Friday, 25 May 2012

Oh, Canada!

The UK's student protests seemed like a big deal at the time: some minor disorder, a lot of police brutality and the usual panoply of outrage from politicians and rightwing media commentators. From the coverage, you'd have thought it was 1968 all over again. 

However, we have the French - or rather, French Canadians - to thank for another reminder of how to do protest properly. Nobody pays any attention to Canada even though it's huge and very interesting (Marge Simpson: 'it's so clean and sterile - I'm home!'). Quebec's students are very unhappy about their student fees being raised from (by UK standards) not very much to a bit more than not very much. But being French, they have a righteous sense of principle allied to a firm belief that the first thing to do in any situation is to get out onto the streets. And they're right. 

The initial cause has fed into a general sense of social outrage. The Canadian Conservative government is one of the most unpleasant, self-righteous, reactionary and undemocratic the first world has seen more generations: Prime Minister Harper has taken George Bush as a role model and perhaps gone even further. The cuddly Canada of peacekeepers, William Shatner, Due South, Degrassi Junior High and Anne of Green Gables has been replaced by a vicious corporate puppet which seems to actively enjoy poisoning the planet through tar sands oil (Canada cancelled its Kyoto commitments a while back) while using its newfound muscle to welcome in the Corporate Century without any regard for its citizens (and yes, Canadian voters are responsible for this insanity). 

The Quebecois students have protested so loudly and effectively for so long (103 days so far) that the government has introduced a Draconian set of anti-protest measures which only start with techniques familiar here (kettling, mass arrests etc) and end with an assault on democracy in the form of Loi/Bill 78. The university year has been cancelled! In response, large sections of the Canadian population, whether or not they agree with the fees issue, have flooded the streets and taken up novel ways to mark dissent, such as banging pots and pans ('casserole en cours) every night. 

[Law 78] imposes severe restrictions on the right to protest. Any group of 50 or more protesters must submit plans to police eight hours ahead of time; they can be denied the right to proceed. Picket lines at universities and colleges are forbidden, and illegal protests are punishable by fines from $5,000 to $125,000 for individuals and unions – as well as by the seizure of union dues and the dissolution of their associations.
In other words, the government has decided to smash the student movement by force.

I'm stunned by most of this - and surely it isn't constitutional. A blanket ban on university picket lines means that - for example - university cleaners facing wage cuts couldn't picket at their place of work, whereas staff at any other organisation can carry on as usual. Giving the police the right to ban any protest will of course be used over and over again whenever anyone wants to protest: powers once given are always applied widely and permanently.

Rather amusingly, when the police demanded a protest route map in advance, the students provided one - and the march's chosen course was… interesting. 

Culturally, there's an interesting feature to this movement: it's massively dominated by the French-speaking student bodies - they seem to be far readier to protest than Anglophones, perhaps because French gives them access to the traditions and tools of Mai 1968, and perhaps because being a linguistic minority in an anglophone-dominated country is an inherently more political position than being in the majority. There's a lesson there for the UK too: Welsh students used to be very active in the 1960s-1970s as the language and devolution campaigns accelerated - time for them to recover that fighting spirit. 

Additionally, Quebec is a special case because it's a European-style social democratic state within a country rapidly and forcibly being converted into a cutting edge free-market fundamentalist one. Yes, the rest of the world is realising that our economic and social woes are the result of capitalist fundamentalism, but Canada's previous social-democratic policies and the tide of oil money have cushioned the Canucks from the multiple blows the rest of us have received. If Canada's corporate government manages to smash Quebec, that's the end of social justice in North America. 

Canada: more interesting than you think, eh?

1 comment:

Vanessa Vaile said...

Dear Essayist: so very true especially about, "If Canada's corporate government manages to smash Quebec, that's the end of social justice in North America."

As for "more interesting" than we thought: not to anyone with Separatist friends or old enough to have followed it. But yes to illustrating Santayana on forgetting history.

Love the map

Vanessa @VCVaileNFM