Tuesday started out looking like a bad day for a protest. A constant drizzle fell on Montreal’s streets throughout the morning, turning my shoes into a soggy mess before I even reached the demo. In the wake of Loi 78 many expected a record turnout to celebrate the student strike’s 100th day, and rage against the infringements of our civil liberties contained in the “Special Law”, but with the rain I wasn’t so sure.

I should have known my fellow Quebecois are made of sterner stuff!

I started to realize the immensity of the day four or five blocks away when the sidewalks on both sides of the street were packed with one way traffic. Arriving at Place des Festivals at 2PM on the dot, I found a sea of humanity as far as the eye could see. The entire Place, from St. Catherine to Président Kennedy, was packed too densely to allow much navigation. I made my way to a raised photographer’s platform which allowed a better view of the enormity of the crowd. From there I could see that it filled St. Catherine in both directions, and the double lanes of De Maisonneuve and Président Kennedy all the way to St. Urbain.

Wave after wave of new arrivals joined the crowd, hundreds at a time. The rain had finally stopped and an oppressive and unexpected heat had people shedding layers left and right. The mood was festive, but determined, as signs read “This is only the beginning…” and “Bring it on.”

Crossing paths with a trade unionist I know, he reminded me that when half of Place des Festivals was equally packed for a free Arcade Fire show, media had estimated the crowd at 100,000. We agreed that there were likely 200,000 people there, with more joining by the minute.

If anyone believed this to be an exclusively student movement, the crowd on Tuesday would have set them straight. As I did my best to circulate through the sardine can, I was struck by how closely the protesters resembled a cross section of Quebec society. Students were clearly in the minority, as grey hair and strollers were everywhere. I noticed a large number of high school age students, some in distinctive school uniforms.

Sometime after 2:30 the protest set off up Jeanne Mance, where I bumped into the CUTV crew. For those who don’t know, Concordia University Television (CUTV) have been revolutionizing the way in which citizens interact with social movements by livestreaming almost all student protests through their website. Despite a shoestring budget, they have been the eyes and ears of the population, frequently risking injury to stay at the front lines and drawing audience numbers that would be the envy of any cable news channel.

The readily available livestream, coupled with francophone Quebeckers sudden embrace of Twitter, have allowed those at home to participate in demonstrations, report injuries and events as they see them live, and interact directly with demonstrators. This has done wonders to spread the movement outside of its Montreal base, and contributed to regular demonstrations in places like Sherbrooke and Trois Rivières, which are unaccustomed to them.

As the march hit Sherbrooke there was a moment of indecisiveness as contradictory commands of “left” and “right” were shouted out. Eventually the march, which was classified as the CLASSE march in media reports,  turned left, spurning the route submitted to police and choosing to embrace civil disobedience.

I stayed near the front, chatting with friends as we went along Sherbrooke before turning down Peel, a good ten blocks West of where we started. A friend called as we marched down Peel, informing me he’d just arrived at Place des Festivals and it remained packed with protesters as those leaving on the march were replaced with late arrivals. From there we descended to René Levesque and returned East.

As we marched I bumped into a good friend who works as a journalist covering the protests. He was estimating the size of the crowd at around 50 000, a number I scoffed at. As we passed Jeanne Mance we looked up to see the Place des Festivals was still packed with people. There were twenty blocks of marchers behind us, yet our starting point remained a mob scene. My friend the journalist started to revise his estimate upwards. This was clearly unlike anything we had ever seen before.

Chants alternated between a mocking “we are more than 50” in reference to the illegality of marches over that size in Loi 78, and a variety of colourful descriptions of the “special law.” The mood became more and more festive as marchers realized the size of the statement being made with the numbers in the street. An almost party-like atmosphere swept us up, with smiles on every face.

The march continued along René Levesque, before turning up Berri. As the crowd hit the Berri overpass, I ran up on top of the overpass for a better view. The street was full, from one side to the other, as far as we could see. The large apartment building overlooking the overpass was festooned with red square banners and dozens of people hung out their windows, banging on pots and pans.

I’ve confirmed with several journalist friends who have attended all the demos that they have noticed a striking change since the passage of Loi 78. The number of motorists honking in support, and residents cheering as a march passes by, has increased exponentially. Even in Westmount, an evening march was cheered along the well-to-do streets, with middle aged women running out to distribute water bottles.

Quebeckers who might not care deeply about the student cause are outraged at the “special law” and made their support felt throughout the day Tuesday, as passersby waved and cheered at the demo constantly.

As the march turned right on Cherrier, a whimsical chant of “The people, enrolled, will never be defeated!” was taken up. People danced in the streets and the crowd buzzed with news that CTV had reported over 400 000 on air. As we reached the massive and sprawling Parc Lafontaine I received a tweet from my journalist friend: “I am prepared to cook my hat and eat it.” He now agreed there were over 400 000 in the streets.

As we descended into the park a large contingent from the front of the march continued on through the park, while the bulk of people milled around. We sat down and took a breather, watching the seemingly never ending march continue to file in. After around 30 minutes we decided to take a walk back to see what was happening.

A stranger asked to borrow my phone, and reported that he had spoken with a friend further back in the protest, who was only now passing Central Station at Berri and De Maisonneuve. A friend who had left texted me from the Berri overpass to inform me there were still protesters down Berri as far as the eye could see, this almost an hour after we had passed under it with the head of the march. “This may be a 400 000 person demo alright,” he wrote “in walking back through the march it’s f’ing enormous.”

When we left, some time later, the march had still not ceased its steady flow of people into the park. Unfortunately a brief but violent rainstorm drove most to leave, while several other marches departed in different directions.

We retreated from the rain to Else’s, a quiet neighborhood bar on Roy St. Joined there by four or five journalist friends, from both independent and mainstream outlets, we agreed that the march was easily in the territory of a half million people. But as smart phones appeared, and news sites were canvassed a series of outraged cries went up. “This article says “tens of thousands!” “So does CBC!”

A friend who works for a mainstream media outlet counseled patience. “Those are early estimates, don’t worry, the headlines tomorrow will be hundreds of thousands.” But as time passed and more people joined us, more stories cited the tens of thousands figure. This led to a heated debate about journalistic ethics.

The same journalist noted that journos are bound by what they’re told, not what they see. Therefore he argued that they would publish what the police told them, even if they thought it wasn’t true. He also explained that journalists have a system for crowds, one which only applies to protests, and not any other type of gathering.

Because tens of thousands could mean 80 or 90 000, a demonstration below that threshold will often be described as “several thousand” if it is in the area of 20 or 30 000. By the same token, tens of thousands is a safe estimate that, it can be argued, would apply to crowds as large as 200 or 300 000, so it will be used even if a journalist believes the crowd to be over 100 000.

We argued that since no one but journos knows this code, they are misinforming their audience about the single most salient fact of any demo, its attendance. We argued that a reader who sees “several thousand” will assume that means 2 or 3,000, not 20,000 and a reader who sees “tens of thousands” will assume it means 20 or 30,000, not over 100,000.

He reassured us that notwithstanding this, today’s demo had been so huge they would report, at a bare minimum, hundreds of thousands. He accepted a, perhaps drunken, challenge to wear a red square pinned to his crotch at the next demo if he was wrong, and headed out to the night demo.

Sadly, he’ll be wearing that red square. Although Journal de Montreal published the number 150 000 on their front page, most other papers, including The Gazette and National Post published tens of thousands. As did CBC, CTV and other outlets online. The Globe’s print edition estimated between 100 and 250 000, but its online content continues to say tens of thousands. Meanwhile La Presse cites “Police sources” as saying there were over 100 000. So if the police are telling reporters over 100 000, where does “tens of thousands” come from?

Alternative outlets meanwhile, universally published estimates between 400 and 500 000 people, in line with the initial estimates on CTV and in other MSM outlets, which were subsequently revised heavily downward. Several papers cited CLASSE’s estimate, for its march only, which did not include the large FEUQ/FECQ and labour union march, of 250 000.

If all you knew about the protest was what you got from mainstream media, you would logically conclude there were around 30 or 40 000 people there. I have yet to speak to a journalist who believes there were “tens of thousands” there, but they all printed it.

Whatever the excuse, that’s wrong. People deserve the truth, or as close as a journalist can get to giving it to them. Is it hard to tell the difference between 300 000 and 400 000? Sure. Between 20 000 and 400 000? Not so much.

As for this writer, I attended the Iraq war demo in 2003 when over 300 000 took to the streets. I was at the Arcade fire concert and I’ve seen most of Quebec’s big demos. This was larger than all of them, by several orders of magnitude. I don’t know if it was 400 000 or 500 000, it might even have been closer to 300 000. But it sure as hell wasn’t “tens of thousands”.

And coming as it did on the heels of a poll showing an 18 point shift in public opinion from the government to the students, it was the second serious body blow Charest took in 24 hours. For my money, Charest is reeling, and trying to get out of this mess without losing face. If the students press their advantage now, they’ll win. How big a victory remains to be determined. At this point I’m not even sure Charest will survive till the next election.

Hundreds of thousands in the streets is a message to the rest of this province that the students fight is their fight too. The next poll will show an even more dramatic shift of public support. Charest will either back down or be driven from office. Notwithstanding the hard work that remains to be done, the students have won, and yesterday it was clear that they knew it too.

___

* Photos by Iana Kazakova

I will be publishing my take on why the students are right, and this struggle is so important, in the next few days on rabble.ca and forgetthebox.net, keep an eye out for it!

You can follow Ethan on twitter, where he posts regularly on the student strike, at @EthanCoxMTL

In the opening line of his analysis of bill 78, professor Jacob T Levy ( McGill University, political theory professor), makes a puzzling statement about this extreme measure. “Special law is every bit the contradiction in terms that ‘student strike’ is. Emergency decrees and bills of attainder aren’t laws, and I won’t be referring to Bill 78 as a law except in scare quotes.”

Notwithstanding my disagreement with his attack on the term “student strike’ (a far too technical and semantic point, in my view), I have to agree that nothing about this decree seems to meet the moral or legal definition of law, in the truest and most democratic sense of the word. Laws in a democratic society must, according to the textbook meaning of the word, be universal, impersonal, general and permanent. Apart from being universal possibly, this law fails to meet any of these standards. It is not general, in that it is aimed squarely at one segment of the population (i.e. the student unions and their protesters). Nor is it entirely impersonal, given that it applies to a specific ongoing situation. As for the question of permanence, no jurist worth their salt thinks that this law will stand the constitutional tests of either the charter of rights for Quebec or Canada. Perhaps that explains the use of the sunset clause, meaning that the law will automatically die on July 1st 2013, unless renewed by the government? Constitutional lawyers may quibble with these points, by mentioning that there are exceptions to all these rules but these principles are not to be infringed lightly, no matter how urgent the crisis.

So what is it specifically about this decree, that’s got so many people, even those that don’t necessarily support the strike, so incensed? If I may, I will parse the bill further, basing myself on Levy’s analysis, I would like to look at the most egregious articles of what philosophy professor Daniel Weinstock of University of Montreal, calls an “odious and shameful” decree.

Section III of the bill (dealing with the giving of notice, police authorization for protests, etc. ) is totally outrageous! Its designed to give the authorities and in particular the police the power to stifle, in effect, the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. Not to mention, infringing the right to freedom of expression in Québec. It’s shame that this law will not last long enough for this provision to be eviscerated by the Supreme Court of Canada or the Quebec Court of Appeals. It is so badly written and harmful to our basic human rights, that no Canadian judge in their right mind (maybe a Syrian judge might support this law?), would uphold this section of the law in court.

Section IV of the bill, empowering the state to impose massive fines on student unions in order to coerce them into compliance with the law, is excessive and unnecessary. While I admit that something has to be done to enforce court orders (i.e. injunctions) being violated by protestors ( like those that forcibly evicted law students from their classes last week at UQÀM’s law school), this could be accomplished more effectively and with less harm to our fundamental rights, through some sort of contempt of court ruling by the judges whose injunctions are being ignored.

But the real affront to our democratic society can be found in article 29 of this same section. ‘Anyone, who by an act or omission….induces a person to commit an offence under this Act is guilty of the same offence and is liable to the fine…’ Levy calls this ‘police state stuff’ and says it makes section III, IV and V ‘illegitimate,’ and rightfully so. It basically means that anyone who is in contact with the student unions or protesters, or, even if they avoid them but do nothing to stop them from acting illegally, are liable to the same fines as the protestors and could be taken to court by the authorities.

Our governments need to be extremely careful about the way they respond to perceived threats to law and order. Bill 78, much like the anti-mask by-law introduced by Mayor Tremblay this week (see my column for more info) is an ill-conceived attempt by the Charest government to expand police powers in such a way that they violate basic human rights in Canada and Québec. That the state is dealing with a social and political crisis, is no excuse for it to behave totally undemocratically and ride roughshod over its own legal and moral duty to respect the freedom of expression and assembly of its citizens.

* Image: CTV News

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Student protests Tuesday May 21, 2012. Photo: Chris Zacchia

Ethan Cox is a former news editor with Forget The Box and he is currently heavily involved in politics and trying to change the world. He is currently covering the student protests for Rabble.ca and FTB. Here is his latest take on where the protests stand and where we go next. Be sure to join us for today’s demonstration starting at place des festival at 2pm.

Just in time for the 100th day of Quebec’s student strike comes a birthday present of epic proportions for the indefatigable students.

They’re winning.

A QMI/Leger Marketing poll released early Tuesday morning by the Journal de Montreal bore the banner headline “Le gouvernment va trop loin” (The government has gone too far).

On the central question of whether respondents supported the government or the students in the ongoing conflict over increases to tuition fees, the poll found a stunning 18 point shift from the government to the students, compared to a poll taken ten days earlier. Although this shift still leaves the students trailing the government by 8 points, the momentum is clearly on their side.

On the question of whether the controversial, and likely unconstitutional, special law known as Loi 78 went “too far,” 53 per cent agreed that it did, while 32 per cent judged it to be fair and balanced and 8 per cent thought it didn’t go far enough.

Seventy-three per cent thought the extraordinary law, which critics have compared to the War Measures Act and the dark days of the Duplessis era, would fail to achieve Charest’s stated goal of “restoring social peace.” Three out of four respondents also supported the immediate resumption of negotiations between students and government, a firm repudiation of the Charest government’s refusal to negotiate.

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Police at Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012 Photo by Chris Zacchia

Disastrous as these numbers are for Charest, this may only be the beginning. The more the population analyzes the law, the more they will question it, according to Christian Bourque, Executive Vice President with Leger Marketing. He attributes the collapse in support for the government to Loi 78, noting “it’s the only thing which has changed since the last poll”.

For those of us on the ground here in Quebec, it seemed evident as soon as Loi 78 was introduced that Charest had overplayed his hand. In a province which has lived through the quiet revolution and the War Measures Act it seemed unlikely that we would fail to notice or care if our fundamental freedoms were curtailed.

The bill suspended the semester of striking institutions, to be resumed in late summer. It outlawed protests within fifty meters of an educational institution (rendering the downtown core a no-go zone), and protests whose details, including precise route, had not been communicated to police eight hours in advance. It also gave police the right to cancel a duly advertised demonstration, and imposed heavy fines for student organizations, organizers and simple citizens judged to have disobeyed the law. It is written so broadly that anyone communicating the details of an “illegal” protest, on twitter for example, could be severely fined.

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012 Photo by Chris Zacchia

Perhaps the most concerning, and under-reported, provision of the law would allow the government to cancel the payment of dues to a student association or federation at a rate of one semester for each day or part thereof they were judged in violation of the law. Coupled with the reverse onus provision, which would force associations to prove members or supporters breaking the law were not acting on behalf of the association, this would allow Charest to effectively eliminate troublesome student associations and federations for a decade or longer. Would that we could all dispatch our enemies so easily!

Probably knowing the law would never survive a court challenge on constitutional grounds, the Liberals set it to expire in one year, before any challenge would likely be heard.

Over the weekend since Loi 78 was passed by the National Assembly it has been denounced by everyone from the Quebec Bar Association to pro-hike student groups. The Arcade Fire wore the emblematic red square symbol of the student strike during an appearance on Saturday Night Live, as did Xavier Dolan and his entourage at Cannes. Michael Moore waded in, pledging his support on twitter, and local boy turned Hollywood comedian Jon Lajoie publicly defied the law by releasing a “Song for Students” which ends with a call for viewers to join the mass demonstration organized for today to celebrate the 100th day of the strike.

Student protests
No end in sight, over 5000 protesters marched until 1 in the monrning through upper Westmount past Jean Charest's home

But it wasn’t just celebrities who took a dim view of the law. As demonstrations unfolded over the weekend it seemed that every bystander was suddenly cheering, every idled car honking in support and whole terraces full of people standing to applaud as the students went by. The last, and only, time I witnessed such a sudden shift in public opinion as this poll shows was during last May’s orange wave.

Then too there was a palpable shift on the streets of Montreal. A sudden unanimity.

For my money Charest has already lost, at this point he’s fighting history, and history always wins. Pauvre Jean, your summer of hell is only just starting…

A monster demonstration against Loi 78 and in celebration of the 100th day of the student strike has been called for TODAY (May 22) at 2PM at Place des Arts Metro.

If you are unable to attend, Concordia University Television (CUTV) have been revolutionizing how we interact with social movements by livestreaming the daily protests over the internet. Tune in! But remember, electronic copies are never as good as the real thing!

You can also follow me on twitter for live updates from the demo: @EthanCoxMTL

Free Society

Free Society
Free Society: Art work by Taymaz Valley

The liberals in Quebec have passed the Bill 78 to stop the student protests against tuition hikes. Students, who have been wearing red squares on their clothes to demonstrate their objection, are now under threat of fines and imprisonment if they participate or encourage protests deemed illegal by the state.

The bill effects all citizens, thus taking away one of the most fundamental rights of the people in a democratic society. The red square is no longer worn by students alone; people of all background and persuasions now show their solidarity by wearing red squares.

The band Arcade Fire backing Mick Jagger on this week’s Saturday Night Live in US, wore red squares in support of the Quebec students. As well, Xavier Dolan brought the red square with him to the Cannes film festival in France.  Artists from all over the world have spoken up against the violence and unprompted, unjustifiable use of force exercised by police in cities like Montreal.

Art work by Taymaz Valley
Art work by Taymaz Valley

Facebook and Twitter profiles are full of red squares, and I cannot help being reminded of Kazimir Malevich and his square series. The Russian painter who profoundly and fundamentally influenced the Abstract artists, and still influences many, set about to change history of painting using an avant-garde approach and eliminating the bourgeois take on art. His Black Square began the idea that art should be felt emotionally, and seeing figures or scenes were just too conformist.

The newly appointed Communist Party at first embraced such revolutionary ideas, because it was a fresh look at art, matching their notion of a new approach to life; however soon, with Stalin coming to power, they saw it as a threat and started banning the avant-garde, favouring instead a Socialist Realism version, where heroes of the revolution were depicted as god-like figures set to inspire the masses.

Kazimir Malevich spent a lifetime being suppressed, but it comforts me to know his Black Square outlasted Stalin’s reign. At Malevich’s funeral, the mourners wore black squares on their clothes in solidarity with freedom in art and now an allegory for freedom in society.

Malevich wrote in 1926: “When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field. The critics and, along with them, the public sighed, ‘Everything which we loved was lost. We are in a desert…Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!’”

“The square is not a subconscious form. It is the creation of intuitive reason. The face of the new art. The square is a living, regal infant. The first step of pure creation in art.” This tiny black square revolutionised art, and perception of art, inspiring a whole generation of artists, writers, poets and musicians.

It came at a time of change in its birthplace, when people were rising against discrimination and suppression in Tsarist Russia. It had predicted and predated the Russian Revolution of 1917 by two years, however life soon caught up with art and we had one of the most significant uprising of people against inequality in the history of 20th century.

People of Russia were tired of being poor, not having the necessities required for living whilst a few fat cats on top of the food chain basked in the splendour of their riches, adorned by silk and diamonds. So, a revolution was born, and although it turned sour in the end, it managed to awaken a taste for equality in people. A revolution in Art manages the same.

You see, changes in Art start by the artist standing his ground, not scared anymore. The critic bellows a cry to put fear in the artist’s heart, yet he is not afraid anymore. The point of no return has passed. The critics charge forward pen at hand with derogatory words, yet this time the artists are charging toward them with firm steps.

The fear is gnawing at the hearts of the critics now and they have no other option but to use force, so maybe the artists become scared again. However this tactic is in vain. You see, we are social animals, and if anything, evolution has taught us that we managed to survive by being social, by protecting one another in our pack; and here it comes alive within us. Because when we see mighty, corrupt forces mistreating one of our fellow pack members, we become enraged as a society and we seek revenge.

With that first raised fist, a significance change has occurred. A quiet shift so important and vast, it goes undetected by the leaders and critics so engulfed in their self-satisfactory, rickety, smug state of oblivion. But, now it is too late, the leaders once again have lost touch, and people are again on the rise for freedom, and Art is right there with them.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the student strike in Quebec and its importance. Now it seems after months of ignoring student demands to rescind planned tuition hikes, the Charest Government has gone from keeping its ears closed to students to putting a zipper on the mouths of everyone.

Bill 78, the emergency law passed by the Liberal government of Quebec last Friday is one of the most anti-democratic laws I’ve seen pass at a provincial or federal level. It is only a step or two away from the declaration of martial law.

Part 16 of the new law puts in place strict regulations governing demonstrations of over 50 people. Protest organizers must now inform authorities eight hours in advance the start time, the location and the duration of the protest.

For some people this measure might not seem too extreme on the surface, however most media outlets are not reporting the subtext of the law. Upon receiving the information about the planned protest, authorities are allowed to require a change of venue as a matter of public security. Protest organizers must then resubmit their plans. There is nothing to prevent authorities from continually asking for a change of venue.

While this emergency measure can be seen as directed toward students, it can also be applied to unions and organizations of all stripes. Imagine striking manufacturing workers not allowed to protest in front of their place of work… or protest at all for that matter.

I don’t think people yet realize the implications of Bill 78, the anti-protest rules and the penalties they may incur should the rules be broken. Bypassing this law can lead up to a $5000 fine for individuals, up to $35 000 for senior officers or high rank representatives of organizations and up to $125 000 for the organizations themselves (such as unions).

Quebec Premier Jean Charest was clearly not in his right mind when he concocted this draconian anti-democratic bill. In a Democracy, when you take away the right to speak out, the voices get louder, they don’t grow quieter.

If Charest thought this law would simmer things down he got a rude wake up call the very night the law was passed. In fact, with this law being passed, Charest in effect upped the ante on his war with the students. Now the only way students can effectively fight back is through more civil disobedience, actions this new law was meant to quash.

Despite the harsh penalties, students are still coming out on a daily/nightly basis in the thousands and continue to draw support from across Quebec and beyond. Labour Unions are now poised to join the fight, Arcade Fire wore the now famous red squares on SNL, Michael Moore tweeted about the protests on Saturday night, etc.

Arcade Fire sported red squares on SNL Saturday

Quebecers are already among the most taxed citizens on the continent while non-manufacturing corporations in the province are among those who pay the least, which in itself is worth protesting. Tuition is quite simply a tax on education paid by young people who are not yet in the work force, thus continues the Quebec tradition of taxing the ordinary man and not the corporate machine.

There should be more than just students on the streets.

Follow Quiet Mike on Facebook and Twitter

Police barricades on fire in downtown Montreal, photo Patrick Chartrand

It doesn’t matter what you think about the protest against tuition fee hikes, this isn’t about accessible education anymore. Now, everyone in Quebec’s right to protest, organize and express themselves freely is at risk. As of last night, people’s right to just go out and have a good time is at risk, too.

Friday, after a last-minute 48 hour session of the Assemble Nationale, the Charest government passed Bill 78. This “special” law originally defined any gathering of ten people or more who had not provided police with a trajectory and duration eight hours prior as an illegal riot.

That figure got changed to 50 people. The original number was laughable and prompted tongue-in-cheek phonecalls informing the police of upcoming family gatherings as well as satirical observations that people waiting for a bus, for example, could constitute a riot. Any number imposed as a limit, though, is unconstitutional and oppressive.

Image: Al Korkidakis

The law also makes it illegal to protest within 50 meters of a school, effectively barring protests from Montreal’s downtown core. Not only that, Twitter is apparently under surveillance, too. People’s tweets in favour of the strike protests or critical of the new law could land them in trouble for being a protest organizer.

In a nutshell, this is the most repressive piece of legislation passed in Canada since the War Measures Act. It’s a desperate act by a desperate administration trying to hold on to authority. Unfortunately, everyone has to pay for that desperation.

The student movement is locked down, so is any other movement that wants to get their message out in public space. A chill is being felt all across Quebec. Charest can now pass whatever he wants without having to deal with the consequences.

Well, not quite. If you were out in downtown Montreal Friday night, it didn’t look like any activists were in hiding. Protesters responded to their right to protest being removed by, well, protesting, in larger numbers than before. Some media said there were 10 000 people in the streets, others online argued that the figure was way higher. To be safe, I’ll just say that there were more than 50.

Image: Canadian Press

And that’s the point. Way more than 50 people marching without providing police with a route eight hours in advance by all the major schools in the downtown core and tweeting about it. That’s the only kind of response that will work, direct, point-by-point defiance.

And it was, for the most part, peaceful. Yes, there was a brief exchange of molatov cocktails and teargass and the cops declared the march illegal (kinda pointless, really, given the fact that all marches like this one are now technically illegal from the get-go), but as tens of thousands of people marched on, that passed and the protest continued until around 2am.

Those marching weren’t alone this time. They were cheered from terrasses and by car horns. Even a group of bikers revved their approval, prompting one CUTV (the best source for live coverage of this movement) commenter to observe that it “looks like Charest has lost his base.”

Last night wasn’t so jovial. The SPVM not only arrested 69 people, but they also teargassed a terrasse full of bar patrons unrelated to the protest on St-Denis (and even arrested a random woman). When the cops erected a barricade, quite possibly to kettle people in and arrest them, protesters set it on fire.

Regardless of whether or not you think going all St-Jean on the barricade was a good idea, I think we can all agree that the right course of action by the authorities would have been to put the blaze out right away. Instead they let it burn for a while, just enough time to get headlines about protesters burning things into the major corporate media.

It was for effect. Just as the attack on random Saturday night drinkers was for effect. Sure, they may explain it away as being some rogue cop acting inappropriately, but I think the real motive is to let people know that if the protests continue, they too may become a target.

The problem for them is people aren’t stupid. We’re savvy around these parts. We know that with this law, we are all targets automatically.

Because of law 78, this is no longer just a student struggle. It’s everyone’s struggle. Unions are coming on board and there’s a major march planned for Tuesday. Opposition politicians are urging civil disobedience and asking if the government has lost its mind. Xavier Dolan brought the movement to Cannes. The Arcade Fire brought it to Saturday Night Live. Ordinary people are waking up, too. Jean Charest woke them up.

I don’t think they will go to sleep until this law is removed from the books. At least I hope they won’t. We can’t afford to lose our most primal political rights. We are all red squares now.

You know what’s really scary? I think Jean Charest, Gerald Tremblay and their colleagues actually believe what they’re spinning about the ongoing student strike.

For months I thought that they were merely both cynically toeing party line in hopes of holding out long enough to avoid having to pass the debt they are trying to pin on students onto their rich buddies instead. Charest had his “pay their fair share” angle while Tremblay just kept repeating how we Montrealers need to “take our city back” from the protesters.

But at education minister Line Beauchamp’s resignation on Monday, something looked different about Charest. He looked genuinely upset and determined, like a pissed-off man on a mission.

Could this be true. Did he genuinely feel like he was the victim. Did he think the two offers his government made to the student groups were an actual compromise?

What about the violence? Does he think the police violence in Victoriaville and elsewhere was justified? Is it worth it to let the streets turn into a warzone just to enforce a small tax hike on students when there are clearly other ways to get the needed revenue, namely by listening to proposals like those of the CLASSE that would see a freeze on administrators’ salaries and raised taxes on the banks?

Let’s look at Tremblay. Last Thursday night, he called a press conference to address the coordinated smokebomb attack that prompted a shutdown of Montreal’s metro system earlier that morning. Instead of addressing the specific issue, the mayor spent about fifteen minutes talking about the student protests and the affect they have had on the city.

The problem here, and it’s a big one, is that as the mayor was speaking, there was absolutely no proven link between the incident and the movement. Since, some of the suspects have turned themselves in, but there is still no proof that they were acting on behalf of anyone but themselves and maybe a group that thinks the CLASSE isn’t radical enough.

Even in the unlikely event that a stronger link comes to light, Tremblay’s speech and especially his condescending remark that parents and grandparents should tell their kids to “go back to school” are off-topic at best, uncalled for and offensive. But you could see it in his eyes that he believed what he was saying and felt he was doing the right thing.

For him, there is no validity to this protest, the activists have had their fun and should give up so we can get back to the more serious, grown up matters of commerce, demolishing buildings and banning masks at protests. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one who feels this way.

The usual suspects are all present. Sun News released a “comedy” segment asking if Charest has the balls to stand up to protesters (sidenote: if he had balls, he’d stand up to his corporate and mob buddies and give the students what they want) and only referring to the activists as “student rioters.” CTV Montreal executive producer and guy I’ve agreed with maybe once in five years Barry Wilson went on a diatribe against the students, even blaming them for the police violence in Victoriaville.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Now, following the scare in the metro and constant anti-student talking points in the media, ordinary people, even some whose views I respect on many other issues, are getting on board with Charest and company. I think it has to do with the emotion that those in power are now speaking with.

It is real emotion, too. You see, this is no longer about a few hundred dollars in fee increases. It is an ideological war. On one side you find neoliberal austerity, corporate kickbacks and bureaucratic defense of the status quo. On the other, you find a fairer society, progressive ideas and the voice of the future.

It’s no wonder people like Charest and Tremblay are so passionate about protecting their interests in this matter. Their very authority and way of life are at stake. It’s also no surprise the students are passionate as well. Their future and the global revolution that started with the Arab Spring and spread to North America with the Occupy movement is being challenged here at home. That’s why they won’t cave, no matter how many cops and editorial comments the establishment throws at them.

The time has come for everyone else to take sides. The time has come for everyone else to realize that this isn’t about a few hundred dollars in fee increase. It’s about what kind of future we hope to have.

* photos by Phyllis Papoulias

When I first heard of the Quebec governments plan to raise tuition fees by $1625 a year over the next five years, I had a fairly indifferent opinion. After all, I had never pursued an education at an institution of higher learning and I had been out of school for close to twenty years.

To be honest I never gave the situation the attention that it deserved. I figured at the time that a small hike in tuition fees was probably warranted, I even thought that any protest stemming from the hikes would likely die down soon after it started. Clearly I should have been more inquisitive; if I had been I wouldn’t have been wrong on both accounts.

The student strike and protest is now entering its fourth month, they have spawned more than 160 protests in 72 days in Montreal alone. The protests have now garnered international attention including coverage on CNN and Al Jazeera. In my (new found) opinion, the actions of the students are completely justified.

This whole state of affairs revolves around the Quebec government’s rising debt, but instead of raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy, Premier Jean Charest prefers to take it out of the pockets of middle class students. It’s no wonder the students have used the 99% movement as motivation for the cause.

An education is probably the single most important gift a society can offer its people outside of healthcare, but even without tuition fees, college and university can be damn expensive. Students still have to pay for lab fees, books, housing, food, etc. even with a part time job it’s next to impossible to leave school without racking up debt.

Jean Charest with Education Minister Line Beauchamp

It was only a generation or two ago when the average student could attend university, hold a part time job at MuckDonalds and be virtually debt free when he entered the work force. Students are aware that those days are disappearing quickly and are trying to reverse the present course.

I believe there are two things driving the youth of Quebec to protest so loudly: principal and fear.

The students believe that the protesting of the government tuition hike is a matter of principal. We live in one of the wealthiest developed nations on earth, why should they be punished for pursuing a higher education? Quebecers are proud of their low cost, high grade education system and would prefer to mirror the Scandinavian model where tuition fees are nonexistent.

The trepidation I referred to is a fear the students have of the Quebec educational system slowing moving in the direction of the United States and the rest of Canada. In the US, total student debt has risen above a trillion dollars, more than the country’s total credit card debt. The average tuition fee for a public university is roughly $8000 (four times more than Quebec), but the average total cost of a four year program is close to $28 000 a year.

I’ve heard critics of the protests calling the students “unfocused,” “deadbeats” and “moochers,” simple responses from people not in the students’ position. If they’re deadbeats they wouldn’t be in school, if they’re unfocused they wouldn’t be protesting 24/7 and they aren’t mooching anything more than the person using his or her Medicare Card.

So what is the solution? The students are not about to pack it up and call it a semester. The question I have to ask is who, aside from the students, benefit the most from their education? The answer is simple; the people that hire them afterward. No one profits more from an educated populace than the companies who hire them.

An educated man can lead a good life with a good job, but chances are he’ll never be wealthy; he will be far too busy making the company or corporation wealthy. It seems only logical to me that the people profiting off of this man’s education should be the ones helping to pay his fees.

Don’t give in boys and girls.

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This morning, CUTV (Concordia University Television) cameraman and programming director Laith Marouf was filming a student protest (part of the ongoing Quebec student strike over tuition increase) in Montreal when SPVM riot cops moved in. His footage was streaming out live on the web to approximately 5000 viewers.

Despite repeated attempts to inform police that they, as journalists, were simply doing their job by filming the protest and police actions and repeated mentions by the CUTV team that all this was going out live online (ie. no chance to destroy the footage, a good reason for the cops to watch their step), the police arrested Marouf anyways.

The video is below, the arrest happens at the end, kinda hard to see because Marouf was holding the camera, but you get the idea:

* photo by MF Gold

Access to free education ought to be a fundamental human right. Across Canada, students have almost free public education up to the end of the secondary cycle, with some provinces offering subsidized options for post-secondary studies.

Because we are a consumerist nation, because we believe paying for something is innately better than not, our society feels it would be inappropriate not to pay, something, for post-secondary education. After all, we paid nothing to go to the public primary and secondary sector and that got us nothing.

Over the years, our universities have ballooned in population while twentysomethings enrolled live the high consumption lifestyles of the modern student. The universities expand and market themselves aggressively so as to stimulate growth, in turn providing self-sustaining economic engines.

Ask yourself what four years in university will get you, aside from the debt. The modern corporate university is as much a pyramid scheme as it is an odd kind of casino.

These days, an undergraduate degree isn’t likely to get you very far by itself and the university has no obligation to provide you with the skills to go out and get precisely what you want career-wise. At the same time, corporations and conglomerates have no obligation to invest any amount of time or money in training you for a career in the establishment, as this is now more or less what a BA signifies in the professional world.

It isn’t your specific discipline that matters, not nearly as much as the university degree simply states you have a basic level of professional competency. This is what a high-school diploma used to mean in our society.

Thirty years ago, universities had significantly smaller student populations, with tuition and book costs (for full time studies) not exceeding $1000 per year. Associated costs have not kept pace with inflation and the university degree, for a variety of reasons, has  largely been de-valued during this time.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the current workforce has little choice but to continue working longer, as a result of the major economic crisis, so recent graduates and current student have even fewer options. And with regards to our collective debt, well, we’re told not to worry about it, that we’ll eventually get good jobs to pay it off.

Public education in Canada has been generally neglected, both by successive provincial and federal governments and our society is no longer willing to appropriately fund the primary and secondary sectors.

This is true across Canada. As an example: in order to pay down the massive debt and deficit of the Mulroney administration, Chretien and Martin cancelled federal transfer payments intended to be used by provincial education and healthcare ministries. As such, hospitals across Canada became overcrowded and the public sector education system took a major beating in terms of funding.

Private schools and school boards have been growing in number ever since 1993 as the public lost faith in the public system, which is supposed to set the social standard for education. This in turn led to a nationwide net loss of faith in what a high school diploma could provide. This is an untenable, financially unsound situation for a nation wishing to maintain its high living standards.

Québec figured out a solution to the problem of how to provide ‘free’ social advancement for all citizens regardless of class or region of birth back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As part of the Quiet Revolution, the Quebec Liberal Party established the University of Québec system – a series of public post-secondary institutions throughout the province providing low-cost, highly accessible university education. In addition, the CEGEP system was created, providing a college diploma in general or professional studies.

These two public, province-wide systems were intended to do two things. First, provide a public, low-cost alternative to private or for-profit post-secondary educational institutions. Second, to assist in transforming Quebec society to build a much larger middle class, encourage our culture and ultimately to build a better society. I think the plan worked very well.

The corporatization of the campus and commercializiation of the student class, in Québec inasmuch as anywhere in Canada, is a direct threat to the publically-funded means to social advancement our post-secondary system is designed to provide. So do students in Québec have every right to be upset with any increase to tuition costs, absolutely – it is a threat to a major societal achievement that has helped build our very society.

We’re more progressively minded as a direct result of our investment in education and this benefits our society on the whole. And we should be more sensitive to the needs of students, because they are generally living on the margins of society as is and aren’t being adequately prepared to enter the workforce. What does this say about our society as a whole?

In the end, it is the public primary and secondary sector that needs the greatest investment. We should ensure that the basic level of education is higher, and thus should endeavour to make the highschool diploma more valuable. We should also seek to increase the value of the CEGEP diploma and increase the number of vocational and professional programs offered at these institutions.

Doing so would decrease the number of people flooding into the university system, which in turn would allow for a general decrease in the cost of tuition. Not to mention that we desperately need to ensure the sanctity and high societal value placed on university degrees, and by extension get people out of universities if they have no reason to be there other than the notion that it is a social expectation. We cannot allow the modern university to become a daycare for twenty-somethings.

And the Québec student movement would be wise to utilize strikes, demonstrations and the like as a last resort measure, because such action is otherwise overly disruptive and secures no additional public support. What I’ve seen over the last ten years is a degeneration of public manifestations of social discontent into an overly aggressive and anti-social free-for-all of street theatre.

More discipline ought to be exercised, and the student leadership needs to seek broad public, perhaps even pan-Canadian support. The students of Québec should not try to fight this battle by themselves, but unless the leadership is willing to look for national solidarity they won’t be able to make the case that this is an issue of significant societal importance.

Blocking bridges and traffic is something you do when negotiations have proven completely fruitless, and then the movement needs to depend on public support for their aggressive actions and yes, blocking traffic and bridges is aggressive, it is not passive.

* Photos by Phyllis Papioulas, for more please visit our Facebook page