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Protesters opposing Quebec tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Sunday, May 27, 2012. (Graham Hughes/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Protesters opposing Quebec tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Sunday, May 27, 2012. (Graham Hughes/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec's 'grand awakening:' not a revolution, but a confrontation Add to ...

The protesters despised Jean Charest's plans, so they gathered often and by the thousands. They stormed police barricades and threw eggs at the National Assembly – the seat of power and democracy in Quebec. They fired off paintball guns, splattering the legislature in bright yellow. Across the province, cabinet ministers' offices were trashed. Fires were set, and the riot police were on constant duty.

All this took place not this week, but in 2003, when Mr. Charest was still green as a Premier, mere months into his first term.

In the end, he blinked. For the sake of social peace and to appease the unions, he scaled down his campaign to trim bureaucracy and reduce the power of labour. Calm returned to the land, at least for a little while, and caving in to protest became one of the Premier's trademarks.

Until now.

After nine years of compromise, and with just 18 months remaining in his current mandate, he is locked in a standoff with the biggest protest movement Canada has seen in decades. For weeks, he refused even to talk with student leaders fighting his 75-per-cent hike in tuition fees. Now, those talks have broken down, and the fact that neither side seems willing to blink leaves people in Quebec and across Canada wondering not only what will happen next but also what lasting impact the dispute will have on the future of the province and that of the nation.

Public protest has a long tradition in Quebec. Since the 1950s, when the shackles of church and authoritarian provincial rule began to loosen, Quebeckers have not felt the need to wait for an election, or even a phone call from a pollster, to express how they feel about the way their province is run. When fed up, they shout, and the louder they shout, the more often they seem to get their way.

Which is why hundreds of thousands of students, social activists, union members and even citizens normally loath to do so have been taking to the street day after day. With the government's sudden refusal to back down, what started in February as a class boycott over the tuition hike has given rise to something far greater.

A growing list of philosophers, political scientists and activists who have seen upheaval come and go over the years argues that a sort of “grand awakening” is under way, bringing with it the level of public discourse that Quebeckers call a débat de société.

As well as protesting against the tuition rise and the legal measures imposed to tighten the rules on protests, Quebeckers are marching against dwindling economic opportunity, corruption, and a widespread view that their Liberal rulers are tired and disconnected.

After hundreds of demonstrations – several have drawn crowds of 100,000 or more – scattered protests have begun to appear in other Canadian cities, leading many to suggest that Quebec's unrest will carry on for months and the rest of Canada may yet be in for and awakening of its own.

“This generation was raised in solitude, in a society of screens – the West had become the most boring society in history,” says Serge Bouchard, an anthropologist and leading public intellectual who appears regularly on Radio-Canada.

“People discovered something they had lost – political collectivity – and it transformed a class boycott against raising tuition into a wild awakening and spontaneous show of solidarity.”

The more romantic supporters have described the protests as a printemps érable – “maple spring” – riffing off the Arab Spring that brought democracy movements to streets of the Middle East.

The comparison is a stretch, of course. Compared with those in the Middle East, the stakes in Quebec are low, and the level of repression even lower. Nobody has died on the streets of Quebec in 15 weeks of protest – demonstrations that have grown, with sometimes modest, sometimes muscular police intervention, despite the special law designed to restrict them.

University of Montreal philosopher Christian Nadeau sees a more pragmatic motivation. “This is no revolution, but instead a confrontation with a government that has given up some of its moral authority,” he says.

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