How a student uprising is reshaping Quebec

Tuition protest or another Quiet Revolution? What to make of Quebec's student protests? A Q&A with journalists Jacques Godbout and Carole Beaulieu, and political scientist Marc André Bodet.
Quebec students march through Montreal on May 20, 2012, in what has become an almost nightly occurrence. Since February, some 150,000 students from more than a dozen Quebec colleges and universities have been on strike over proposed tuition fee increases.

The Quebec government has been meeting again with student leaders to try to resolve the impasse over proposed tuition increases and its controversial anti-protest law that has seen tens of thousands of Quebecers take to the streets, sometimes violently, over the past 15 weeks.

But many observers are still trying to figure out the larger significance of the protest, which some have dubbed Quebec's Maple Spring. Will it create a new generation of leaders and shape the province (and Canada) for decades to come, as Quebec's Quiet Revolution did in the 1960s? invited two prominent francophone journalists and a political scientist to explore the historical context and current significance of the protests.

Jacques Godbout is one of Quebec's best-known journalists, novelists and filmmakers. He writes for the Montreal-based weekly magazine L'actualité.

Carole Beaulieu is the editor in chief of L'actualité.

Marc André Bodet is an assistant professor of political science at Laval University in Quebec City, where the protests have been much smaller.

The three spoke and/or emailed with CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon, and the interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

CBC News: What, in your view, does the rest of Canada need to understand about the situation in Quebec?

Jacques Godbout: For the rest of Canada, this protest helps explain and helps us to understand why Quebecois gave their unexpected support to the NDP in the last federal election.

Montreal is a city closer to left-wing than to right-wing thinking. The city has always given birth to all the big Quebec protest movements since 1960, often with the support of students. Strangely, Quebec City has always leaned to the right.

Carole Beaulieu, editor in chief of the Montreal-based L'actualite weekly newsmagazine. (L'actualite)

Carole Beaulieu: The young generation is a minority within Quebec's population (as elsewhere in Canada). They have been told the future is bleak: an ageing population that will consume an increasing amount of tax dollars for health care, a pension system that will depend increasingly on few workers, higher housing prices, student debt, crumbling public infrastructures, public debt …

They have been told they can't change the world as it is (international markets, financial pressure on governments ), but they are trying to build a different world. And if they can't be heard through the ballot box — because they are too few of them, why not try something else?

The slogan "Crions, plus fort, que nul ne nous ignore" [Let's shout even louder so no one can ignore us] has real meaning to them. Those weeks of daily street demonstrations have triggered an intense political awakening.

Does this movement echo youth protests elsewhere?

Godbout: In fact, what the students have called their "Maple Spring," which is a play on "Arab Spring," is a made-in-Quebec protest, with no connection to any European or American experience.

The phenomenon is partly explained by unexpected warm weather in March, a National Hockey League team out of the [playoff] series, but mainly by budget cuts by a badly managed government, riddled with corruption.

The idea to hike tuition fees was just the [final] straw.

Marc André Bodet: The student movement in Quebec is anchored in a unique historical context.

Many francophones still see higher education as a vehicle for economic and social "emancipation."

We can debate whether there's any truth to this perception, but many feel that the university is more than just a service provider; it helps protect and shape the national identity.

Many commentators have criticized the lack of respect by the student movement for court rulings and laws voted by the National Assembly. It is indeed a concern.

But I would argue that the legitimacy of these legal actions is undermined by the clash they cause with a long tradition of consensual politics in Quebec.

How do these protests fit in the long history of student activism in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s?

Jacques Godbout, Quebec journalist, novelist and documentary filmmaker. (Martin Laprise)

Godbout: In Quebec, this type of event is perceived as an accelerated education in political culture. It's more positive than negative and allows us to see the development of the ideas of the new leaders.

This time, the experience was intense and it allowed for young people (18-22 years of age) to develop an amazing solidarity.

This generation will remember for a long time how it held the advantage over the government by taking to the streets.

No one, except union leaders who tried to exploit [the situation], could have predicted the impact and length of the protest.

Beaulieu: Student organizations in Quebec are not set up the way they are in English-Canada. They do not only concern themselves with managing student services.

When you look back in Quebec history, you see that student leaders in the past have often become political and opinion leaders.

This is a different generation, very good at using modern information technology, often more world- and media-savvy than their [elected leaders].

They refuse to be branded as slackers who want society to pay for them. Close to 75 per cent of them hold jobs while studying. They know the difficulties of "real life", contrary to the opinion of some commentators.

They have been raised and trained to expect transparency from their elected officials. One could say they probably are better placed than their elders to imagine what kind of education system our society needs to face the challenges of the future.

Bodet: Student activism has been a constant in Quebec political life over the past half century. Since 2005 though, the student movement has changed with the rise of a more militant student association, CLASSE.

CLASSE has indeed a more radical and comprehensive agenda that covers the abolition of tuition fees but also extensive measures to fight poverty and economic inequalities.

In the past, relations between the labour movement and the students haven't always been harmonious, but this time there's good coordination between them. This has made the protest against the government more powerful.

The use of strikes or boycott and picket lines has been extensively discussed and debated. It is important to know that student associations in Quebec have frequently made use of such actions to advance their causes.

The government and university administrations generally tolerate them as long as these actions receive the support of a majority of students. The widespread use of legal actions by students opposed to these picket lines is thus a novelty, as are the violent actions on campus against those who actively oppose the strike.

Is this student movement morphing into a larger social protest in Quebec? 

Godbout: If, during past years, the federalists were opposed to sovereigntists, the confrontation today is between the right and the left.

The student protests won popular support among the middle class who have been unhappy about bankers, oil companies and chambers of commerce imposing a style of economic development that repulses them.

Quebecois don't want to get rich at any cost. The pots-and-pans protest [in which ordinary citizens have joined in by beating pots and pans] is also an effort on the part of the opposition PQ party to drive the Liberals into a corner.

Beaulieu: The student protests have reignited a left-right debate that had been somewhat dormant in the past years and might profoundly change the landscape of the next provincial election.

The government reaction to the protests — Bill 78, the court injunctions — has given many young people a crash course in rights and freedoms. It has also forced them into alliances with numerous groups, some with which they already had links (the unions) but also some new ones (lawyers' associations, various interest groups, environmental organizations).

They have gained media experience. Their networks have grown. They can now apply those gains to all sorts of public issues. And most likely, they will.

Marc Andre Bodet, political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. (Marc Andre Bodet)

Bodet: The political context of Quebec is tense. The student groups are led by competent and articulate representatives, while the Liberal party of Quebec is very unpopular.

There's a sense that this political regime is coming to an end, which is propelling the battle. There is also an ideological dimension to this conflict.

Against the students and their allies, there is a significant part of Quebec society that doesn't support the protests (and the accompanying violence) and approves of the increase in tuition as a means of improving the quality of education. However, those in favour of a tuition increase tend to also be dissatisfied with the Liberal government.

Since the 1990s, Quebec voters have, at various points, supported a long list of political parties all over the political spectrum and have felt systematically disappointed. So it's telling that now, in this crisis, the opposition parties haven't really capitalized on the discontent.

However, the spontaneous demonstrations against Bill 78 that started last week all over Quebec (but especially in Montreal) don't bode well for the future of this government. The people taking part in these marches are from all sectors of Quebec society, not just students.

This brings us back to two constants of Quebec politics: The need for strong political consensuses and the fear of social disorder. The challenge for this government is to find the right balance between the two.