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Maple Spring: Nearly 1,000 Arrested as Mass Quebec Student Strike Passes 100th Day

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More than 400,000 filled the streets of Montreal this week as a protest over a 75 percent increase in tuition has grown into a full-blown political crisis. After three months of sustained protests and class boycotts that have come to be known around the world as the “Maple Spring,” the dispute exploded when the Quebec government passed an emergency law known as Bill 78, which suspends the current academic term, requires demonstrators to inform police of any protest route involving 50 or more people, and threatens student associations with fines of up to $125,000 if they disobey. The strike has received growing international attention as the standoff grows, striking a chord with young people across the globe amid growing discontent over austerity measures, bleak economies and crushing student debt. We’re joined by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, the main coalition of student unions involved in the student strikes in Quebec, and Anna Kruzynski, assistant professor at the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal. She has been involved in the student strike as a member of the group, Professors Against the Hike. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to the ongoing student strike in Quebec, where a protest that began over tuition fees has grown into a full-blown political crisis. The strike erupted three months ago after the provincial government announced a 75 percent tuition hike over the next five years. Students have responded with a sustained campaign of protests and class boycotts that has come to be known around the world as the Maple Spring. The protests have been daily and on some occasions have turned violent. Earlier this month, 11 people were hospitalized when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at a crowd protesting the convention of the governing Liberal party in Victoriaville. One demonstrator lost an eye, and another suffered critical injuries.

The dispute exploded last week after the Quebec government passed an emergency law known as Bill 78, which suspends the current academic term and requires demonstrators to inform police of any protest route involving 50 or more people. The bill threatens student associations with fines of up to $125,000 if they disobey or even fail to stop protests from occurring on campus.

But the students have responded with their largest protests to date. On Tuesday, the strike’s 100th day, an estimated crowd of up to 400,000 filled the streets of Montreal in defiance of the law. It was said to be the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The following day, another massive protest saw a harsh police response with over 500 people arrested in Montreal and another 100 arrested in Quebec City.

AMY GOODMAN: The strike has received growing international attention as the standoff grows, striking a chord with young people across the globe amidst growing discontent over austerity measures, bleak economies and crushing student debt. Solidarity demonstrations were held this week across Canada as well as in New York and Paris, with supporters donning the red felt square that has come to symbolize the Quebec student movement.

For more, we’re going to Montreal, where we’re joined by two guests. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is the spokesperson for CLASSE, the main coalition of student unions involved in the student strikes in Quebec. And Anna Kruzynski is assistant professor at the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal. She’s been involved in the student strike as a member of the group Professors Against the Hike.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Gabriel, we welcome you back. Talk about what happened this week. Four hundred thousand people in the streets? Who were they? Close to a thousand arrested? What are you calling for?

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: Well, like you said in your intro, last week we saw our government adopting a special law called Bill 78, who is really restrictive, according to the right to protest. And we were—and this protest of March 22 was planned since a few weeks now, but the adoption of this special bill really motivated a lot of people more to come to the protest. And, in fact, the objective of the law, according to the government, was to calm the—was to calm the confrontation in the streets of Montreal, was to stop the people from protesting. We had a congress at the coalition last weekend. We decided unanimously to defy the law and to held—and to hold, sorry, our protests on March 22 without giving the route of the protest to the police forces, like the Bill 78 is asking us to do. And we were hoping for a massive act of civil disobedience, and that’s exactly what happened. We saw maybe 4,000—400,000 people in the streets of Montreal, a lot of students, but for one time a lot also of citizens, teachers, people from all ages, who were in the streets with us not only to contest against this tuition increase, but also, more specifically, to contest the adoption of this special law.

AARON MATÉ: I want ask Anna Kruzynski—now, this started out as a protest against a tuition increase, 75 percent over five years, but it seems now, with so many people in the streets, and you have this emergency law that’s attracting international attention, that this has grown much bigger. Can you talk about what’s at stake here?

ANNA KRUZYNSKI: Sure. I mean, the tuition hike is part and parcel of a neoliberal agenda of this government, so it does—it’s not isolated from other measures that aim to privatize public services. So we—you’re talking about the notion of user fees for public services as opposed to free and accessible services through progressive taxation. So this is part of a larger—a larger issue, so this has been touching also health and hydro and other public services.

So, this has been going on for several years, but what the student movement has managed to do is to bring this debate into the forefront, beyond the question of tuition fees. And this—we saw, over the three months of the student movement, more and more community organizations and mainstream social movements, unions, professionals from all walks of life, citizens, ordinary folks joining into the struggle. But when the government passed Bill 78 on May 18th, there was an explosion of support for the student movement, but also a real questioning of the legitimacy of this government, this government that is trying to push through austerity measures that the majority of the population do not want to see. And this government is illegitimate and needs to take the back seat now. There’s a clear movement, and people—we can see this actually happening in the last few days in many neighborhoods in Montreal, but also outside of Montreal in the regions, in the rural areas. There has been spontaneous demonstrations of elderly people, families, children, with pots and pans, doing spontaneous demonstrations in their neighborhood in support of the student movement against Bill 78. So this is becoming much bigger than what it was originally.

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: In fact, the adoption of the law was one of the thing that helped the most our movement since the beginning. It like—it drew so much support to our movement. And the objective of the law was to stop the movement. In fact, it had the exact opposite effect. We have seen more protests than ever and the biggest protest since the hundred days of strike.


AARON MATÉ: Now, Gabriel, the Quebec government says that you have the lowest tuition in North America. They’re asking that this increase be spread out over five years. What’s your response to that? And what counterproposals have the students raised to cover up for what the government calls a funding shortfall that needs to be addressed?

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: Well, about our tuition, we are in fact very proud of having the lowest tuition fees in North America. We think that we have the chance in Quebec to have fought in the past to keep an accessible education system, which is based on two main pillars. The first one is the existence of the CEGEP, which are professional colleges that are free. And the second one is by keeping our tuition fees in the universities very low. And those two factors combined makes that we have the post-secondary frequentation rate—well, the best rate of post-secondary frequentation in Canada. We’re talking about more than 10 percent over the Canadian average on this point.

So we have a—so, if we follow the Canadian average of tuition fees, like the government is proposing, we will probably also follow the Canadian average of accessibility to education, which is not very a good news, if you want my opinion. So, our movement right now is a movement to defend this system that we have built in the past, that our parents have build in the past, by mobilizing. And the decision of the government is to try to destroy the very unique education system in Quebec, to get closer to the one of U.S.A. and of the rest of Canada. And that’s exactly what we are refusing, as a generation, with this strike.

ANNA KRUZYNSKI: Yeah, and we’re at an intersection here. It’s either we move toward a Scandinavian model of free education, or we move toward a U.S. model with high fees. So it’s not about—I would say to Canadians and to others elsewhere, “Wouldn’t it be nice if fees were low everywhere?” as opposed to saying we should have higher fees here in Quebec.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Canadian media’s coverage of the Quebec student strike. The cover of this week’s Maclean’s magazine, which is the Canadian equivalent of Time or Newsweek, reads, quote, “Quebec’s New Ruling Class: How a group of entitled students went to war and shut down a province. Over $325.” Gabriel, can you respond?

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: Well, it’s—I found that pretty funny when I read the Maclean’s newspaper. I think there is a very big misunderstanding of our fight in the rest of Canada.


GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: I think a lot of groups in the rest of Canada see our protest as spoiled children protesting, that—like if Quebecers would always want more from the state without never giving nothing back. I think it’s a lot of préjugé. And honestly, it’s so big that I have difficulty to say exactly what the problem is with the Maclean’s magazine.

ANNA KRUZYNSKI: But I’d like to say something about that, actually, because if we look at how the media coverage happened here in Quebec at the beginning of the student movement, we had a similar discourse—perhaps a little less colorful, but a similar discourse in the mainstream media. But no one is talking anymore about spoiled children in Quebec, after three months of very articulate and very well thought out argumentation around the vision of our society. This is not about $325; this is about the privatization of our public services. It’s the beginning of austerity measures, or the continuation of austerity measures. And it’s not about, you know, the—it’s not about spoiled children going off and taking advantage of their strike and going to Florida or whatever. This is what was said here in Quebec, as well, at the beginning of the strike. And I think that now the Canadian media and media elsewhere are waking up to what’s going on here, and they’re starting out where the Quebec media started out three months ago with the analysis of the movement. So I’m hoping that, given the situation, that they will actually talk to us and see what is actually going on, and not be making these kinds of statements, which are truly false, and all they do is divide—divide the population and create misinformation.

AARON MATÉ: Now, for our radio audience, our guests are both wearing this red felt patch on their chest. Can you guys talk about what that patch signifies?

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: This symbol was first popularized in 2005, which was the last big student strike in Quebec against a cut of $103 million in the bursaries transferred into loans. So, when we did this strike a few years ago, this red patch was born. We call it the “red square,” because the students here are squarely in the red. So it’s a symbol for student indebtment. And when we started our strike a few months ago here in Quebec, well, we decided to renew the symbol, who has really become in the last months not only the symbol of the student movement, but the symbol of the contestation of the Liberal government, of the contestation of his austerity measures, of his measures of privatization of our public services. And anyone who comes to visit Montreal these days can see this red patch is really everywhere. A lot of citizens have it. In fact, the majority in some neighborhoods in Montreal—the majority of the citizens wear the red patch. There are red flags on a lot of buildings. Red flags are painted on the walls everywhere. It’s really a beautiful ambiance here in Montreal.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have about 30 seconds, but where does this protest go from here? It’s been going on for a hundred days, 400,000 people in the street, a thousand arrests just this week. Then you have resignations. The head of the cabinet of ministers in Quebec has resigned. What do you see happening next?

ANNA KRUZYNSKI: I call on the unions to join forces. It’s the time for a social strike. There needs to be more and more people, more movements involved in this struggle. We need to support the students.

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: And from our part, we are—I think our big challenge will be to be able to continue the mobilizing throughout the summer, because all the students are going to go back to their homes in the region. So I think our objective will be to continue to be mobilized all through the summer. Our plan is to hold new general assemblies to get strike mandates at the beginning of August, when the winter semester will start up again. So we hope that we’ll continue this fight when our semesters begin at the beginning of August. And like my colleague said, I think that now, if we want to go through the summer with our mobilization, I think the ball is in the hands of the unions, of the big social movements, in order to help us to get a—to have, probably, a citizen mobilization [inaudible].

ANNA KRUZYNSKI: And to destitute Jean Charest and this government.

GABRIEL NADEAU-DUBOIS: Yeah, well, that’s the best objective that we can reach.

AMY GOODMAN: So I guess the question is, will the Maple Spring become a Maple Summer?


AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE—


AMY GOODMAN: —the main coalition of student unions in the student strikes in Quebec, and Anna Kruzynski, assistant professor of the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal, member of Professors Against the Hike. We’re going to continue with education back in the United States, in Philadelphia, where one of the largest privatization plans are underway. Stay with us.

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