That’s a Québécois pun. It means “Maple Spring” but it sounds like “Printemps Arabe”, “Arab Spring”. Since February, Quebec has been the scene of massive demonstrations similar to the various Occupy movements of last year. These demonstrations have been prompted by the provincial government’s attempt to raise tuition for post-secondary education. Clashes with police are becoming increasingly violent, the government has introduced a draconian anti-assembly law, the minister for education has resigned, and the Spring has only just begun.
Reaction to the demonstrations has been remarkably similar to that expressed toward Occupy Wall Street and its cousins. First, serious pundits are asking for the program, the list of demands, and so on. They ask who the leaders are and are they willing to negotiate. Of course, these questions show an absolute misunderstanding of the entire situation: there are no leaders to be co-opted, no official demands that can be bargained into meaninglessness. The protests are a direct expression of discontent on the part of those who can feel themselves slowly being crushed economically. And there is an immediate issue on the table, that of tuition hikes, though it is only one part of the general discontent with current conditions.
Second, critics have tried to paint the protestors as spoiled, privileged children who should be happy to be part of the great new world order. This has a special wrinkle in Quebec where tuition costs are the lowest in the country. So, Serious Commentators shake their heads and cluck their tongues — those brats should be grateful! And isn’t it unfair that you pay more? Of course it’s unfair but that doesn’t mean the answer is to make it just as expensive for them as it is for us; perhaps tuition ought to be reduced everywhere else. This raises the real problem which is the commodification of education and this is being protested in a lot of places — California, for instance, and England.
Education should not be a privilege reserved for the well-to-do, but that will be the result of making it more and more expensive. California schools used to have very low tuition but now they are among the highest in the U.S. Of course, California screwed up its economy so badly that the state must scramble for money. It can’t come from the wealthy (because that would mean raising taxes) so it must come from those with no income whatsoever: students. The death of cheap education is an attack on middle-class and blue collar families. We are on the road to a two class system: those on top and the vast majority toiling for them.
When Quebec went through its Quiet Revolution in the 1950s and 60s, it envisioned a particular kind of future for itself. One part of this future was free education even though, at the beginning, some tuition was charged — the idea was to phase it out. The separatist Parti Québécois came to power in 1976 and Anglophone capital fled the province making the downturn of the 1980s very tough indeed for Quebec. All social programs, including education, have suffered. Unemployment has been high, especially for young people, ever since. Tuition has slowly risen.
A Quebec child goes through eleven years of primary and secondary school but instead of Grade 12, Quebec students take a year or more at a CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) where they enter a vocational or academic track, work toward a ticket or try to fulfill entry requirements for a university, vocational school, or advanced training. Public CEGEPs charge no tuition — at least not yet, though that seemed to be part of the plan before things blew up in the government’s face. But the CEGEPs are a focus of the demonstrations in Quebec. Those students protest against the tuition raises that they will encounter after they finish CEGEP. Students have boycotted classes and set up picket lines preventing other students from attending.
Well, you know that sort of thing is going to trouble the law-abiding comfortable people and, up until a few days ago, public opinion was running against the protests but the government changed all that. First, Education Minister Line Beauchamp, refused to allow the largest Quebec student organization, CLASSE, to be part of any negotiating. That was a world-class political error. Bring the group in, divide them, give one faction some meaningless points, and then raise tuition while the group disintegrates. Student organizations exist to be co-opted by administrations. Having cut CLASSE out of talks, Beauchamp then demanded that it immediately renounce violence but the two moves — one excluding, the other a peremptory demand — seemed more than a little contradictory. After all, if you’re going to exclude a group, how can you insist that it follow your rules? The upshot is that CLASSE has become more radical in its demands.
About that “violence”: there have been some broken windows, some campus vandalism. Meanwhile, the police have tear-gassed and beaten many people, some of whom had no real connection with the protest except to be in the wrong place when the cops came through. All this is evident on numerous videos of the protests.
But this led to the other big government error: Premier Jean Charest hurriedly introduced legislation to establish order and throttle any dissent. The law, Bill 78, was hastilly scribbled on scraps of paper, government members editing as they went. Originally the bill applied to groups of more than ten people. Cooler heads prevailed and the new law says that people cannot gather in groups of fifty or more without government permisssion. Good thing the Canadiens aren’t in the playoffs, eh? I can see it now: cops busting fans on their way into or out of the Forum. And CEGEPs that are boycotted will be closed for the semester. (That should save the government a few bucks, maybe enough to pay police overtime.)
Oh, and the law forbids supporting the students in any way. So, right after the bill was passed, cops arrested a Montreal restauranteur for wearing a red square, symbol of the protests, on his shirt. That is not the way to win friends and influence people. Public opinion is now swinging against the government.
That has been the story in other places, too. The battle against tuition increases in Quebec, England, and California is part of a general revolt against the privatization of humanity, the concept that all our human relations are economic and, therefore, should be monetized. The idea that society is cooperative and that everyone shares in the greater good is being attacked with the counter-concept that, if something is valuable, it has a price and only those who can afford it can own it. Education is at the combative edge of this philosophic struggle. Is education available to everyone or only to those with money? Is learning a commodity to be bought and sold or is it a resource of value to all?
The Quebec protest, like the Occupy events, is a mass protest against the direction that society is taking. In the last federal election, the New Democrats, a social democratic party, won overwhelming support in Quebec. “We aren’t separatists,” say the Québécois, “We are socialists.” Tommy Douglas, that great Canadian, had something to say about socialism: “Friends,” he said,”The alternative is barbarism.”