Quebec Student Protests: It’s about Everyone – A Citizen’s Changing Views

Didn’t someone famous once say If you don’t change your mind, it’s a sign you haven’t got one? I don’t know, at this time of night I can’t find it on Google but I’m sure someone at some point said something to this affect. Whoever may have said it, it’s applicable to me in the case of the student protests that have consumed my city for months.

When the protests began a few months ago, my first thoughts were probably not dissimilar from many others my age who went to university twenty-odd years ago here in Quebec: tuition has not increased since then, it’s perfectly normal for the cost to go up, students today can spend their money on iPhones, iPods, and iEverything else, live at home and barely pay any taxes, drive fancier cars than I ever drove… so why not, jack up the tuition. “In my day” – oh how many of us my age started their arguments this way? – I worked and got student loans to get through my education and I’m fine. Spoiled brats, get off the streets, stop messing up traffic, get your damn education so you can buy a house, raise a family, put yourself in debt for a quarter century and sit at home and watch the news only to complain about young people who have the huevos to speak up and say This isn’t right.
Photograph by Dario Ayala, The Gazette.
At this point the spoiled brat argument utterly fails, and it’s where much of the media coverage has remained in other parts of Canada outside Quebec (here’s a great article worth reading on the subject). Students were right to say the tuition increase was unfair. Even though university tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada and has been the same for the past twenty years, that’s no excuse to raise the cost. Low tuition is not a privilege; it is a human right. Art. 13 par. 2(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by Canada in 1976 is unambiguous: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education…” Progressive realization of the right to education means that the Quebec government must take gradual, concrete steps to ensure the full realization of that right. If it can’t do that, it has some serious explaining to do. The government must work towards free education, not charge students more for it. In this respect, the government has failed its citizens. This is nothing new, but often times when they screw adults like me, I shrug my shoulders and take it. They increase my municipal taxes, I take it. My public services get lousier every year, I take it. The roads I drive on get worse every year, I take it. I wait four hours in a hospital emergency room to see a doctor for five minutes, I take it. The government tries to screw young people, they don’t take it. They go to the streets.
As a result of their movement, mistakes have been committed. And this is where my view on the protests wavered from Spoiled brats to They’ve got a point to Don’t mess it up and act stupid. With student protests reaching in the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Montreal, it’s only normal to assume that there may be a little bit of chaos on the fringes and that violence ensues. These are huge crowds, and we Montrealers are known for making much bigger messes of our streets after a hockey game. So the occasional broken window is regrettable, but not uncontrollable and, most importantly, not in any way indicative of the actions and sentiments of the vast majority of those protesting peacefully. But, as noted in the Huffington Post article mentioned earlier, “When students forcibly attempted to prevent non-striking students from entering their classes, they temporarily lost me. You can’t rally on the streets in defense of your rights, and then turn around and deny others theirs.” No you can’t. But the repercussions of the demonstrations extend beyond students being prevented from attending their classes. Montreal’s economy will take a severe beating as tourists question whether or not they should spend their money here. When it comes down to it, those suffering the most in this case will be merchants who depend on tourist revenue at this time of year to keep them going.
My mind changed again thanks to the government’s response to the protests. I went from Spoiled bratsto They’ve got a point to Don’t mess it up and act stupid to The government is really clueless and finally This is bigger than tuition. However inept the Quebec government has been at handling the protests over the last few months, in many ways I have welcomed its creation of Bill 78 because it so fantastically breaches our country’s international human rights obligations, it is so un-Québécois, it is so Kossé-ça-on-est-au-Quebec-ostie (apologies to non-Quebecers for my vernacular), that it is bound to blow up in the government’s face. And it looks well poised to do just that, with the bill being challenged by student groups in court. The outcry around the draconian measures alluded to in the bill have only served to galvanize other segments of the Quebec population who are saying Enough. The casseroles banging away every night in Montreal and other suburbs are not clanged solely by students. There are plenty of other people who have taken to the streets including, I am sure, ones who thought the students protesting were spoiled brats a few months ago. The protests have taken root in Quebec’s culture, our demands for an accountable and fair government, our call for social justice, and fundamentally our need to participate in the decisions that affect our lives. The movement is a movement québécois and as such has taken on a momentum that seems to surpass the Occupy one that eventually fizzled out last year as the cold seeped in.
I admit I’d probably go bonkers if I lived downtown and had to be subjected to night after night of pot banging. I hate noise; I’d get annoyed, my kids wouldn’t be able to sleep be cranky every morning, and life would be generally miserable. I’d probably lose my mind just enough to start having a phobia of pots and spend a few years cooking exclusively in microwave-safe dishes. But the pots are banging for a reason, and that reason is not only a tuition fee that will continue to increase well after most of the student protesters have graduated. The pots are banging because le peuple québécois has had enough with the current government. A people’s participation has to extend well beyond banging pots and walking in protests; it needs to vote, it needs to be consulted, and all the voices, young and old alike, need to be heard. The government has got to stop thinking that measures like Bill 78 are a means of protecting its citizens. The only true revelations of Bill 78 have been to further distinguish the Quebec government as inept and to rouse a people who’ve tolerated this ineptitude for far too long. And the protests have gone on long enough for people like me to realize that this is so much more than higher tuition in universities. If an average citizen like me can change his mind over these protests and the underlying reasons behind them, is it too much to ask a government to do the same? Isn’t it supposed to act in my best interests?

Speaking out against pieces of sh*t in Canada and abroad

Matt Price of the Huffington Post recently wondered in a blog why more Canadians aren’t losing it like Trudeau. The reference was to Trudeau’s recent outburst in the House of Commons calling Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit.” The guy who stole my wallet last month is a piece of shit; Peter Kent is not. At least he shouldn’t have been called that in the House of Commons. Mr. Kent was more cowardly than shit-like. He was in no position to criticize NDP environment critic Megan Leslie for not attending the Durban climate conference. It was his government that prevented any delegates from other parties to attend the conference.

While I don’t think the House of Commons is the place for such language, I applaud Mr. Trudeau for bringing more media attention to the policies and practices our government is taking, apparently without much objection from many of its citizens. The Canada that the current government is creating is not one to be proud of, from reneging on the Kyoto Protocol, cutting funding for abortions, scrapping the gun registry, passing a crime bill that will likely do more harm than good, losing a seat on the UN Security Council, and systematically marginalizing aboriginal rights. For that last one, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples James Anaya contacted the Canadian government about the “dire social and economic condition” about the Attawapiskat First Nation. The response from the government’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister: the special rapporteur’s statement “lacks credibility.” Smells like shit, and it’s not coming from the UN.

How does this “lack credibility”?

Don’t think this is going unnoticed, here in Canada or abroad. Fifteen years ago, I travelled to other countries and could be assured of a smile every time I said I was Canadian. Nowadays, most people frown, hesitate before speaking, and finally ask me: “What’s wrong with your country now?”

There’s plenty wrong with our country, but I’m also aware (and deeply thankful, but not thankful to this government) for the liberties I have. I can criticize the government because it’s my right. I don’t live in fear of being arrested or assaulted by the police if I say something against the government. I have freedom, I have liberty, I have freedom of expression, and I realize as I reflect on the realities in other countries that I don’t exercise my freedom of expression enough. I might not get to the point where I start name-calling government officials, but I should be more vocal about the things I care about. When it comes to respecting the human rights of all Canadians (and our right to a clean environment is intricately linked to our human rights as individuals and groups), it is shameful that the government dismisses any criticisms, from opposition parties to public outcry to the United Nations, and ploughs ahead with its own agenda. This is not a Canada I am proud of. This is not my Canada.

Blatant disregard for basic human rights – Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states we all have the right to life, liberty and security of the person – continues to tarnish progress in Canada and elsewhere in the world, even in this year of the Arab Spring. The death toll in Syria is over 5000 since protests began, violence has erupted again in Egypt following elections, and the oppression continues in Bahrain. When I think back at the year’s events, as so many of us do as the year’s end approaches, there is one issue above all that upsets me the most, and recent events have only made things worse. I am still angry at the arrest, imprisonment, mistreatment, and unfair trial of my friend and human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, currently serving a life sentence in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. His daughter Zainab, clearly demonstrating very peacefully against the government at a roundabout last week, was handcuffed, dragged into a police van, and arrested. This is wrong. His arrest was wrong, her arrest is wrong; both should be free. Her lawyers were told yesterday, “What trial?” as they appeared in court. The leadership in Bahrain should think of implementing the recommendations put forward by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. When will the violence end, when will the common denominator that bonds us all – our humanity – be enough to stop the hatred? When will those in positions of power admit to their weaknesses, mistakes, and human rights violations so we can move on with our lives and focus on bettering ourselves and helping each other rather than oppressing those who dare to speak of human rights for all?

To those who have fought to claim your own rights and protect the rights of others, I respect and envy your courage. You are the voice of the fed up, the tired, the pissed off, the oppressed, the violated, the hurt. Speak up so that more can be inspired.