The phrase ‘printemps érable‘ translates as “Maple Spring,” but it also sounds like the French for Arab Spring. A new website, http://translatingtheprintempserable.tumblr.com/ (also available at quebecprotest.com), offers a diverse mix of messages, commentaries and news stories from the Quebecois French press and activist blogs, e.g. this excerpt from a story by one of the site administrators. It describes last week’s historic march of some 600,000 people in Montreal in support of the 3-month student strike and in defiance of the Jean Charest administration’s new law aimed at criminalizing demonstrations and marches. For more background see this story by Guardian commentator Martin Lukacs.
News coverage of Quebec almost always focuses on division: English vs. French; Quebec-born vs. immigrant; etc. This is the narrative that has shaped how people see us as a province, whether or not it is fair. But this is not what I feel right now when I walk down the street. At 8pm, I rush out of the house with a saucepan and a ladle, and as I walk to meet my fellow protesters, I hear people emerge from their balconies and the music starts. If you do not live here, I wish I could properly convey to you what it feels like; the above video is a start. It is magic. It starts quietly, a suggestion here and there, and it builds. Everybody on the street begins to smile. I get there, and we all—young and old, children and students and couples and retirees and workers and weird misfits and dogs and, well, neighbours—we all grin the widest grins you have ever seen while dancing around and making as much noise as possible. We are almost ecstatic with the joy of letting loose like this, of voicing our resistance to a government that seeks to silence us, and of being together like this.
…This is what Quebec looks like right now. Every night is teargas and riot cops, but it is also joy, laughter, kindness, togetherness, and beautiful music. Our hearts are bursting. We are so proud of each other; of the spirit of Quebec and its people; of our ability to resist, and our ability to collaborate.
The accompanying video is also excellent, with wonderful images of people emerging from their neighborhoods with pots and pans to join the huge march.
Our colleague Jim Thomas, from the ETC Group in Montreal, writes:
Only a week ago this movement could have gone an entirely different way. The student protests were getting very little public sympathy despite thousands marching every night. Their basic demand was to reverse an 80% hike in tuition fees that the provincial government is trying to impose. As the government and confused onlookers from the rest of Canada kept pointing out Quebec has the lowest college and university tuition fees in north america and the proposed hike would still leave Quebec as having the lowest tuition fees so the students were painted as whining, ‘entitled’ and not facing up to the ‘realities’ of the world and that framing had some traction with ordinary working class quebeckers too. Of course the issue was never really about just ‘tuition fees’ as such – it was about crippling student debt and the insanity of a corrupt neoliberal government increasing that debt while simultaneously handing out tax breaks to corporations, building contracts to the mafia and generous monies for forestry and mining companies to industrialize the far north of the country (known as the ‘plan nord’). That there was more at play than just ‘student’ fees became obvious in late april when the usually tame ‘Earth Day” rally here in montreal attracted 300,000 people, many of them wearing red squares – Quebec was pissed and a general anger was in the air.
…Probably the most insightful comment i have heard on why the student protests have arisen here in Quebec and not elsewhere in Canada is an anglo montrealer on english radio who pointed out that the rest of Canada (ROC) tends to take USA as its comparison point, whereas Quebec takes France and Europe as its comparison point. To the ROC it is inconceivable to imagine free university education since no one in north America has ever experienced such a thing and it sounds like a pie-in-the sky demand. To those of us with roots in ‘old europe’ however, free university tuition is what we grew up with, its normal and its right. To Quebecers being told that they should accept the same level of student debt as the rest of north america and give up on their social ideals is like an organic farmer being told they should shut up and accept the same level of pesticide contamination as industrial farmers… this is not the ‘rest of north america’, Quebec is a “distinct culture” and it has principles and they matter to Quebecers. A lot.
In effect what i see as really at play in these protests (and there’s a lot at play and many interpretations and explanations of the general ‘colere’ (rage) in the air) is a people standing up and defending the social welfare model that makes their society distinct and special. Many people in this province are actually proud to pay the highest taxes in north america (i am) because they can also point to strong social assistance programs, a thriving educated and cultured population, excellent arts and culture programs, world leading filmmakers and musicians, long government supported parental leave, excellent collective insurance policies covered by the state, a good working healthcare system, 7 dollar a day daycare for all kids and much more. In many ways Quebec is france.. or denmark or sweden and against all odds it maintains this progressive -even mildly socialist – political culture surrounded by two of the worlds most rampant neoliberal anti-welfare corporate economies: USA and Canada. Taking apart the low tuition fees is rightly seen as the first move in a much larger austerity package to take apart all of the social welfare programs and replace them with what? more debt being collected by the same banks who just reaped billions of free government dollars from the financial bailout? Fired by both the occupy movement and the protests against austerity and cuts in Europe the students have strongly made the connection to the financial crisis and how they and all who come after them are being asked to finance the mistakes of a government still in thrall to big business.
I have to say i think they are right. There is a great article by Michael Rosen, a UK writer of children’s poems, who points out that the great welfare states of Europe (and this is true for Quebec) were built in a post war economy shattered by real war, poverty and hardship out of a belief in helping our fellow citizens and all-pulling-together. yet now we are being told that wealthy countries who haven’t experienced war or crippling general poverty for some time and who recently found money to bail out banks and major corporations to the tune of several trillion dollars, just don’t have the finances to maintain those same social welfare programs even though those same programs were considered feasible back when we were poorer and the economy was truly broken. For anyone with an inkling of history that argument doesn’t wash. What is going on is a larger ideological project to take apart the welfare state, using the ‘shock’ of the financial meltdown as an excuse – and that is the undercurrent to the 3 month fight on the streets.