return to classes unless the Liberal government rolled back proposed tuition fees hike.

Hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators marched through the streets of Quebec province banging their pans and pots (casseroles) which infuriated the authorities and resulted into mass arrests. Organizers referred this event as “the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”

The series of events reminded us of a similar movement of wider dimension launched by Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1930 to liberate the country from British Imperialists’ rule. While Gandhi carried on Civil Disobedience with classical insignia of his spinning wheel (Charkha) whereas students in Quebec are protesting by banging pot and pans with spoons. Gandhi ousted the British imperialists with that harmless weapon; let us hope students do the same to liberate Quebec of Liberal Premier Jean Charest.

Bill 78 too harsh

People at large have come to call Law 78 as a “truncheon law” as it put road blocks not only for students but also restricted fundamental right of strike by workers to achieve their legitimate demands. Though effective within the jurisdiction of Quebec province, the law has tainted Canada’s image globally. International media projected the law as attack on people’s democratic rights.

Sections of Bill 78 forced students to return to classes and punished them for any act of strike, even symbolic, with a year’s student fee withheld. It provided dissolution of students associations and punishment to school administration if they do not enforce the rule. Education Minister could increase his/her powers without consulting Quebec National assembly. The Bill also imposed fines to the range of tens of thousands of dollars to forbid the right to assembly and spontaneous protest. Bill emanated horrible smell of dictatorship.

The supporters of democracy, however, apprehend that in case such measures weren’t defeated shortly in Liberal-ruled Quebec, then Tory-ruled Ottawa wasn’t far away. Conservative PM Stephan Harper was waiting in his wings to implement program of cuts in jobs health care, old age security etc federally with the enactment of similar despotic laws. Lest we forget, Tories quite recently, have wiped more than 280,000 immigration applications off the government records with a single stroke through their Omnibus Budget 2012. Thanks to the overwhelming majority that Harper enjoyed in Canada’s Lower house, he was all powerful to change any law he liked while the next Federal Elections were far away.

Scary government

The provincial government became too scary of students wearing of red square badge. Any young guy wearing it would invite search of their bags each time he/she enters subway and sometimes even in the streets. Whosoever, dared to question cops, could be detained at the police station. The popularity graph of Red Square badge, however, continued its ascendance. In May, Montreal-based popular band Arcade Fire wore the “red square” solidarity symbol during a performance with Mick Jagger on the season finale of Saturday Night Live.

Similarly, casseroles (French word for cooking pots and pans) became the most dynamic and colourful expression of students’ solidarity with masses. Whenever, students appeared in streets for their night marches, they were warmly greeted by residents; parents and toddlers in strollers, little boys and girls dancing clanging and banging their pots and pans with wooden spoons. At times, police pounced on them to disrupt show of their solidarity and made arrests.

This orchestra of pots and pans has become popular not only in Canada but also in other parts of the world. People elsewhere have shown solidarity with Quebec students, holding similar marches through various places in Europe, Mexico, Spain, Chile, USA, and around the world

Put together, both Red Squares badges and casseroles became symbols of peaceful yet colourful expression of annoyance of people in Quebec.

Global media highlighted unrest

Thanks to International media projection of Quebec students’ unrest, the idea of their struggle has become known globally. The unrest has already generated 3,000 news reports in 77 countries. According to analyst Caroline Roy, the student crisis generated 66 times more foreign news coverage in two months than Canada’s entire mission in Afghanistan.
Evidently, the echo of Quebec student struggle is being heard more in foreign countries than in English-speaking Canada. We think Quebec’s integration with rest of the country wasn’t complete and the barriers — psychological and lingual — have come to stay, unfortunately, even with the passage of centuries.

In the end

In Quebec, it is often said that a line always divided the French and the English-speaking people. They usually preferred to live in separate neighbourhoods as the cleavage was deeper as it was historical.

But Quebec students’ stir removed these century-old barriers and the French and English-speaking students, hand in hand, spearheaded a struggle for a low-cost education in the province. It is relevant here to mention that various countries, with lesser economic resources, are already affording free higher education. Why that can’t be done in Canada?

But our governments — may be provincial or Federal — have other plans in mind as discussed above. Let people, therefore, girdle up their loins to protect democratic rights, should Conservative Federal or Liberal minority regime of Ontario venture to tinker with the same in Ontario as has been done in Quebec.
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