Monday, May 14, 2012

A dispatch from Montreal: student protests continue

Some scenes from my life over the past month:

On an unseasonably spring afternoon in March, De Maisonneuve St., a four-lane artery, has several couches sitting in the middle of it. Students are lounging around on them, chatting with each other and sipping some drinks. I enjoy the warm day as I walk past.

Outside my house one night in April, a helicopter is buzzing overhead. Our cat runs toward the back of the house and hides behind the couch as thousands of people, all dressed in red, walk past my door, chanting. Phalanxes of police cars cruise down the street, flashing their lights.

Last Thursday morning, I arrive at an academic conference in downtown Montreal somewhat bedraggled (as usual). I'm on my bike and it has been raining, so I'm wearing big yellow rubber-lined rain pants. "Are you here for the conference?" the security guard asks me in French. I explain that I am, and I show him my driver's license as well as where I am listed on the program. But without my accreditation, he won't let me into the conference center. It turns out that the subway has been paralyzed by smoke bombs all morning and the security guards are worried about disruptions to the conference. I guess that with my yellow pants and generalized dishevelment, I not only look ridiculous but potentially threatening as well. Once I finally get into the conference by another entrance, I show up at the session and no one is there--traffic jams and the smoke bombs mean that the sessions are temporarily on hold.

This is Montreal in the Spring of 2012. The student strike is still ongoing.

As many people outside Québec already know, a large proportion of students in this province are currently on strike in protest against planned tuition increases. That is, they are voluntarily staying away from classes in order to put pressure on the government to rescind the planned tuition hike.

Fees at Québec universities are currently very low compared to the rest of Canada. Here at Concordia, where I teach, basic tuition is $1868 per year plus about $700 in mandatory fees. For non-Québec residents and international students, the cost is much higher. This low cost is is in part an artifact of a stronger commitment to social democracy than the rest of North America, and it is also partly due to a strong tradition of student activism, which has mobilized to prevent previous tuition hikes.

This time around, the government has really dug in its heels, but this has not appeared to weaken the resolve of the students significantly. The strike is now entering its third month, and student protesters still seem to be full of energy. They are conducting nightly marches through the city, and last week, they held a large "naked" protest. Certain student groups have taken more radical action--as I indicated above, several students set off smoke bombs in the metro, paralyzing the system for hours, which disrupted the city (which is highly transit-dependent) significantly. These students are now facing the prospect of severe anti-terrorism penalties.

Despite their continued resolve, divisions have appeared amongst the students. First, support has been much weaker in the English universities. McGill never went on strike at all in any significant way, and students at Concordia, despite having gone on strike at the beginning of the protest, have already gone back to class and finished their semester. The second division is between arts/humanities/social sciences students and those who are studying science or business. Relatively few science and business students remain on strike at this point.

This second division is revealing, since I think it highlights an issue that is going to become very significant in the next twenty years. Until fairly recently, going to university used to involve what one might call a tacit bargain: the student or his/her family pays the tuition and then society delivers a reasonable prospect of a job. Increasingly, for students outside commerce or the STEM fields, this compact is falling apart. Students are being relegated to low-level jobs and are having to deal with substantial debt loads nonetheless.

For those of you that speak French, there is a intriguing clip from Infoman (the John Stewart of Québec) that bitingly highlights this divide. MC Gilles, Infoman's sidekick, is covering a creative protest by Université de Montréal Art History students, who are providing some biting commentary on the tuition increase by reenacting the crucifixion (an art history student comments: "We are offering some critical commentary on the increase using the iconography of our own discipline."). As the students walk past, MC Gilles talks to some female students who are looking on skeptically. "Are you against Jesus?" he asks. "No," reply the students, "we're for the increase." When he asks what they're studying, one of the students says, "We're at HEC (the business school) finance."

One thing that I would like to note before concluding is to clear up a misconception about the Québec student protests. Although the Anglophone Canadian media talks constantly about the protests "degenerating into violence," the protests have, with one recent exception in Victoriaville, been overwhelmingly peaceful. There has been some property damage during some of the protests in Montréal, but as La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé has noted, most of the protesters tend to disapprove of these actions. On the other side of the coin, members of the opposition like Québec Solidaire's Amir Khadir have suggested that police responses to some of the protests have been overzealous.

It's hard to say what will happen next in the strike. Both sides are determined and entrenched. Students are approaching the point of no return in terms of saving their semester, and some think it may already be lost. Others talk about the strike continuing into the fall.

I'll keep you updated about further developments.

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