How Quebec's 'Maple Spring' Protests Fit With the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street (Sort Of)

The demonstrations, first against tuition prices and now against anti-assembly limits, have more in common with other protest movements than you might think.

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A protester kicks a tear gas canister back towards police during a demonstration in Victoriaville, Quebec, on May 4, 2012. (Reuters)

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.

The Charest government, seeing that protests were continuing longer than with most student protests, and threatening to encroach on Quebec's profitable summer tourist season, tried outlawing protests over 50 people without consulting police first. This not only failed to break up individual protests, but as in so many countries before, only expanded the movement to question the entire economic system, leading Quebecois from a variety of ages and backgrounds to join in. What started as a students-only protest is spilling over into a much broader debate about inequality and, ultimately, the future that peoples' leaders appear to be offering.

But this is also part of a larger trend. It's amazing how quickly these regional and specific discussions -- police brutality in Tunisia, income inequality in the U.S., college tuition in Quebec -  spill over into some of the same themes we see globally. A government, possessing economic and military authority, makes a move that finally angers people enough to send them into the streets. In Iran, it was doubts over election returns. In Tunisia, it was a single humiliated street cart vendor committing suicide. At Occupy Wall Street it was a non-event -- the deafening silence from President Obama and Attorney General Holder, finding insufficient evidence in trillions of dollars of crooked mortgages and derivatives flim-flam to put a single Ponzi banker in front of a grand jury. The people leave the confines of their couches to meet each other in the street and make their presence seen, heard, and felt. The authorities react harshly, and then it becomes about something bigger: Governments these days seem readier to punish the poor and powerless, reserving their tolerance for the elements of society that do their protesting through lobbying and campaign finance. Holding the powerful to account for wrongdoing, especially of the economic variety, is not easy -- but when the young, poor, or marginalized are out in numbers, questioning the social contract, then the government finds its authority. That's not to say that Quebec's Bill 78 is analogous to the Arab Spring crackdowns -- the protesters weren't seeking the downfall of the government, after all, nor was the government trying to quell all dissent so much as to clear the streets in time for tourist season. But it's telling that, when the Quebec authorities went to act, they decided that the problem was that protesters had too many rights.

In the broadest terms, these sorts of movements and state reactions appear to be working in similar ways nearly everywhere, whether in the desperate urban poverty of Cairo or the cosmopolitan prosperity of Montreal. As the global economic slowdown squeezes governments and elites and regular non-elite people alike, the world is entering more fully into the politics of less, where deals are rewritten and expectations lowered. It's the young who seem first and loudest, ready to ask whether this is the only future possible. Institutions offer the same old answers in reply. And because of that, Quebec is certainly not the last place we should expect this pattern. If this is really a Quebec Spring, then it may be spring in a lot of places for a long time to come.