Have, as Montreal Gazette reporter Karen Seidman suggests, radicals hijacked the conflict over tuition increases in Québec?
In my previous post, I suggested that recent student protests in Montreal were more than just about tuition increases, and that tuition increases served as a triggering event that activated some other latent, longstanding grievances. In a recent May 16th article in the Montreal Gazette, Peggy Curran seems to agree with that assessment and writes that “it was clear the battle against tuition hikes had been transformed into the revolutionary cry of a lost generation. Toss a little anarchist mayhem into the mix, and you get a cocktail called pandemonium.” According to Curran, student mobilization is partially explained by the broader context of social unrest and breakdown characterized by economic uncertainty and high unemployment. But in addition to social unrest, Curran suggests a certain kind of intergenerational conflict between today’s students and baby-boomers – what she calls “boomerhate.”
In my last post, I wrote about a possible reason for the radicalization of student protest. CLASSE, which is considered a more radical student group, continued to promote disruption and criticized attempts at negotiation with the government (the education minister who was central in the negotiations recently announced she is resigning from politics altogether). More recently, the Force étudiante (FEQ), considered a radical group, is being linked to the smoke bomb attacks on Montreal’s subway system. According to Seidman, the FEQ along with the Coalition “Violence à Tout Prix” (Violence at All Cost) emerged as splinter groups during the 2005 strikes when they accused student unions of not being radical enough when they sought to negotiate with the government. Curran’s article suggests that the anarchists who have associated themselves with student disruption have also helped radicalize student mobilization. But government responses may also be fueling radicalization. Some have commented that the government appears to be out of tune with the underlying causes of student unrest. Likewise, the government has been criticized for its repressive measures in introducing legislation (i.e., Bill 78) which seeks to curb demonstrations and protest.
In some ways, Montreal’s ongoing student mobilization has raised the same questions as the Occupy Movement. Recently, CNN reported on the Occupy Chicago movement being overtaken by a small group of so-called anarchists who allegedly advocate violence. A spokesperson from Occupy says the Occupy movement has always been about nonviolence. Another similarity is the notion of goalessness. It is becoming increasingly unclear what the goals of student protests in Québec are (safe eliminating all tuition fees). Yet, when it comes to Occupy, we collectively have changed our tune about the goals of the movement when we decided that social movement goals are broader than policy change. As I wrote in a post last December, Occupy has made inequality a central theme in political and public discourse. An important point here is that the Occupy movement changed the hearts and minds of many, gaining broader public support. Montreal’s student protest however, has failed to receive sympathy from Quebeckers despite recent celebrity endorsements. Why? One reason is a public backlash to disrupting the peace (traffic, subway lines, etc.) but also that a small tuition increase, not some broader motive or cause for social unrest, is seen by the public as the main goal of protest for which tax-paying Quebeckers have little sympathy. That student protests have been taken over by anarchists who according to Curran, “won’t be happy until the whole system is destroyed,” has done little to sway Quebeckers in their favor. As Seidman writes, “students have been losing the battle for public opinion, and the more radical groups aren’t helping.” Perhaps a lesson from Québec students to Occupiers is that radicalization may undo all the work that went into gaining public support for the cause.