Maple Spring: the Québec Red Square experience of 2012

Jean-François Joubert reflects on the student protests in Québec which brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in support of free education and the right to demonstrate.


Between February 13 and September 7 2012 the majority of Québec's 400,000 post-secondary students were on strike to pressure the government to drop its plans to increase tuition fees by 1625 Canadian dollars (about £1000) over five years. Education is a ‘provincial’ jurisdiction in Canada. The protest was organised by the main student organisations whose aim was primarily to block the proposed rise in student tuition fees. The strike led to cancellation of classes, picket lines in front of campuses, and massive street demonstrations of which the biggest was 22 March 2012 when 200,000 students marched in Montréal. The government responded by voting in an emergency bill to limit demonstrations, Bill 78, which was widely condemned, including by Amnesty International. Québec's longest student strike in history gained momentum as thousands of ordinary citizens banging on pots and pans every night outside their homes protested against this attack on the freedom to protest.

Cafe St-Ursule, St-Ursule Street, Québec City, July 2013.

I'm meeting someone* from the student movement now. I prepared a few questions. It's been hard to get good information on what happened last year. Man! There were 200,000 students marching at one time, chanting ‘une manif à tous les soirs jusqu'à la victoire!’ (A demonstration each night, every night, until victory!)  How did it start? What was it about?

*This isn’t one person, as such. This conversation is a collection of conversations, with many people, men and women, at different times.

He sits down, we order allongés [espresso] and we are good to go. When was the first time you saw an actual red square made of felt on a pin...? 

The first time ever? One girl at university. In 2011. She wore one and she had a look about her. Like she knew where she was going. But I didn't know what it was about. Still don’t really. The specific meaning of the red square... When I asked she said it was related to social movements; she was wearing it because she supported free education. I had no idea what she was on about and in fact I was not too supportive of free education. I mean, you get what you pay for, right? So I supported the government raising tuition fees at the time, on principle at least. I don’t anymore though. I guess I came out of the movement transformed.

demo red

You were not very political then...

No, not at all. No political affiliations. I don't really like politics actually. Full of people with short-term goals that rarely coincide with making things better for the people they represent. I’ve never been a militant of any kind. I'm not very goals orientated. I mean people say that in Québec there is a long tradition of social upheaval and demonstrations... but that’s not me.

So you didn't join the student movement because you supported free education. That's rich!

Well, I warmed up to it as it turns out. But no, I didn't at first. I just started watching all those demonstrations being ignored by the government. The government's attitude was so arrogant and condescending. It turns out they calculated they'd probably be re-elected anyway by all those who would turn against the students. Just watching that made my stomach turn.

Contrastingly the student associations were disciplined. They had all sorts of strategies to make sure things were done right. One of them was to say that there would be no strike unless a very strong proportion of individual students were in favour... 200,000 was the magic number (about half the post secondary student population). Less than that, no strike.

And of course you had to tell people and remind them: if you do vote in favour... well you can’t strike for less than 4 weeks. It won’t have any impact. You only make gains from the fifth week of a strike onwards.

What about language and independence issues? Any connection there?

The movement was so large... So many different views were expressed... I'd say free education, government corruption, a stop to reckless mining in the north... were what people wanted to talk about at the time. Not that cultural assimilation, federalism, independence stopped being important... It's just no one wanted to focus on those issues. But they were there as always.

In fact, one thing many people noticed was the mixing of Anglophone and Francophone students. One of the results of the strict language laws of the ‘80’s in Québec is that, even though there is still a dividing line between the two linguistic communities, the Anglophone community is much more French speaking, has a much wider knowledge of French than before. The message about tuition, corruption, the environment (initially in French) was quickly picked up by English speakers and solidarity was shown beyond traditional dividing lines: amazing!

Were Facebook and Twitter used a lot to organise?

Absolutely. Normally, social media doesn't promote level-headed discussion. But social media was used to track students’ votes,for example. On the road leading to the ‘200 000’ mark, when there were only three or four associations left to vote before reaching the target , everybody was following the universities’ feed to know what was going on. It was a great mobilisation tool. Very exciting times!

Can you imagine a large proportion of students following  feeds about decisions made during their student assembly meetings every night? Student assembly meetings?! Do you know how boring and contrived these  are? Democracy comes at a price and the price tends to be these crazily long discussions about marginal nuances and less-considered points of view. That’s how it was: hard to manage, chaotic and yes, very democratic in the end.

But when they did join in, when the numbers grew, suddenly there was a change of focus: people were talking about values... not just money! Incredible! I'm very proud of having been there. That's part of the reason that on March 22, 2012 there were so many students in the streets. That whole momentum. It really started small but when good news was shared it was like a wildfire!

bus stop

So, when did you start thinking that free education might be something you would support?

Well, at the same time as the government was raising tuition fees it was also giving away generous handouts to mining companies to develop Québec's north. The money was there, just not being spent in the right place. If you look at it realistically, as part of a whole budget... free education is completely doable. So then it becomes a case of why not?

The government in its divide and conquer strategy was also favouring some aboriginal nations to the detriment of others (there are a dozen nations in Québec). So, the student protests also became the place where those aboriginal nations (Innu for one) that were being ignored by development projects could have their say.

And then of course there was government corruption. Québec was the place in North America where building costs were the highest by about 20 percent. There is an ongoing widespread investigation still one year later.

Something was really happening then in all of Québec.

It might sound complicated but after years of no-one speaking to each other in Québec there was a grand, magical moment, a space in time where we could  express ideas, reinvent the world, and see possibilities, and not just be told what we couldn’t do and how we had to settle for this or settle for that... You know? Of course we were against neoliberalism... what else do we ever get to hear about? Suddenly we had choices! We wanted to discuss other options! And we didn’t want to talk about settling and being reasonable, which always means following the neoliberal agenda it seems.

We wanted to work together and try to see if we might imagine going in a completely different direction. Everyone who lived  on the street for those weeks and months are forever changed by the experience. The genie will never go back in the bottle. Oh... and I met my wife there.

You were demonstrating with your wife-to-be?

Yes. We have a baby now.

Those demonstrations... People of all ages, there were so many people. And the women always seemed to lead the way. I mean they'd always be the ones getting close to the police, staring them down, and chewing them out and yelling slogans. I mean, I couldn't just stand aside and do nothing.

And my wife used to say: ‘The revolution is not going to be won on the sidewalks. It’s going to be won in the streets!’ [In French ‘the sidewalk’ has a connotation of prostitution...]  That was the rallying call. First foot on the pavement... slowly follow with more... then eventually we take both sides of the street blocking all traffic. That’s what she would do! How can you not be moved by that?

Isn't that kind of violent though? There was lots of violence in the demonstrations...

Actually no. Violence does not serve our cause at all. It's the other side that benefits from it by fear-mongering. . That’s their excuse for having more security, more restrictive laws. Crazy! So there was a clear agenda on the part of the media and those who opposed the demonstrations in making the little violence there was seem much more dramatic by focusing on violent images.

riot police

But peaceful non-cooperation, including yelling and screaming, blocking traffic, that can be very effective. Just making things around you stop. Traffic, business, everything: stop. OK people... Let's THINK about this now, let’s stop carrying on as if everything were normal.

Besides, we had Anarchopanda and Banane Rebelle to keep things light.

The mascots? The guys wearing animal suits? The Panda?

Yeah, you cannot achieve anything if people are too uptight or if there is a risk of violence. Our weapons were laughter, non-cooperation, social media, hope...  Regardless of the outcome it was always fun to show up the next day for a demonstration.

I felt the police were being used in this conflict, and forced into taking sides. The conflict was not really something related to public order – it was political. The government had the image of power; we had the power of image: laughter is more powerful than police sticks. Just having Banane Rebelle show up made a mockery of the government’s attempts to make us look dangerous. That's one of the reasons we were so effective.

What was the most powerful protest act?

The ‘concert des casseroles’ (banging on pots and pans). That's just after the government had voted in a special law forbidding large demonstrations, limiting them to fifty people, insisting on  an itinerary. Families, children, grand parents – everyone was outside their house banging on those pots in protest. That was incredible. You can’t plan that. Just overwhelming popular support. By then it was over for the government....they were soon calling for elections. And they were voted out.

Weren’t the demonstrations bigger in Montréal than in Québec?

Some people always insist on how everything is different in different areas of Québec... but really that's just media hype. Divide and conquer ... There is no reason why people from everywhere in Québec can't work together for their own benefit. Each area participated with their own energy, their own difference.

So what about the party-political side of things?

What was crazy was seeing the political parties trying to profit from the crisis. Everyone was positioning themselves. In Québec things are not only divided Left and Right but by ‘sovereinist’ (pro-independence) and ‘federalist’ (for the status quo). The student crisis was about a left-wing issue (free education... on a par with free healthcare), so it included elements of  the Left working together. Perhaps the most influential political parties associated with the movement were ‘Québec solidaire’ and (to a lesser extent) ‘Option nationale’, both of which are pro-independence and favour language legislation to protect and defend national languages (including aboriginal languages).

So did any political party benefit from the crisis?

Well, one government was voted out, another was voted in. The Parti Québécois won the elections with Québec's first woman Premier. This party is traditionally on the left and pro-independence, however, the new Parti Québécois government  has voted in stricter demonstration laws and has it's own plans to develop the north ... and no current plans to change the constitutional status of Québec. What a joke!  Many people were quite disappointed. I guess you could say this is a revolution in progress. Right now our leaders, it seems, are quite disconnected with many of their constituents.

That being said, Québec today is in a completely different place than in 2011. Our interests, our goals, our objectives are much clearer. People are getting involved more than ever since the beginning of the 21st Century, and the parties that were represented in the demonstrations (Québec solidaire and Option nationale) continue to grow. They both support free education, much tougher environmental laws (including nationalisation of all natural resources) and political independence with no ties to the British monarchy. Since 2011 there has been quite a change in Québec, and a whole new generation of voters are making their voices heard.

On the down side, Québec now has stricter laws against demonstrations...

These are completely futile attempts to make society safer by prioritising low-level security concerns while denying basic human rights to protest and influence government action. It's a bad deal for everyone.

Long term the demonstration laws are very counter-productive because they undermine the relationship of trust between the people and their institutions. They promote radicalism, quite frankly. So... people are regrouping, organising and thinking about the next step.

Perhaps. But if protesters became more radicalised (albeit in smaller numbers) that could be positive? But then again, they would be easily squashed, I suppose.

Never protest with a few. We are legion, remember?


six mois


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