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n June 22, 2012, after weeks of waving our red scarves in support of the nightly march of thousands of students banging pots and pans, known as the ‘casserole’, we agreed to our daughter’s plea to participate on the first day of her summer holidays, in what had become an illegal demonstration. Thanks to a hurriedly cobbled together law that has effectively removed the right of students, or anyone else in the province, to publicly protest without the prior consent of the police, any desire to register dissent has now been rendered an illegal act by the Québec government. Undaunted by the cold hard facts – that there would be riot police and that we could be arrested and fined up to $5,000 each, my daughter and her friend remained unwavering in their desire to contribute to preserving the ability of all in the province to attend university in the future. So at one p.m. on a beautiful sunny day, we joined approximately 10, 000 others, in defiance of Bill 78, on a march through the streets of downtown Montreal to protest not only the government’s decision to increase tuition fees, but also the province’s plans to commodify and capitalize upon the environmental resources of the Northern reaches of the province and the Charest Government’s growing austerity agenda.
It was clear on June 22 that the protest was evolving, galvanizing and bringing together multiple issues and multiple generations in a common concern for the relentless intrusion of the market into all aspects of everyday life. This evolution was made clear a month later when the largest of the student associations, the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale, otherwise known as CLASSE, revealed in a manifesto, their intention to move the protests beyond the issue of the $1,625 tuition-fee hike in order to engage a much broader public conversation about the principles, ideals and values integral to building a society that is founded on the principles of social justice and democracy.
For many of the grey-haired, over-50s in the crowd on June 22, their decision to stand in solidarity with students was intimately linked to their desire to preserve, as one of my neighbour’s explained, one of the fundamental ideals of Québec’s quiet revolution – that access to education should serve as a cornerstone of the nationalist ambition to break down the hierarchies that historically subordinated Québec’s French-speaking population. A sentiment best summarized in the resolve of the 1960 Québec Liberal Party slogan to become “Maîtres chez nous,” or “masters of our own house”. But this nationalist sentiment is not one that has been universally shared by all in the province. For many Anglophones, Québec’s quiet revolution, and in particular, its language restrictions is perceived as a cultural threat that continues to actively erode their identities and the sustainability of their communities. Indeed, Anglophones in the province have been more likely to view the government’s proposal to increase tuition fees from $2,168 to $3,793 by the year 2017 as a reasonable one given the fact that these fees are lower than those of all other provinces in Canada. In fact, as many have noted, participation in the protests by students attending English language Universities and CEGEPS has been far lower than that of students in the French language institutions. But while much public attention has been paid to the clear linguistic divide on the question of the validity of the student strike, less attention has been paid to the differences in levels of public support for the strike across lines of race and ethnicity, as well as class. I believe, however, that these differences are important ones that are worth exploring because they represent crucial challenges that will ultimately determine whether the student protests can truly evolve into a broader and sustainable progressive social movement.
A colleague from the University of the West Indies and I have been conducting interviews with young people of Caribbean Canadian descent in Montreal, to ascertain their experiences within the city, the strategies that they use to negotiate their urban environments and the strategic governance practices that are best able to help them articulate their rights and their vision of what the cities they live in should be. In our conversations that regularly lead to a discussion of the student strike, we have been surprised at our informants’ general lack of support for the strike. Few see the student strike as an effective form of protest and even fewer would consider participating in the marches themselves. The reasons given are varied -like many Anglophones some view the proposed tuition increases as minimal and consequently the protests unwarranted; others see the public protests as a futile exercise given the fact that there has been no resolution despite over 6 months of protest and interrupted study; yet others feel that that they are already the targets of everyday police surveillance and that participation in the protests would simply open them up to detention and possible arrest. Few of the 18-25 year olds that we have interviewed see any relationship between the current student protests and their own struggles to further their education, and to secure employment and to escape factory work, the seeming repository for black working class Anglophones in the province. The disconnect between the student struggles for educational accessibility and the struggles for education among low income black Anglophone Canadians in Québec could not be more striking. Many Anglophone black youth continue to be marginalized by the politics of language that have defined Québec’s quiet revolution, as well as a range of everyday racisms that limit their access to education, employment and social mobility. In our conversations with young people of Caribbean origin, many attribute the difficulties they experience in securing employment in the province to the inaccessibility and ineffectiveness of the system of education itself. Educated mainly within the English Montreal School Board system, some of the young people we have spoken with feel that the education they received, did not prepare them to participate in work environments that require the exclusive use of the French language. Many recount experiences where they felt marginalized and excluded in the classroom and unable to relate to either their teachers or the material in the curriculum that rarely reflected their own lives or experiences. Many also explained how, over time, the requirement to communicate in French came to feel like part of a broader, systematic devaluation of black, Anglophone cultural traditions and practices. The conversations we have had match the findings of the 2010 McGill Black Demographic study (Torczyner 2010) where it was reported that among black Montrealers between the ages of 15 and 24, 38% had not completed high school, 19% were unemployed, and of those employed 96% earned incomes of less than $25,000.
Tempting as it might be to view the issue of high school non-completion as somehow different from the student struggles to assure access to tertiary education for all, the fact that similar disparities exist in the proportion of black Montrealers who complete a tertiary degree suggest that the alienation that our interviewees feel may well be a significant obstacle that is present at all levels in the system. As Anthony Morgan, a former McGill University student of Jamaican descent who has been one of the few voices that has questioned the un-reflexive engagement in blackface performances among some protesters intent on reminding white Québecers of their historic characterization as ‘the white niggers of America’, any effort to build an egalitarian school system must prioritize breaking down the institutionalized and everyday forms of racism that routinely alienate and relegate indigenous and other students of colour to the shadows of progressive change.
The CLASSE manifesto highlights four core themes: democracy, feminism, social justice and ecology that will guide their expanded campaign. They have also declared their intention to make the educational system well and truly a space where equality reigns and differences are respected. These are progressive objectives that we should all support. Equally important, however, must be an explicit effort to connect the everyday exclusions that thousands of poor people and people of colour in the province face, and the very issue that set this movement in motion – access to education.