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Protesters opposing Quebec tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Sunday, May 27, 2012.

Graham Hughes

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.

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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.

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"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.

"This is a government that has decided its authority to govern comes strictly from the ballot box. Representative democracy is a delegated affair, but the problem with that idea is that it's always provisional. In representative democracy, it's never a blank cheque. Delegating power to a third party, to a government, is an act of confidence. They must work to maintain it or they lose their moral authority."

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Much like protesters from the infamous "battle in Seattle" during the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization to the recent Occupy movements, Quebeckers complain not only that they are being misrepresented by the usual levers of power, but also that they are routinely mocked by politicians and pundits for the disparity of views now layered on top of a fight over tuition. They're connecting a number of threads from the environment and the state of public services to abuses in the financial industry over the past decade.

Students seem immune to such criticism, having predicted months ago that their message would reach a wider audience.

"It's nice to see young people not only getting politicized, but leading the way," comments Virginie Barouh, who studies arts at Collège Montmorency in the Montreal suburb of Laval.

Political authority isn't the only target of deep distrust – the mainstream media have been relegated to a secondary role as the movement demonstrates a fresh determination to resist policies and test limits.

For example, online rumours that police had killed and seriously wounded protesters, and journalists were conspiring to cover it up, were conclusively debunked, but spread widely anyway, often with the help of prominent entertainers and activists.

At the same time, use of alternative sources such as social media and live feeds from Concordia University's decidedly pro-student community television have exploded during the conflict.

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Last fall, as students carefully prepared their strike and protest campaign, CUTV obtained a backpack broadcasting system that allows it to stream video over the Web from the midst of marches.

Its crews have walked long into the night, often pounded by police for their trouble, while the major networks have slept, or been bound by their satellite trucks and tight overtime budgets.

Student broadcasters have produced some of the starkest images – bloodied young people being hauled away or sprayed with gas – which have found their way into newscasts around the world.

"Any civilian, no matter their political allegiances, no Canadian wants this to be the image of Canada. That's one reason why this became bigger than the student movement – the disgust of the people came out," says Laith Marouf, program director of CUTV, which drew more eyeballs some nights than leading local newscasts.

"It was clear since the Arab Spring that there is a shift toward citizen media. People are no longer willing to be fooled by state or private broadcasters with their own agenda. They're making their own media that reflects their own reality."

A defining factor of that reality is the government's decision to stand firm, although Mr. Charest's tendency to listen in the past has given him little credit.

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"To me, he seems to have a hard time listening to people. It takes an incredible amount of noise for the Charest government to change direction," says Martin Carel, a 35-year-old computer engineer who recently began to march. "This government is operating in increasingly bad faith."

And why is the Premier not heeding the howls of protest this time?

It's hard to see much beyond cold political calculation behind his stand. Raising fees is ideologically consistent with many of his long-standing policy preferences. He has slowly shifted the burden of paying for government services away from the taxpayer and toward users.

But it's also clear that, for once, Mr. Charest has been on the right side of public opinion for much of the fight – most Quebeckers back his position on tuition. When polled, they agree that students should pay more – although they also said overwhelmingly that he should sit down and negotiate with the students, which he finally did only this week after nearly four months of conflict.

Many students predicted months ago that he would stand his ground, given the political advantage he'd found.

"All along, they were looking for votes instead of solving the crisis," says Ms. Barouh, 28. "Their electorate is happy to see him standing up."

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With an election looming, Mr. Charest may have found a ballot question he can answer in winning fashion, far preferable to the allegations of corruption that seemed certain to dominate the next election. Finally proving that he wouldn't be pushed around was an added bonus.

"I think, as a question of political strategy, this gesture shows an extraordinary cynicism. But it's not just partisan, it's also ideological, and it's a discussion Mr. Charest clearly thinks must be heard by the population," Prof. Nadeau says.

In fact, the idea that Quebec is experiencing a spring awakening is nearly as divisive as the conflict itself. There is a big rift between how liberal Montrealers feel and the way their more conservative cousins outside the city feel, according to former political leader Mario Dumont.

Young people may be waking up to diminished economic opportunity and the loss of privileges granted previous generations, but the protests have a side-effect that has dark implications for the province, says the man who founded the right-leaning Action Démocratique du Québec and led it for 15 years.

"Would you consider the total incapacity to make change in a society an awakening? I'm not so sure," says Mr. Dumont, who embraces the free-market ideology the protesters are railing against. "It's a bit exaggerated. The basis of this whole thing is the refusal of one group to pay more for a given service. There's nothing more 'business as usual' than that."

Which leaves a big question: What happens next?

Students remain the driving force, but now that people are mobilized on a wider variety of issues, it's hard to see how even a deal on tuition could bring the protest to a sudden end – especially if, as Prof. Nadeau suggests, people across the country rise up against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's steady march toward smaller government and freer markets.

Ultimately, the only way out of the impasse may be an election. But if Mr. Charest happens to win the gamble, will protesters decide he has regained his legitimacy?

"People have taken to the streets. But the streets don't legislate – the National Assembly does," Laval University sociology professor Simon Langlois says. "This is quite a disconcerting time in our democracy."

Luckily for Mr. Charest, the Parti Québécois and other opposition parties have failed so far to capitalize on the troubles.

Nationalist and progressive politics are often aligned in Quebec, but it's far from clear that there is any resurgence of the sovereignty movement on the horizon – the issue has barely even come up.

But former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau contends that it would be a mistake to rule out such a development, given the scale of the current social upheaval.

"All roads lead to Rome," he said recently. "You can't avoid it – all debates in Quebec lead eventually to asking the question: 'What do we do with our Quebec?'"

Yet the volatility says something else to Mr. Dumont – he sees dark long-term implications of quite a different nature.

In 2007, at the helm of a right-wing party, he came within a few thousand votes of becoming premier. Yet now, "you are looking at what is basically a major victory for the unions," he says.

"That's a huge shift in five years, and one of the consequences of this will be that no government will dare propose any significant change for the next decade.

"Any reform will be seen as political suicide."

Les Perreaux is a member of The Globe and Mail's Montreal bureau. Quebec City correspondent Rhéal Séguin also contributed a report.

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