Miller Does Montreal
Monday, May 28, 20121 Comment
Students take to the streets of Montreal to protest tuition hikes, Photo by Peter Miller
On May 18, I went to Montreal with a few students from Guelph to participate in the student protests for a few days. Students are on strike against the Charest Liberal Government’s planned tuition hike of 75 percent over 5 years. There have been 32 straight night demonstrations in Montreal, and the movement has become broader, transforming into a fight against austerity measures in Quebec, and a new law, Bill 78, that Amnesty International calls an attack on freedom of assembly and basic democratic rights in Canada.
On the Friday drive to Montreal, we learned that Bill 78 had passed. The bill makes it mandatory for protestors to give their protest routes to police 8 hours in advance. Police can deny people the right to protest, and students cannot demonstrate within 50 meters of a university or CEGEP. There are heavy fines for students, organizers, and student unions if they participate in or organize political action. Student unions can be denied their student fees for a semester for every day they organize strike pickets.
I was lucky enough to meet Gabriel Nadeau DuBois in Montreal. He is the spokesperson for CLASSE, the largest and most militant coalition of students on strike. Outside a CLASSE convention in which the coalition was deciding on how to react to bill 78 (they decided to defy it and fight it in the courts), Drew Garvie, the CSA’s Communications Commissioner asked Gabriel Nadeau Dubois what he thought of the new law.
“I think this is the last chance of the government to stop our movement. They tried to divide us, they tried by police brutality, they made offers in the media hoping that the students in the general assemblies would stop the strike, and they encourage the students who are against the strike to seek injunctions in the courts to force the teachers to give courses. All those attempts have failed. So now the government is desperately trying to kill the movement at the moment it is stronger.”
Participating in nightly demonstrations was very exciting. The atmosphere in Montreal was intense. On Friday and Saturday night in Montreal, people defied bill 78 and took to the streets. From what I saw, a majority of downtown Montreal was in favour of the students. Instead of honking their horns, drivers inconvenienced by the protests would get out of their cars and clap or cheer on the streets as we passed by. I saw instruments being played out of windows in support. A French horn was played from a window to start a chant. Even when the protest on Saturday started to walk against traffic, people in cars cheered for us with one person getting out of his car and high fiving demonstrators as we walked by.
I protested for three hours on Friday and another three hours on Saturday. I did not witness any student violence during my time in Montreal. On Friday, the day of the passing of Bill 78, protestors were not met with resistance from the police but that changed Saturday. Police tried to break up the protest early on, and blocked us from leaving the McGill campus. I was in the middle of the protest and saw people running from police. I later learned that tear gas was thrown.
The estimated 20 thousand demonstrators were dispersed but soon came back together. After running from police on at least three separate occasions my friends from Guelph and I decided to take it easy and go to a bar. We figured we wouldn’t be arrested on such a public street. But one other friend from Guelph was arrested later that night. He had decided to continue to protest peacefully, and was fined over $600 and arrested for unlawful assembly.
Later sitting at a patio at a bar as police walked up and down the street I was on, St. Denis, I discussed the night’s events with my friends. I reflected on how the Charest Government was trying to scare people from joining the movement with heavy fines. When police tried to disperse the crowd and blocked the street, they would run at us hitting their batons against their shields, a tactic used to scare us. While waiting in line at a bar, I saw a police officer hit a bystander on the sidewalk with a baton because he got in the way of a police line running down the street. But as I reflected on how the Charest government had given the police a green light to repress a movement asking for more equality, police walked down St. Denis again. People on the bar patios were booing the police, and I saw police set off a small explosion at the bar patio across the street from me to scare the crowd. After that I saw the police pepper spray people on the bar patio. An instant later, our bar patio was pepper sprayed, and we caught a waft of the pepper spray burning our eyes. Luckily, we were not at the front of the patio. Patrons of the bar at the front of the patio got pepper sprayed for jeering at the police. We ran inside the bar but could not get out because the back entrance was blocked by a fence. Later, after 30 minutes during which people helped each other by pouring water over each other’s eyes because of the pepper spray, we were able to get out of the bar by walking across St. Denis that was blocked off by police with our hands up and going through the back of another bar.
During my time in Montreal, I did not see a group of selfish and entitled students protesting as has been argued by media pundits. I also did not see any student violence that has been reported on a lot by the mainstream media. Instead, I saw a generation that has started a large movement for greater equality. The group of students that are on strike are sacrificing a semester in order to help out future generations that want to have access to post-secondary education. One student organizer I met from Concordia, Rushdia Mehreen provided comments that exemplify for me why she and so many other students in Quebec are truly inspirational. When she was asked about mobilizing students around the tuition fee hike she pointed out that “certain people are more affected than others. For example, women earn 70 cents to the dollar compared to men so they are more affected by a flat fee. Same thing with racialized people, same thing with people with disability and obviously, lower class people.” The same points have been raised by countless other students all across Quebec. As a result, we have a movement that is seeking equal access to post-secondary education for all, and connecting other movements together to contest austerity measures in Quebec. This gives many people hope.