I suppose it would be fair to criticize me as a radical. There is a scene in the movie Across The Universe where Evan Rachel Wood’s character is on the phone to her mother, who is concerned that her daughter has just become too radical in her political opinions. Wood’s character replies “you should be radical! We should all be radical!” The fact is that there are deep and fundamental problems with not just our political system, but the entire way in which our global society is structured. Nothing short of consistent, ceaseless, radical action will create the kinds of change we need to see if our world is going to improve meaningfully.
It is for this reason that I was so excited to travel to Montreal during the largest student protest movement in Canada’s recent history. This is a protest movement that has caught international attention – due in no small part I’m sure to the fact that it stands in sharp contrast to the stereotype of Canadians as meek, friendly and passive people. It also has the dubious ‘advantage’ of being a story that conservatives can sink their fangs into with gusto: a bunch of rich pampered kids who would rather whine for handouts than work a shovel.
For me, this story is about a central question of how power is exercised in our society, and it is perhaps the most important question we are in the process of deciding the answer to: do political leaders derive their power from the consent of the governed? Are politicians truly beholden to the articulated best interest of their constituents, or is voting merely a cosmetic exercise in choosing which individual goes on to pass the same kinds of laws? Do we have the ability to enforce rules and constraint on the powers that be, or has our democratic system merely become a showy diversion to obscure the influence of those who hold true power?
So above and beyond the subject of the protest themselves (CBC has a pretty good timeline of the events in you’re not 100% clear on how this whole thing started and how it got where it is), I was there because I think we have a lot of things to protest, and this one was as good as any other. The day I arrived in Montreal was the day after the largest mass arrest in Quebec’s history. To put this in perspective, more people were arrested in one night of tuition protests than were arrested during the entire October Crisis of 1970*. Needless to say, tension was incredibly high, and I was fully expecting more of the same.
My protest experience
As I said in my post last week, the protests that I saw were almost exactly the opposite of what I was prepared for in the news. Which, I suppose, is exactly what you’d expect if you are suitably skeptical of major media outlets. What I got was a large group made up predominantly of university-aged folks, all of whom were in high spirits and incredibly friendly. When I told them I was there from Vancouver, many people became very excited at the knowledge that the country was standing behind them.
The police were certainly there in force, and made no secret about their presence. However, they seemed content to watch the protest rather than trying to stop it. After the disastrous Wednesday night, and due to the entirely peaceful atmosphere, I’d imagine they recognized that trying to intervene directly was a losing prospect. I have a prejudiced belief that when violence breaks out between protesters and police, it is the presence of cops in paramilitary gear that sparks conflagration rather than overflowing political zeal. Especially in a crowd with a significant number of families and older professionals. My attendance gave me no reason to doubt my prejudice, but it didn’t strictly confirm it either.
The protests that I saw had taken on a much more cosmopolitan flavour, in that it was no longer about the specific tuition issue. Much of the ire was turned against premiere Jean Charest and his draconian Bill 78 which issued massive fines against student groups every time a march exceeded 50 people and/or failed to submit a route plan to police. Where public support for the tuition fight was starting to wane, a new resurgence of anti-tyrannical anger sprung forth and breathed new life into the protests. That aspect of the fight appears to be poised to win:
Lawyers for student federations and other groups appeared in a Montreal courtroom on Friday to file legal motions against Bill 78, the government law aimed at cracking down on student protests.
“We are doing this because we are genuinely worried that basic important rights such as freedom of association, freedom of expression and the right to hold peaceful demonstrations are being attacked,” Leo Bureau-Blouin, leader of Quebec’s college student federation, told a news conference outside the courtroom. Besides the student and labour groups, others supporting the legal action include feminists, ecologists, artists and community groups.
It is interesting to note that while students are on strike from their classes, they have decided instead to take part in a much larger and more practical class in civil disobedience and political organization. Not to mention a crash course in the vagaries of law, both from the perspective of a plaintiff and a defendant. It is also worth pointing out that while they are learning these things, they are simultaneously teaching not only the rest of the country, but the rest of the world, that true political power comes from the people, not from those who control the so-called reins of power.
What was clear to me is that the view of the protests as a haven of either violent extremism or wheedling entitlement could not have been further from the mark. While it is easy and tempting (and profitable) to brand any exercise in civil complaint as a gathering of whiners who should cut their hair and go get a job, the fact is that our ability to demonstrate is one of the most precious birthrights we have. We ought to use any and every opportunity we have to get better at it, because there are fights looming on the horizon that are far bigger than tuition increases, and we need to be ready for them.
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*For those of you who didn’t have to study Canadian history in school (or didn’t live it in the 1970s), a terrorist group kidnapped a pair of government officials. In response, the Prime Minister invoked the War Measures Act and gave police sweeping authority. Even in the presence of a clear terrorist threat and federal permission, fewer people were arrested then than in one night of protests.