MONTREAL – North America’s longest-running student strike marked its 100th day this week amidst a legislated crackdown, putting Canada on the map as a global anti-austerity hot spot.
With the likes of Michael Moore, Arcade Fire and director Xavier Dolan on board, and red squares turning up as the insignia of revolt from New York to Paris, Quebec students are the new symbols of anti-1-per-cent resistance.
Across the city, balconies on the iconic downtown triplex apartments are draped in red cloth as Quebec society reacts to the National Assembly’s passage of Bill 78 and students win new backers.
You could see the realignment Tuesday afternoon, May 22, when 200,000 people poured into the streets for what some have called the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
The new legislation imposes heavy fines on students, unions and their leaders for picketing or demonstrating within 50 metres of campus buildings, and requires protest organizers to submit demo routes for any gathering over 50, eight hours in advance, effectively ruling out spontaneous action.
The shock of this one-year emergency legislation has changed the fault lines for the Jean Charest government, galvanizing support for the students from international solidarity protests, major labour associations inside and outside Quebec, civil libertarians, Quebec’s bar association and massive numbers of the formerly uninvolved.
While some organizers of Tuesday’s action provided police with march routes, CLASSE, an association representing half of the 160,000 striking students, chose to defy the law, and thousands went off route, roaming the downtown.
The mood of defiance gave heart to Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan, who travelled from Toronto to meet with students and labour leaders and join the protest. “If we could get this kind of activism in other provinces, we would be well on our way to a Canadian Spring,” he says. “People see that what the students are fighting for – while centred on tuition – is all about inequality and accessibility.”
Protesters, feeling a mix of newly minted anger and fatigue, chanted, “We don’t give a damn about the special law” throughout the muggy afternoon.
That evening, the now nightly smaller marches began, but astonishingly, people across the city took to their front steps to bang pots and pans to protest the law – a nod to the movement against Argentina’s economic collapse. Something is shifting here, and without a dialogue between the government and the social movements, peace will not be possible.
The question is, are the Liberals, who are trying to figure out when to trigger an election and steeling themselves for corruption hearings, capable of finessing a truce?
“We are beginning to see the other face of disillusionment,” says CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. “It is not cynical, but a disillusionment that has become effective and demands social change.”
But he says many students are having trouble seeing a solution in electoral terms, given the provincial political landscape. “People are not calling for an election, because they don’t see a political party that could really realize the society they are hoping for,” says Nadeau-Dubois.
Meanwhile, the movement in the streets faces new tactical challenges. The emergency law shuts down striking campuses until August, in the hope that protest will dissipate by then. Nadeau-Dubois likens the closure to a labour lockout.
“The next weeks are going to be very important – we will see if our movement can survive the suspension of the semester. We will need to find new places to organize ourselves.”
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