Quick: name the Canadian Prime Minister.
If you got it, congratulations. Otherwise, don’t worry. Those of you who drew a blank, or who took an uncomfortably long time to come up with an answer, are within a safe majority in the United States.
It is a testament to American insularity that people in the United States feel no obligation to pay any attention to the country that shares thousands of miles of our northern border. About a decade ago, one of the more popular comedy bits on Canadian television was a segment called “Talking to Americans,” in which the host convinced ordinary people stateside to do things like congratulate Canada on completing its first 800 miles of paved road or to sign a petition protesting the government’s reinstatement of the “Toronto polar bear slaughter.” (It wasn’t just yokels off the street, either; prominent individuals also got punked. Then–presidential candidate George W. Bush, for one, famously showed that he was not in on the joke when asked what he thought of an endorsement by Canadian Prime Minister “Jean Poutine.”)
Given this long-standing neglect of Canada, maybe it’s no shock that it took some 100 days of massive, concerted protest before the student strike in Québec finally started getting traction in the U.S. media. Maybe the surprise is that it broke through at all—and that the strike may yet provide a resonant example for young people in this country suffering an epidemic of student debt.
It’s always interesting to watch a social movement become a mass media phenomenon, as the Québec student strikes have started to become in the last week. It is rarely remembered that Occupy Wall Street was a virtual non-story through its first week, even in most of the alternative press. Many of the stories that did run sentenced that movement to irrelevance. It was only around day nine or ten of the occupation in New York City, after some startling video of police abuse started circulating online, that journalists decided that this was something they should be paying attention to. The movement snowballed from there.
I think we are now witnessing the same sense of escalating momentum with regard to the Québec students. The details of the protests against rising tuition fees and mounting student debt, which began in February, have long been available. Yet, as of late April, one of the few stories on the subject in the United States accurately dubbed the protests “The Biggest Student Uprising You’ve Never Heard Of.”
The lack of attention wasn’t due to a lack of numbers. Hundreds of thousands in Québec had rallied on March 22. That’s more than either the Tea Party or Occupy ever turned out for their protests—and the Québécois were drawing from a much smaller population.
Nor was the neglect a product of insufficient confrontation. As the Chronicle of Higher Education had reported:
The strike has been supported by near-daily protest actions ranging from family-oriented rallies to building occupations and bridge blockades, and, more recently, by a campaign of political and economic disruption directed against government ministries, crown corporations, and private industry. Although generally peaceful, these actions have met with increasingly brutal acts of police violence:
Student protesters are routinely beaten, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed by riot police, and one, Francis Grenier, lost an eye after being hit by a flashbang grenade at close range. Meanwhile, college and university administrators have deployed a spate of court injunctions and other legal measures in an unsuccessful attempt to break the strike, and Québec’s premier, Jean Charest, remains intransigent in spite of growing calls for his government to negotiate with student leaders.
In part, the protesters didn’t need the U.S. press. Students at French-speaking universities in Québec have a stronger history of activism than their Anglophone counterparts, and French-language media gave the story serious coverage in its early months. But that’s no excuse for the English-speaking media’s slow response.
What finally seemed to do the trick was an act of government overreach: the passage of an anti-protest bill called Law 78. As Salon’s Natasha Lennard reported:
In a move indicative of a leadership grasping for control, the provincial government passed Law 78 in mid-May. Attempting to end the strikes and force the reopening of the universities, the law in no uncertain terms makes protest illegal. Groups planning demonstrations with more than 50 expected participants, according to Law 78, must inform the police in writing at least eight hours in advance of the protest with details of time, location, size and duration. More perturbing still, expressing support for demonstrations and strikes deemed unpermitted under Law 78 renders one guilty of that offense and liable to face the same steep fines.
Last week, coinciding with the 100th day of the student strike, massive crowds took to the streets in defiance of Law 78. Organizers hailed the demonstrations of Tuesday, May 22, when as many as 500,000 people marched wearing red squares (the symbol of the protest), as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Daily protests have continued, and total arrests from the strike now exceed 2,500.
In the wake of the strike’s hundredth day, I was pleased to see stories about the Québec students start popping up like spring tulips, with viral videos like this one sprouting widely through Facebook feeds.
Welcoming the newfound attention, one well-put “Open Letter to the Mainstream English Media” had this to say to reporters joining the fray:
Thank you; you are a little late to the party, and you are still missing the mark a lot of the time, but in the past few days, you have published some not entirely terrible articles and op-eds about what’s happening in Québec right now. Welcome to our movement.
Some of you have even started mentioning that when people are rounded up and arrested each night, they aren’t all criminals or rioters. Some of you have admitted that perhaps limiting our freedom of speech and assembly is going a little bit too far. Some of you are no longer publishing lies about the popular support that you seemed to think our government had. Not all of you, mind you, but some of you are waking up.
That said, here is what I have not seen you publish yet: stories about joy; about togetherness; about collaboration; about solidarity. You write about our anger, and yes, we are angry. We are angry at our government, at our police and at you. But none of you are succeeding in conveying what it feels like when you walk down the streets of Montreal right now, which is, for me at least, an overwhelming sense of joy and togetherness.
The author is right to call out the smug op-eds that have appeared. There are plenty to choose from. Social movements in Québec have long helped keep the cost of tuition low, and this is now being used against the students. Since they pay less than students in other Canadian provinces, the argument goes, young people in Québec must be insufferable whiners if they object to rising fees. This is the same logic with which all unionized U.S. workers with decent health care and pensions are told they should have to give up these benefits upon entering a contract fight, since so much of the workforce doesn’t get them. It is the local incarnation of neoliberalism’s famous race to the bottom.
Kudos to students in Ontario, who pay some of the highest tuition in Canada, for refusing to buy in. Instead of begrudging neighboring Québecers their lower fees, they’re ready to demand some for themselves. And given that the strike seems only to be gaining momentum, they might not be the only ones outside Québec to join in protest against crippling student debt.
Better late than never. I’m putting on my red square.
Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via DemocracyUprising.com. He is a contributor to Dissent Magazine, where this article originally appeared.