I've been watching the student protest movement closely from day one. I studied its emergence from a singular tuition hike issue to a movement that has now grown to reflect a deep-seated anger and distrust of the status quo; a movement that's now engulfed the entire province and threatens to topple a government.
More than 100 days into all this and I still have trouble formulating a concise and thorough explanation of what's going on -- for myself and for others. Few people, if any, can claim to have all the answers to this explosion of emotions, this eruption of resentment. This is a generation vexed. They've managed to successfully transfer some of that outrage to older generations.
Jean Charest and the implementation of Bill 78 -- an unnecessarily draconian and arrogant law that temporarily poses serious limitations on the right to protest and assemble (i.e. it becomes illegal for more than 50 people to gather and protest) -- managed to do the rest.
First off, let's just get this out of the way: there's no denying that both the government and the students have bungled negotiations. The sheer level of hypocrisy, selective reasoning and tunnel vision displayed all around in this ongoing drama is both amusing and disturbing to me. Both the student associations (which, by the way, only represent a small proportion of students: over 165,000 students are on strike out of 495,000 in the student body) and the Liberals (also a government that has the majority, but was voted in by a minority of the population. Abstaining voters, now complaining, only have themselves to blame for that) have been closed off and unwilling to negotiate and reach some sort of compromise. Both sides are, of course, accusing the other side of stubbornness, while exalting their own openness to dialogue.
I am categorically in favour of students' right to protest and make their voices heard, but not impressed with the lack of accountability I've seen in some instances. When students forcibly attempted to prevent non-striking students from entering their classes, they temporarily lost me. You can't rally on the streets in defense of your rights, and then turn around and deny others theirs.
At the same time, I don't accept a government that chooses to force special legislation down protesters' throats, instead of sticking with what is admittedly more convoluted, messy, and time consuming, yet a vital ingredient of democracy: dialogue. No one gets to claim moral superiority here, I'm afraid...
I'm not, by any means, an anti-establishment anarchist revelling in the ensuing chaos. While I, like the province I reside in and adore, am admittedly left of centre, I've shared the frustration, the anger, the bewilderment of many in my city who can't seem to pinpoint what it is that these students are so angry about.
The movement has been harshly criticized by many for being an umbrella group for all sorts of grievances, having no clear agenda, being an "all-purpose" attempt at a revolution if you will. No one can deny the obvious influence and aftershocks of the Occupy Wall Street movement in this current protest. This ceased to be about tuition fees a long time ago and became a much larger societal and philosophical debate about where we -- as a society -- want our priorities to lie.
Both sides have exasperated me. I've come very close, many a time, to hiking up my pants to my nipples and yelling at those damn kids to get off my lawn. I, too, don't get the pots and the pans, the semi-nude parades downtown, the nightly protests, which have, by now, become a routine. I don't appreciate having bridges blocked and smoke bombs thrown in metro stations, while I'm on my way to work a job that provides the tax dollars to finance the vast majority of students' tuition. I'm fed up too.
But I also don't appreciate how the rest of Canada has gotten it all wrong. I don't appreciate how most national syndicated columnists have attempted to minimize and ridicule one of the largest - predominantly peaceful - civil disobedience actions to ever be seen in this country.
Maclean's magazine plastering the image of a student on its front page and in our faces, declaring: "How a group of entitled students went to war and shut down a province. Over $325" is not only inaccurate, but downright contemptuous of the next generation. It's an affront to the many thoughtful, caring, and socially-conscious people I know who are in support of policy discussion and political debate; in support of asking the question: "Can we, perhaps, do things differently?"
The National Post's Barbara Kay calling the protesters "a mindless mob" reeks of judgement. It's based on the assumption that everyone screaming on the street has nothing of value to say and that authority must be respected simply because it wears a suit. The fact that this government has been mired in controversy and corruption scandals, and has subsequently lost the moral high ground, the fact that too many fat cats have walked away unpunished, should not be up for discussion?
Kay also makes the mistake of thinking that the protests are only a "francophone" issue or only a "student" issue. While that was true in the beginning, after the implementation of Bill 78, I can assure everyone that is no longer the case. Over 200,000 people took to the streets during the April 22th Montreal demonstration. The same numbers were witnessed just a few days ago, on May 22.
It's easy (and intellectually lazy) to use logical fallacies, half-truths, personal attacks and demonization of opponents to try and sway people to agree with your opinion, but none of the "facts" and slanted opinions I've seen published in national magazines and newspapers have managed to accurately portray the mood here and the genuine across-the-board frustration many of us are living.
Can we all please leave absolutism at the door? There's a lot of space between downright ridicule of the student movement and its outright deification. It's time for some respectful dialogue and some flexibility. Both camps are so polarized at this moment, that there seems to be no middle ground anymore. "You're either with us or against us" mode of thinking seems to be prevailing, and history has taught us repeatedly that civil disobedience can easily deteriorate into violence and ugliness. We are not immune to that possibility, so it's time to take action to reach some sort of solution before tensions start to really escalate.
Even as I'm writing this, I can hear the outraged replies forming. But, whether the ROC likes it or not, whether the ROC understands it or not, for the past 100 days we here in Quebec have been witnessing non-stop acts of civil disobedience. It's frustrating, disconcerting, and disorienting, but you know what? It's also profoundly joyous, exhilarating and inspiring. Elections are only part of democracy. This, too, is democracy at work and, while hopelessly flawed and messy as a system, it's preferable to anything else I know. I mean... I hear police states are much quieter, but I wouldn't want to live there.
Change is not neat, restrained and subdued. Disillusionment has to find an outlet. Whether people agree or disagree with what's currently taking place here, one can't deny that it's taking place. Only history will be able to assess whether this is a true "social awakening" or an exaggerated reaction to a simple tuition hike. None of us are in a position to correctly assess that at the moment. The best we can all do is to try and understand why, without dismissive knee-jerk reactions.
American newspaper columnist and author, Molly Ivins, once wrote: "The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion." Cacophony, even. Now pass me that pot, will you?
Correction: An earlier version of this blog wrongly identified Barbara Kay as living in Toronto. She lives in Montreal.