Quebec: Canada’s province of protest

Conflit étudiant - grève illimitée - printemps 2012

Canada has never seen the like. Hundreds of thousands of Quebec’s college and university students have been boycotting classes for more than two months, all to defeat a planned hike in tuition fees due to begin in the fall. And yet, Quebec has by far the lowest tuition fees in Canada.
The students claim their crusade to be idealistic. They oppose “the commercialization of education,” claiming that higher fees — or any fees at all — discourage young people from attending university when the prospect is a mountain of debt. But there’s little evidence of idealism in the tactics they deploy to bend the Quebec government to their will.
Friday’s demonstrators pelted the police with stones and tried to force their way into a meeting at the Palais des Congrès where Premier Jean Charest was addressing business people on his Plan Nord for the economic development of northern Quebec. Since the strike began in February, they have thrown bricks on Montreal’s subway track, they’ve blocked bridges to Montreal at rush hour. They’ve ignored court injunctions requiring continued access to classes at universities in Montreal, Gatineau and Sherbrooke for those who refuse to strike. They’ve vandalized offices of cabinet ministers, blocked entrances to banks, hotels and office buildings, disrupted traffic and occupied university buildings to prevent forcibly the holding of lectures. They’re at risk any day of having their semester declared cancelled.
The government of Jean Charest long resisted meeting with student leaders. In 1986, student protesters succeeded by a strike to force the government to back away from increasing fees. But now, as the boycott dragged on, the government invited the student leaders to discuss more loans and grants to encourage attendance. The leaders peremptorily refused.
This student protest, that victimizes the students themselves, is exceptional for its length and lawlessness. But it’s the most recent outbreak of a recurrent strain of romantic anarchism manifested at different moments in Quebec’s history. Each year, Quebec holds a statutory holiday on the Monday before May 25: it’s called la “Journée nationale des patriotes.” It celebrates the armed insurrections of 1837 in Lower Canada which most historians — including François-Xavier Garneau — have judged unnecessary, badly planned, badly executed, without widespread popular support, and counter-productive, because it precipitated the abhorred union of the two Canadas.
The same romantic anarchism was manifested in the bombs and kidnappings by the Front de Libération du Québec, culminating in the 1970 October Crisis. That unnecessary and counterproductive explosion won much sympathy in Quebec until the execution of Pierre Laporte. It has since been celebrated in novels and several movies.
The most recent expression of romantic anarchism was on display for the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Constitution on April 17, 1982. Though the patriation was pushed through over the evident reluctance of most other provinces by Quebec’s Pierre Trudeau, who had won 74 of Quebec’s 75 seats and thereby had the majority that enabled him to act, much of Quebec’s intelligentsia continues to present the patriation as a gang-bang against Quebec. Trudeau met all the conditions set by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1981 for the patriation to be legitimate. Then René Lévesque appealed to the courts to have it struck down, but the Quebec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously upheld the legitimacy of the patriation. Said the Supreme Court: “The Constitution Act, 1982 is now in force. Its legality is neither challenged nor assailable.”
But, for romantic anarchists, the law, the Constitution and the Supreme Court must yield to a higher principle: the infallibility of le people québécois, as decreed by the poets and politicians. So it was that, last November, the National Assembly adopted unanimously, by 105 votes to 0, this resolution: “Resolved that the National Assembly of Quebec recalls that, 30 years ago this year, was promulgated the Constitution Act 1982, without the agreement of Quebec; that Quebec formally reasserts that it never adhered to this law which had the effect of diminishing the powers and the rights of Quebec without its consent and that the Constitution Act of 1982 remains always unacceptable to Quebec.”
In 1981, an angry René Lévesque had called the patriation agreement of nine provinces and the federal government to be “a coup d’État.” On April 10, 2012, in Le Devoir, a Ph.D. in international relations teaching at Dawson College echoed Lévesque’s judgment: “Today, after all the research that I have conducted, I no longer think that was an exaggeration. I sincerely think that there was a coup d’État.” A few days later, Opposition Leader Pauline Marois echoed the charge that there was a “coup d’État.”
Last Saturday, Laval political science professor Guy Laforest denounced in Le Devoir “the decisive role of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as well as that of the premiers of the majority English-speaking provinces, in an operation that was a subtle, hypocritical but nevertheless real oppression of Quebec’s society and people by the State and by the national majority in Canada.”
The students, above the law, simply follow the example of their elders.
William Johnson is an author and veteran journalist who has specialized in Quebec affairs.

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