Skip to main content
patrick lagacé

Protesters opposing tuition fee hikes march through downtown Montreal, Thursday, April 26, 2012.The Canadian Press

For the last two months, Montreal has been more or less a battlefield between police and student protesters, who are on strike to protest a 75 per cent tuition hike, with three to four rallies per day. Yes, per day.

It has almost no precedent in Quebec in terms of scale and disruption. Blocking roads and bridges and the Montreal Port, for instance, the student activists have been impossible to ignore.

Echoing the Arab revolutions, some are calling it the Quebec Spring.

Which, of course, is preposterous. Egypt this is not and Jean Charest, Quebec's premier, is no Hosni Mubarak: If there was ever any doubt, Mr. Charest ended this week by making concessions to the students, although not nearly as much as they're demanding.

Still, there is more to this conflict than rising tuition fees (which are, historically, Canada's lowest). Maybe this is our Seattle moment.

Remember Seattle, in 1999? The World Trade Organization (WTO) had chosen the city to hold multilateral free-trade discussions. But the real show was on the streets of the latté-sipping West Coast city, where left-leaning activists of all descriptions managed to steal the spotlight from bureaucrats, politicians and business people.

Clashing with police, protesters greatly disrupted the conference and conveyed their messages to a broad audience.

It was a galvanizing event for people everywhere in the West who felt left behind by a global agenda bent, in their view, to favour the rich and powerful – the same kinds of people who more recently came up with the "99 per cent" concept of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, and are now calling for an informal "general strike" on May 1, this coming Tuesday.

Progressive forces in Quebec always have been strong. For decades they flexed their muscle mainly through the unions and the Parti québécois. In the last 10 years, however, they have become active in a whole range of citizen groups and a new political party, Québec solidaire, with an unabashedly left-of-centre point of view.

The citizen groups usually congregate around specific local issues, such as opposition to a natural-gas-fired power plant in the Suroît, in 2004. There, ordinary people not normally bent on activism took to the streets in mid-winter to denounce the plant's pollution. The newly elected Charest governement backtracked.

Last year, a similar strain of activism targeted the heavy-handed way the shale-gas industry, in the province's rural areas, was intruding in people's lives and properties.

For months, people rallied in their villages and vociferated on TV. The Charest government ended up calling for a review that would put a moratorium on shale-gas exploration at least until the next election.

The subtext of these battles was this: What is the role of the state in the 21st century ? Whose side is it on – private interests or the public good? These are ancient concerns, but they were being newly articulated by people who were not graduates of the old PQ-labour progressive axis.

Meanwhile, Québec solidaire was tapping into the same themes by asking tough questions about the relationship between the Charest government (and former PQ governments, too) and big business.

The physician and brilliant firebrand Amir Khadir is the party's sole MLA, and also its co-leader with (still unelected) Françoise David. Mr Khadir is what you'd get if you spliced the DNA of Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky – but with a talk-show host's gift for the 10-second soundbite.

Mr. Khadir deems himself a product of what he calls the "first cycle" of grassroots militancy – which centered first around free-trade agreements (the Seattle period) and later the movement against the Iraq war, including the huge Montreal demonstration in February, 2003.

The second cycle, he says, started with the Suroît protests of 2004 and other citizens' protests pertaining to how Quebec develops its natural resources, from the safety of uranium mining on the North Shore to the mining royalties program.

"But what makes all those mobilizations so successful," adds Mr Khadir, "is the indignation caused by the corruption of the ruling elites, particularly that of the Charest government."

So the Quebec Spring that students aspire to was not created in a void. It is the direct consequence of the progressive forces' development in the province.

And that's why I see a Seattle moment in Quebec, this May Day: It is both a symptom of how the dynamics stand and a preview of things to come.

School might have been out for the last two months, but thousands of young Quebeckers have schooled themselves on the inner workings of militancy.

Those kids will apply the lessons learned during their Quebec Spring to a number of issues, for years to come.

Patrick Lagacé is a columnist with Montreal's La Presse.