It is just before 8pm in the Villeray district of Montreal. People wander in and out of the shops and bars, and traffic streams down the main road. But gradually the atmosphere changes, as clusters of people begin to congregate at the busy Jarry intersection. Some are in small groups and others alone; hipsters in shorts and hi-top trainers mingle with parents in hiking boots and khakis. One thing unites them: they are all carrying pots and pans.
Within half an hour, the metro station is closed to traffic and the intersection is shut down. Hundreds of people are banging their pans, drowning out the sound of car horns from frustrated motorists. This clanking cacophony has become a nightly ritual all over Montreal: a remarkably successful street protest against a draconian emergency law enacted to crack down on what began as localised protest against tuition fees.
“This is about people power,” said Carlos Luer, a 53-year-old children’s worker who is attending the “casseroles” (pots and pans) protest for the first time. It was not the students’ demands that brought him on to the street, but, like thousands of others, he is motivated by Bill 78, a loathed piece of legislation passed by the provincial government to stamp out student protests.
“This government said: ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ But they forget, these are the kids of tomorrow,” Luer said.
This growing crisis has its roots in March last year, when Quebec’s finance minister, Raymond Bachand, announced that the government would increase tuition fees by about C$330 a year for the next five years. Tuition fees in Quebec are lower than in any other province in Canada, and the government was facing a budget shortfall.
But the large increases in fees angered student groups, and in August a formal campaign was announced to overturn them. In November, 30 000 students defied the onset of the Canadian winter to rally in Montreal against the increases.
By February, they were on strike, in small numbers at first, but then with more and more taking part. Daily marches over the increases were happening, with about 200 000 people taking to the streets of Montreal on March 22.
It might have remained a student-government issue — polls showed that a majority of people in Quebec backed the increases. Also the protests were divided along linguistic lines: the English-language press in Quebec — a state where 80% of the population speaks French and which boasts a strong nationalist movement — was largely critical of the student movement, which had its roots largely in the Francophone universities.
Then, after growing frustrated with the student strikes and street protests, the government introduced Bill 78. The emergency legislation made it illegal for more than 50 people to demonstrate spontaneously. Would-be protesters were required to submit an itinerary to police eight hours in advance.
The law suspended universities’ academic terms until August, and enforced strict restrictions on any individual or organisation the blocked students’ access to class. Student groups and individual protesters who broke the law faced hefty fines.
Banging pots and pans
Bill 78 came into effect on May 18. A day later, responding to a call on Facebook, a large number of residents of Montreal came out on to balconies and streets, banging pots, pans and anything they could get their hands on. The casseroles protests, inspired by the cacerolazo movement in Chile in the 1970s, has continued every night since.
“I’m very surprised,” said Kevin Audet-Vallee, 24, at a Friday-afternoon protest in late May. “Now that the ordinary citizens are in the streets, I think the government is really in trouble, because the middle class is in the streets. At first they were saying we were radicals. These are not radicals.”
Police have been criticised for their heavy-handed application of Bill 78. Mass arrests of more than 600 people during a night march last Wednesday in Montreal captured global media attention, but on Friday night they kept their distance.
“There are about 10 000 people,” said Mark Recher, beating a small saucepan with a wooden spoon as he marched with his wife, Lucy. “I’m not afraid of being arrested. How do you arrest this?”
There are legal challenges to Bill 78, which some experts say is unconstitutional. Amnesty International says it is a breach of Canada’s international human rights obligations. In talks with Quebec’s new education minister, Michelle Courchesne, two of the three groups behind the student strike in Quebec City showed a willingness to compromise.
But the government refused to discuss repealing any provisions of Bill 78 and insisted on an increase in tuition fees.
So when the talks failed, 20 000 people demonstrated in Montreal, rallying behind Classe, a “directly democratic” group that the government originally banned from negotiations. The group, which has echoes of the structure of Occupy movements — small general assemblies that give every member a chance to vote on proposals — has demanded a total freeze on tuition fees in Quebec.
This hardline stance has catapulted Classe from being a relatively unknown organisation with 40 000 members into a sprawling phenomenon that now numbers 100 000 and claims to represent 70% of striking students.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the group’s charismatic spokesperson, has become the face of the student protests.
For him and Classe, this is not just about increases in tuition fees.
The group is looking beyond the proposed end of the student strike this summer and has the long-term aim of abolishing fees altogether.
“Even if the strike dies in August, we have already won a lot. We have already won the fact that a whole generation now has learned what is power, what is repression and what is social justice,” Nadeau-Dubois said. The strikes had “politicised a generation”, potentially bringing Classe’s ultimate goal one step closer.
“Those people have learned collectively that if we mobilise and try to block something, it’s possible to do it.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012