The demonstrations, first against tuition prices and now against anti-assembly limits, have more in common with other protest movements than you might think.
When the Quebec student protests began in February over a proposed tuition hike, it didn't look much like, say, Occupy Wall Street, or especially not like the Arab Spring. It still mostly doesn't -- no one thinks Canadian tanks will be flooding the streets anytime soon -- but it has taken an unusual turn since the Quebec National Assembly passed an emergency law in May to limit public assembly. Bill 78 sparked more and much larger protests, with the issues now bigger than just the price of education. So, put aside for a moment the myriad and important differences between Quebec's protest movement and Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, and consider these thematic similarities in the events:
- The government oversteps with an abusive action or announcement of an offensive policy.
- Young people begin protesting to decry the injustice and start a larger debate about the legitimacy of the government, and its habit of doing favors for the rich and established at the expense of the young and poor.
- The government cracks down on protestors, spurring criticisms of illegally crushing free speech.
- Instead of quelling the dissent, the attempts to shut down protests helps expand them, contributing to a nationwide conversation about people's shared distrust of failing institutions.
This is Le Printemps Erable, or the Maple Spring as some call it, one of the largest social movements to hit Quebec in decades. But, in the most general terms, this pattern could describe many popular movements of the past three years: the Green Revolution of Iran, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street. (Though on wildly different scales -- Canada, of course, enjoys a stable democracy rather than a military dictatorship or a theocracy, and its relatively modest finance sector has suffered no Lehman-style disasters.) Every time we think a protest movement has dissipated, something like it reappears in another section of the world, spurred by similar themes and resulting in a similar dance between authority figures and masses of people disenchanted with their leadership.
Thankfully, Quebec shares little in common with the desperation of Tunisia, Egypt, or Iran, even if this social movement borrows some rhetorical themes from their struggles. Around 100 days ago, students in Quebec began protesting en masse against a proposal by the Liberal government of Jean Charest, a significant rate hike for higher education that would be paid directly by students. While the actual rate hike measures in the hundreds of dollars per year -- sums that sadly wouldn't impress Americans living under a colossal, tragic trillion dollars of student debt -- Quebec is one of the most heavily taxed places in Canada, extracting funds that are already supposed to go to health care, higher education, and social services. Many of the students are stepping forward against what they see as a fundamental change in the deal they are getting from society, being asked to pay more for credentials to enter an ever-weaker job market.