Too bad for those who hoped for a remake of the "Printemps érable," the 2012 student rebellion against a rise in tuition fees that morphed into a several-months-long street protest against the Charest government orchestrated by labour unions and the Parti Québécois opposition.
This year, some student groups tried to recreate the same scenario to protest against the government's austerity measures, but it fell flat. The Liberal government shows no signs of budging on its agenda, the PQ is busy choosing a new leader, and the public sector labour unions are just beginning negotiations with the government and it's too early for them to take to the streets.
Moreover, the students had no personal stakes in the issue since their tuition fees were not touched by the budget cuts. So most students left the extremists to mount the barricades. And they did so with gusto, especially at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), a downtown university that has always been a hotbed of protests.
For days on end, the campus was invaded by masked demonstrators (some of whom might not have been regular students). Armed with poles and hammers, they broke equipment, terrorized students and employees, spread liquid soap on stairs, stopped classes by invading classrooms and threatening teachers, and thoroughly vandalized the place, beginning with the office that manages student loans and scholarships.
Two weeks ago, university rector Robert Proulx asked for and obtained an injunction to prevent classroom disruptions, and started the procedures to expel nine student activists – an unusual move in a province where college and university administrators are notoriously reluctant to exercise authority.
Last Wednesday, after more violence, Mr. Proulx finally called the police on campus – a decision that raised much indignation among some members of the faculty, especially those who actively promote anarchist theory. In a theatrical gesture, some 20 professors, including the head of the faculty union, Michèle Nevert, joined arms to form a "human chain" between the police and the mass of hooded demonstrators outfitted in black, like Islamic State wannabes, allegedly to protect the students from the police. Where did they think they were? On Tiananmen Square circa 1989, when pro-democracy protesters, including many vulnerable and idealistic students, were massacred?
The union blamed the rector for his "hardline" policies, while a group of professors called for his resignation.
There is a climate of fear at UQAM, where it doesn't take much to be labelled a fascist. Professors whose views displease militant students routinely see their office doors stuck with insulting posters or their courses interrupted by demonstrations.
It took weeks for the moderate teaching staff to take a stand against the handful of radicals who were wrecking their institution, and then only 184, out of a total of 1,140, signed a petition approving the president's decisions and criticizing the head of their union for expressing sympathy for the vandals. The head of the university's board, Lise Bissonnette, a former editor in chief of Le Devoir, stated that "what's hurting academic freedom is not the police intervention but the invasion on campus of organized bands who prevent the free circulation of ideas."
Now the movement seems to be unravelling, leaving behind a university that finds its reputation tainted precisely at a time when student numbers are declining and universities are competing for students. Many teachers and students worry about the future. They will all be paying a heavy price for the folly of a small number of anarchists and their academic supporters.