Printemps Érable: More than just a clever pun

Willy Blomme
Johns Hopkins University

Some are calling the massive demonstration in Montreal on May 22nd the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Whether or not this is true – and I suspect that it is – the march was certainly impressive. Upwards of 250 000 (some estimate as many as 400 000) people took to the streets and collectively disobeyed a new “special” (read repressive and draconian) law pushed through the National Assembly by Quebec's Liberal government. The march was organized to mark the 100th day of a student strike undertaken to oppose the government's plan to hike tuition fees. But what started as a conflict over education has become something much bigger. In the wake of Bill 78 the conflict has become a stand-off between two ideological visions for Quebec.

Technically the protests are about a tuition hike. The students voted to strike in response to the government's plan to increase tuition by 82% over seven years. Since February 13th 170 000 university and CEGEP students (the number has fluctuated somewhat) have refused to go to classes to protest the proposed hikes. The choice of a strike as the protest tactic cleverly exposes the ideological differences between the two sides. The students understand that by educating themselves they are engaged in important social work. The government, by contrast, follows the typical neoliberal individualistic and job-training-focused interpretation of education. It insists that the students are boycotting classes and predictably dismisses and infantalizes them by referring to them as “enfants roi” (spoiled brats). 

Since the beginning these protests have been about more than just tuition. They come after years of “belt-tightening” in Quebec and have attracted many nonstudents angry and worried about the direction the Charest government is taking the province. Nonstudents have swelled the ranks at three major demonstrations (the 22nd of March, April and May respectively). Red squares – the symbol of the movement – have become ubiquitous. On a recent trip to Montreal I was amazed not only to see these felt squares pinned to the shirts and bags of nearly everyone I passed on the street, but also painted on buildings and even used in stores' window displays. Students and their supporters have consciously linked the fight over tuition fees to a broader struggle over economic and social justice.

Events took a turn for the sinister mid-May with the government's adoption of emergency legislation to deal with the protests. At the end of a messy couple of weeks that saw violent stand-offs between police and protesters, the rejection by students of a negotiated deal (a bizarre arrangement that would have maintained the tuition hikes but neutralized them through equivalent reductions in fees imposed by universities), the release of smoke bombs into the Montreal metro at rush hour, and the resignation of the embattled education minister, Line Beauchamp, the Charest government introduced Bill 78 with the purported intention of “restoring peace and order.” Instead it does such violence to civil liberties and the right to protest that it was guaranteed to inflame tensions. The most controversial provisions of the law (adopted 24 hours after it was presented) are:

  • a requirement that police are informed eight hours ahead of the route and duration of any demonstration of 50 or more people (originally set at 10 or more);
  • a requirement that organizers – or student associations simply participating in a march – ensure that the event meets the specified parametres; and
  • a requirement that student associations employ appropriate means to induce their members not to directly or indirectly disrupt classes.

The law also imposes fines of up to $125,000 against groups that contravene these provisions. Constitutional lawyers, the Quebec Bar Association and human rights groups have all condemned the legislation as a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms. The government clearly recognized the inevitable legal challenges and built a self-destruct date into the legislation (July 1, 2013) ensuring that the law would expire before it had to be defended in court. In effect, the government has just given itself a weapon to use against protesters that even it recognizes as illegitimate.

Worryingly, this move to trample civil rights and grant the police extraordinary powers in the name of order is a growing trend in Canada. In one of those illuminating moments of political coincidence the Charest government tabled its “special” law the day after a report came out in Toronto condemning that city's police force for excessive force, illegal detention, and ignoring or breaching constitutional rights during the June 2010 G20 summit – an event that culminated in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history (over 1,100). The federal government is getting in on the game too. Not only is it pushing a maniacally carceral agenda (insisting on building more prisons despite persistent decreases in crime rates) it has recently proposed legislation that would ban the wearing of masks at protests (mirroring a by-law just adopted by the city of Montreal). These legislative moves make it harder and harder to simply blame “rogue” police officers for the abuses increasingly committed against Canadian protesters. At every level of government the police are being given more tools – literal and legal – for repression while the space for protest is steadily constrained.

Back on the streets of Montreal – and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Quebec – the response from citizens to the new law has been inspiring. The most dramatic moment of resistance was of course the massive May 22nd demonstration. Two of the student associations had complied with the law by providing the police with the protest route, but led by a third association, la CLASSE (Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), hundreds of thousands of people disobeyed by walking in the opposite direction. There have been a myriad of other responses: a deluge of letters and phonecalls to the police informing them of the date and location of innocuous gatherings (from children's birthday parties to a Chamber of Commerce meeting), a bonfire at a major downtown intersection, hundreds of citizens pledging to disobey the law on (somebody arrest me), a movement mascot dressed in a plush panda suit known as Anarchopanda who hands out hugs to protesters and police officers alike, and most recently the “marche de casserole” (march of pots and pans) in which hundreds of residents come out of their houses at 8pm every night to bang on pots and pans for 20 minutes.  

In their forms of resistance to the government and the “special” law Quebec's protesters are demonstrating some affinities with the Occupy movement to which they are often compared (along with the Arab Spring, from which the name for the movement – le Printemps Érable – is derived as a pun). Many of the actions are not hierarchically organized, are adaptable (e.g. the splitting and rerouting of the night protests), are creative (e.g. the letters to the police), and are spontaneous (e.g. the marche de casserole). Like Occupy they have sought to open a discursive space for debate about ideology and the political and economic system by occupying a physical space. But where Occupy focused its physical presence on one constant space (e.g. Zucotti Park) the Montreal protesters have turned the whole city into their space of protest. By entering multiple spaces at varying times (e.g. silently riding the metro at rush hour clad in red, marching downtown during the day, banging on pots and pans in residential neighbourhoods at night) the protesters are drawing the entire city into the political space. They are doing it by mobilizing presence, creativity and surprise as their political tools.

The government, for its part, has moved to contain the space of politics through heavy handed means and blunt force. It has tried to limit the reach of the protests by demanding pre-determined, ordered routes. It has attempted to quell spontaneity by boxing in (kettling – a term made infamous by the Toronto police at the G20 protests) residents banging on pots and pans near their homes. And it has resorted to the tried and true technique of mass arrest (close to 700 on the night of May 23rd) in an attempt to make the city streets inhospitable to political opposition. Under the guise of restoring peace and order the government is trying to put the genie back in the bottle and return political debate to the restricted spaces of the National Assembly and its backrooms.

Despite these efforts by the government and the police the protests show no signs of abating. To the contrary, we are seeing more and more spaces of resistance open up and more people join the movement. This is no longer just a demonstration of political dissent but truly “une manifestation.”