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The Biggest Student Uprising You’ve Never Heard Of ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Marc Bousquet
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, Apr 26, 2012

On an unseasonably warm day in late March, a quarter of a million postsecondary students and their supporters gathered in the streets of Montreal to protest against the Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75% over five years.  As the crowd marched in seemingly endless waves from Place du Canada, dotted with the carrés rouges, or red squares, that have become the symbol of the Quebec student movement, it was plainly obvious that this demonstration was the largest in Quebec’s, and perhaps Canadian, history.

The March 22nd Manifestation nationale was not the culmination but the midpoint of a 10-week-long student uprising that has seen, at its height, over 300,000 college and university students join an unlimited and superbly coordinated general strike.  As of today, almost 180,000 students remain on picket lines in departments and faculties that have been shuttered since February, not only in university-dense Montreal but also in smaller communities throughout Quebec.

Aerial news footage of the March 22nd Manifestation nationale

The strike has been supported by near-daily protest actions ranging from family-oriented rallies to building occupations and bridge blockades, and, more recently, by a campaign of political and economic disruption directed against government ministries, crown corporations, and private industry.  Although generally peaceful, these actions have met with increasingly brutal acts of police violence: Student protesters are routinely beaten, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed by riot police, and one, Francis Grenier, lost an eye after being hit by a flashbang grenade at close range.  Meanwhile, college and university administrators have deployed a spate of court injunctions and other legal measures in an unsuccessful attempt to break the strike, and Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, remains intransigent in spite of growing calls for his government to negotiate with student leaders.

So, why haven’t you heard about this yet?

While the Quebec student strike is comparable in scale to student movements in Europe and Latin America, it is entirely unique in the context of Canada and the continental United States, which makes the absence of media coverage outside the province puzzling at best and disturbing at worst.  As the veteran Canadian activist Judy Rebick observed in a recent column, “it is incredible that there has been almost no coverage of this extraordinary uprising of young people in Quebec in English Canada,” and, save for a brief mention on Democracy Now!, the movement has been ignored by even the independent American press.  A key factor, certainly, is language: Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province with a fully separate media infrastructure, and its famously militant student unions, which are responsible for organizing the strike, operate largely independently of the academic and activist networks that link the rest of the continent.  In this sense, English and French North America exist as two solitudes in much the same way that English- and French-speaking Quebecers once did—that is, they live in close quarters but don’t actually talk to each other very much.

Still, language differences are no excuse for overlooking this important student movement.  Montreal, the province’s cultural capital, is a bilingual city and student leaders have made efforts to ensure that strike information is available on English Web sites, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds.  Further, the English student media, based at Montreal’s Concordia and McGill universities, have provided consistent and often excellent coverage of the strike and related protests.  Even the national Canadian press has finally picked up the story, albeit without addressing the larger historical and political context of the strike or its connection to the austerity measures that are being imposed on students and workers across Canada and around the world.  More promisingly, next weekend’s Edufactory conference, The University is Ours!, is holding a special plenary session on tuition struggles in Quebec, which will help to raise awareness of the events that have fueled le printemps québécois.  At the very least, the student strike should serve as inspiration to social movements far beyond Quebec’s borders, as well as an urgent call to solidarity.

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