Quebec's longest ever period of student unrest threatens to continue throughout the summer. What originally began as a student protest about tuition fee rises has now become a full-blown social and political movement.
Quebec's leaders have warned protesters that their continued acts of civil disobedience are threatening the economy of the predominantly francophone province, which is already one of the most indebted regions in Canada. The warnings come as pictures circulate of police pepper-spraying students within meters of pubs and clubs packed with well-heeled Formula One Grand Prix visitors.
Canada's growing protest movement has been dubbed the "Maple Spring," a reference to the recent spate of uprisings in Arab countries. It all began back in February, when Quebec's provincial government declared its intention to raise tuition fees by 75 percent over a five year period. The students voted to go on strike, despite the fact that even under the proposed plans, their tuition fees would still remain among the lowest in North America. The students pinned small squares of red felt to their clothing to symbolize being "carrement dans le rouge" or "squarely in the red," an allusion to growing student debt.
The strike called for students to boycott classes and, more controversially, prevent others from attending. As a result, the protest has evoked strong emotions among a divided student population. One business student who did not want to be named said that she would "kill" anyone who stood between her and her degree.
Thousands of other students, however, have been prepared to risk failing their spring term in order to uphold the strike. Demonstrations are held on an almost daily basis, and the protesters are attracting support from a diverse cross-section of Canadian society. Ironically, says student protester Gonzo Nieto, the protest movement seems to have been kept alive by official attempts to clamp down on demonstrations. "I give the Charest government full credit," Nieto jokes.
According to Nieto, the student movement was running out of steam until, on May 18, Jean Charest's provincial government passed a controversial piece of legislation known as Law 78. Under the new law, police must be given eight hours notice of gatherings of more than 50 people, as well as an itinerary of their route. Heavy fines of up to CA$125,000 (97,000 euros) can be imposed on anyone in breach of the new law. In addition, Montreal city councilors passed a by-law to make it illegal for protesters to wear face masks.
Mainstream Quebeckers were incensed by what they saw as an attack on their freedom of expression and assembly. The law backfired and the numbers of protesters swelled. In imitation of Chile's "cacerolazos" movement, the protesters took to banging on pots and pans during demonstrations, earning themselves the nickname "les casseroles" or "the kitchen pans."
Christine Gallavotti, a 29-year-old nurse, had not taken part in the initial tuition fees protests, but decided to take to the streets in protests at Law 78. The heavy-handed police tactics she experienced during her first demonstration have motivated her to continue protesting.
"I was polite to the officer," she says as she recalls a particularly brutal encounter with a policeman. "I said to him 'Sir. I am against Law 78 and I consider I have the right to peacefully protest.'"
At that point, Gallavotti claims, the policeman started to hit her with his baton. "He ripped the sign out of my hands, broke it in half and threw it…As a last resort…I said to him 'I know you have peace in your heart' and then he pepper-sprayed me in the face."
But not all Montrealers are squarely behind the students. Former F1 driver Jacques Villeneuve is the son of Gilles Villeneuve, after whom Montreal's Grand Prix circuit is named. Irritated by the protesters' determination to use the Grand Prix as a platform for protest, he declared that "it's time for people to wake up and stop loafing about. It's lasted long enough."
With both the prestigious Montreal International Jazz Festival, and the "Just for Laughs" comedy event just around the corner, Villeneuve is unlikely to be the last celebrity to wish the protests would just go away.
Meanwhile, the "casserole" style of demonstration - where protesters march whilst beating pots and pans to make as loud a noise as possible - appear to have caught on from Toronto to New York, with further demonstrations scheduled in 125 cities. However, a recent gathering in Montreal's Girouard Park, which has previously seen nightly turnouts of over 100, failed to attract the 50 protesters needed to flout the law.
Disappointed, protest organizer Gonzo Nieto put the low attendance down to the fact it was Sunday evening and a flash flood had been forecast. Whether this was just a blip or an indication that the student-borne protest is beginning to run out of steam remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that whilst Charest's Liberal government may still be in power, the students have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Author: Sian Griffiths
Editor: Sarah Steffen