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The Global Delusions of the Quebec Protesters

Claiming solidarity with other global struggles doesn’t always make it so.

By: /
11 June, 2012
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

There is no doubt that the global media is focused on Quebec these days, and Montreal in particular. Not since Quebec’s two failed independence referendums in 1980 and 1995 has there been so much international interest in trying to understand the pulse of “la belle province.”

The current unrest in the streets can – more or less – be traced back to March 2011, when Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced that his government intended to raise university tuition fees by 75 per cent, or $325 a year, for five years. The move would bring tuition to $3,793 a year, up from $2,168.

Student groups in Quebec have historically been opposed to any tinkering with tuition rates (which are currently the lowest in North America), and have a solid track record of forcing the government to back down. Indeed, proposals to raise tuition fees in Quebec are nothing new: The issue has been discussed as a means of clawing back Quebec’s unsustainable public debt by successive governments in Quebec – including the Parti Québécois – for decades. This time, however, nobody could have predicted what was coming down the line.

In March 2011, Liberal Finance Minister Raymond Bachand tabled the budget and insisted that his government would not back down on its decision to raise tuition fees. A number of powerful student associations (FECQ, CLASSÉ, FEUQ) began to prepare for a showdown with Jean Charest’s Liberal government. Protests began in November 2011, but gained momentum in February and March 2012 when approximately 30 per cent of the province’s post-secondary student population voted in favour of a “strike” to boycott their classes. This move was designed to pressure the government to reverse its budgetary course on its plans to raise tuition fees.

With the political support of the pro-sovereigntist Parti Québécois under the leadership of Pauline Marois, the financial and logistical aid of labour unions, and backing from members of Montreal’s large anti-globalization and pro-anarchy community, the student movement launched a civil-disobedience campaign that echoed the strategies and ideological underpinnings of the global Occupy movement.

In Montreal, protesters blocked bridges and vital transportation arteries during rush hour, obstructed office towers, sabotaged the city’s subway system on numerous occasions, and ransacked the office belonging to the minister of education. “Striking” students frequently harassed their peers who had chosen to continue with their studies, often preventing them from entering campus buildings. Nightly protests often degenerated into large-scale scuffles with the police. Images of these riots have been beamed across Canada and around the world. 

On May 18, faced with a breakdown of law and order after three months of civil disobedience, Jean Charest’s government introduced emergency temporary legislation seeking to remedy the situation. Bill 78 sought to postpone the school semester, regulate large-scale demonstrations, and ensure that students who wanted to study could access educational institutions. The bill acted as a lightning rod that unified the students with its support network and common citizens, while attracting the condemnation of Amnesty International and the United Nations.

Equipped with smartphones and laptop computers, there is no question that the students involved in the movement have outsmarted the government through their impressive command of social media and creative marketing (most notably, the now-famous red square) to disseminate their message of anti-neoliberalism and anti-capitalism. And yet, a disturbing lack of global perspective underpins this crisis.

Pro-strike student leaders have channelled the Occupy message and publicly stated that they are standing up for the 99 per cent against the one per cent. For people suffering from drought and food insecurity in Niger and Somalia, Quebec’s “red squares” likely appear to belong to the top percentile. Those in the Middle East who are losing family members to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria or to the recent deadly violence that has ransacked the Arab world may be gravely offended that protesters have labelled the unrest in Quebec the “printemps érable” (maple spring). Comparisons have variously been made with the Indian independence movement, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the civil-rights movement in the United States, the fight against slavery in the American South, and the fight for women’s suffrage. But let’s be clear: Quebec is not Egypt. Charest is not Hosni Mubarak or Moammar Gadhafi.  Quebec university students are not living the same reality as Black slaves in the American South. 

How this crisis will end nobody knows, but its impact is already being felt economically.  International tourists are apprehensive about visiting Quebec, and Montreal’s global reputation is suffering. Some might see real or imagined parallels with Greece and wonder if Canada’s second most populated province is becoming less desirable and less competitive. This is particularly concerning right now, when the global economy is fragile and the international competition to attract and retain skilled workers and foreign direct investment is fierce.

Stay tuned.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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