young people sit on street in protest in Montreal
Students stage a sit-in at the Montreal International Economic Forum of the Americas in June. (Photo by Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty Images)

Topics: Justice | Activism

Protest tactics are changing, especially in Quebec’s student movement

Tuition hikes in Quebec have sparked mass outrage, demonstrations and violence. It's a long way from civil disobedience.


During the summer of 1993, 12,000 people rolled through the Clayoquot Peace Camp, an impromptu campground in the forest near the village of Tofino, B.C., on Vancouver Island’s west coast. They came to protest logging in what remained of the ancient temperate rainforest that once covered the island. Many broke a court injunction that gave forestry company MacMillan Bloedel the right to keep clear-cutting. A reporter for Maclean’s magazine called the protesters “scrupulously nonviolent and very Canadian,” describing a typical morning during the blockade: demonstrators arrive at dawn to lie down or sit on a logging road bridge over the Kennedy River;

Mounties quickly arrest them; by 6:30 a.m., the logging trucks rumble into the forest.

Each day, protesters lost the battle on the bridge, while winning the war everywhere else. The Clayoquot blockade made headlines around the world. More and more people flooded into the Peace Camp and onto the bridge. On Aug. 9, 300 protesters were arrested en masse; by summer’s end, 800 people had been charged with violating the court injunction. The mass trials kept logging practices in the news long after the Peace Camp closed in early October. Lobby efforts organized by the Friends of Clayoquot Sound convinced international companies to stop buying paper made from B.C.’s ancient forests.

Despite ongoing logging in the area, many consider the blockade a success. Important parts of the forest remain protected, and some of the industry reforms and government concessions that emerged from the blockade set precedents that protect other areas, including the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s mainland.

Fast-forward nearly 20 years to a sweltering day in Montreal this past June. Protesters have answered a call by the anti-capitalist group CLAC-Montréal to disrupt swanky parties being held in conjunction with the Montreal Formula One Grand Prix auto race. Police surround a group of protesters marching illegally under a hastily passed law designed to quell more than four months of student unrest over post-secondary tuition hikes. They keep the marchers at bay for an hour before arresting a few and letting the rest go. Angrier than ever, the group surges toward the intersection of Ste-Catherine and Crescent streets, past lines of provincial and municipal police in riot gear.

I watch as a few protesters pull apart fences used to keep crowds off the street, hurling pieces at the line of police. The police surge forward, pepper-spraying. Even though I am several metres away, the breath is instantly knocked out of me, replaced with a burning feeling in my throat. I have to duck around fleeing pedestrians and protesters.

Walking past the intersection, I see a silver Mercedes-Benz trying to push through a group of protesters who’d regrouped in the road as someone yelled “Prend les rues!” (“Take the streets!”) A small crowd quickly surrounds the car. The protesters are dripping with sweat from the harsh sun and adrenalin. As the car lurches forward, the protesters scream at the driver, pounding on the hood. I look on, terrified, thinking that either a protester will get caught under the car or the driver will be dragged out and beaten. I can feel my own adrenalin coursing.

Last spring’s student upheaval in Quebec left many Canadians wondering what happened to the “civil” in civil disobedience. The non-violent tactics that worked so well in Clayoquot Sound seem to be lost on a leadership that is powerless or unwilling to rein in elements who are clearly out to cause trouble. Clayoquot taught that non-violent protest takes work and discipline. Everyone taking part in the logging blockade had to agree to a code of conduct, and every protester received free training in non-violent resistance.

But student leaders in Quebec, and to a similar extent, leaders of last year’s Occupy movement, seem to think that implementing measures like those used at Clayoquot would cramp the egalitarian style of their protest. The result is that the core message of the movement — essentially about economic justice — is derailed by media reports focusing on violence, intimidation and vandalism.

On Feb. 20, 36,000 students in Quebec voted to strike in response to Premier Jean Charest’s refusal to compromise with student federations over a tuition increase that would ramp up fees, over five years, by $1,625 a year. Even with the increase, tuition in Quebec would remain the lowest in North America. Nevertheless, a 2009 study by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), the second-largest student federation in Quebec and one of the three organizations that organized the strike, found that the average student was saddled with $13,000 in debt after completing a bachelor’s degree.

When you compare that to the $28,000 debt of the average Maritime student, however, sympathy can be hard to come by, and the backlash against Quebec students has bordered on vitriolic. Take, for example, the June 4 edition of Maclean’s magazine: the cover shows a young man, his face covered in a blood-red cloth, eyes screwed up as if he were screaming. The headline reads, “Quebec’s new ruling class: How a group of entitled students went to war and shut down a province. Over $325.” When I ask Martine Desjardins, FEUQ’s president, about Maclean’s and the reaction overall, she wonders why students in other provinces don’t strike too. She views the tuition hike as part of a larger political move to reverse the social safety net introduced by Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. “It is social mobility that we want to preserve,” says Desjardins.

By early May, one-third of Quebec’s post-secondary students were on strike, and mass protests in the province’s biggest cities were almost a daily fact of life. Violence — by police and demonstrators — has plagued the protests, though only sporadically. On Feb. 23, police pepper-sprayed protesters blocking a busy bridge to downtown Montreal. But on March 22, tens of thousands of students marched in Montreal with no reports of violence.

The Liberal government’s Bill 78 changed everything. Passed on May 18, the law put the school semester on hold, imposed hefty fines on strikers blocking school doors, and limited the rights of protesters by requiring march routes to be approved by police. These restrictive measures not only galvanized the striking students but added many allies to their ranks, widening the movement to be about more than just tuition. At nightly neighbourhood-based “casserole” marches, thousands of protesters banged pots and pans in exuberant defiance of the new law. The head of the Quebec Bar Association declared the law unconstitutional. The Montreal and Ottawa Conference of the United Church called for the legislation to be repealed, while also denouncing the violence of “a minority of protesters and some police.” On the 100th day of the strike, May 22, a reported 250,000 people took to the streets, effectively shutting down Montreal and Quebec City.

A small, violent minority has always been present in the Quebec student movement. During the 2005 student strike, which protested the conversion of tuition grants into student loans, about 100 protesters attempted to break into a hotel in Montebello, Que., where Charest and his Liberal caucus were meeting. Wielding a wooden battering ram, the students smashed a hotel door trying to get in, and police used pepper spray and batons to keep them out. At least a dozen protesters and police officers were injured in the melee. This year’s strike is many times larger and longer, and still aggressive protesters are the minority, with most of the violence aimed at property.

But people have also been targets. On May 16, masked protesters entered undergraduate law lectures at the University of Quebec in Montreal, flicking the lights and yelling at the handful of students who’d won a court injunction to return to class. The CBC reported that some of the masked men grabbed female students and tried to force them out of the lecture hall.

Police report being attacked too. On the 101st day of the strike, 518 people were arrested in Montreal, a small number of them for throwing rocks and bottles at officers. For their part, police have increasingly used pepper spray, sound grenades and batons to quash protests. One demonstrator blames a stun grenade launched in his face for the permanent eye damage he suffered during a rally early on in the strike. To date, more than 1,000 people have been arrested.

“The protests that went wrong are very small in number, even if they made larger reactions,” says Yanick Grégoire, an FEUQ spokesperson. “Most of them went peacefully and offered to students and citizens a place to speak their opposition to the tuition fee hike calmly and clearly.” Grégoire has a point. By the time the movement wound down in late June, there had been more than 100 marches and demonstrations under the banner of the student movement, symbolized by a red square playing on the French phrase “carrément dans le rouge” (“squarely in the red”), meaning to be in debt. Tens of thousands of people took part, but no one died or was critically injured.

Yet the violence is real, and many protesters worry that rising tensions may lead to more of it. Leslie Chalal, 29, a social worker and seasoned activist, saw exhaustion and anxiety setting in among fellow activists after weeks of sustained protest. She and others tried to bring “le fun,” as she calls it, to the nightly casserole marches with costumes, puns and jokes — not only to reinvigorate the marchers, but also to defuse mounting anger.

Clayoquot veteran Jean McLaren would concur wholeheartedly with Chalal’s methods. A resident of B.C.’s Gabriola Island and member of the singing protest group the Raging Grannies, McLaren, 85, is a non-violence trainer who’s been arrested nine times for protesting everything from Palestinian human rights abuses to the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline. She trained almost every resident at the Peace Camp blockade in 1993, running daily workshops for up to 50 or 60 at a time. Her voice effervescent as we talk on the phone, McLaren says she embraces silliness as a protest tactic. “I would have been discouraged if it was always about anger,” she says of her long career as an activist. The Montrealers who encouraged a cat-themed casserole protest where everyone meowed as they marched through the streets were on the right track, she adds.

McLaren admits there’s a big difference between the 1993 blockade and the Quebec student movement: you can’t control the streets like you can a campground in the woods. But she stresses that a little bit of training and organizing goes a long way. “You can’t always control everybody, but you do the best you can — pull that trick out of your sleeve, like dancing in the street. You want the rally to be effective, and violence isn’t effective. Say what you want. Do it with joy.”

By now it’s clear that the Quebec student movement tapped into the same spirit of unrest that spawned the Occupy movement in 2011. Will it peter out like Occupy, or will students take to the streets again? Martine Desjardins recently announced FEUQ’s renewed commitment to the strike for the fall semester. A representative from the largest student group, Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), along with other speakers, toured Ontario for 10 days in July, exhorting the province’s students to join the fight. If they do, will it be with joy, as McLaren urges, or will violent splinter groups hijack the agenda?

The three main student federations in Quebec all condemn violence. But none of them provide the kind of training that made the Clayoquot blockade a model for non-violent direct action. None of them even offer training or advice on their websites. “Of course, the students wanted the demonstrations and actions to be peaceful, thinking that would lead to real debate on the content of the issue,” says Yanick Grégoire of FEUQ. Asked exactly how the federation deals with protesters who aren’t peaceful, he points to a student security detail assigned to ensure “those who want to remain peaceful will have the information needed to avoid hazardous places.”

Note that he doesn’t mention excluding disruptive elements in the first place. The movement’s reluctance to impose some sort of discipline may prove to be its undoing. Grégoire says that the demonstrators follow “many” philosophies and tactics, rather than just the principles of non-violent direct action. But can you make a protest non-violent simply by saying it’s so? Or by segregating the peaceful from the “hazardous?” Or by simply disowning the violent factions? The evidence suggests that none of these strategies will succeed in winning over the people or persuading the government to change. In fact, Jean Charest’s support numbers have only climbed since the strike, despite his party being mired in a corruption scandal. As the province gets ready to vote on Sept. 4, polls suggest the Parti Québecois, next in line to the Liberals, might have a tough fight in deposing Charest, now in his third term as premier.

The incident at Ste-Catherine and Crescent on that sweltering day last June keeps coming back to me. “Somebody’s going to get killed,” says a veteran CBC Radio journalist who has taken me under her wing. After more than three hours of following the protesters in the sun, we head down Rue Notre-Dame, walking past a party for the Grand Prix. Women in sparkling dresses head into a makeshift nightclub while their chauffeurs wait outside beside black SUVs and limousines, parked on the curb in front of some of Montreal’s most downtrodden social housing. Families sit on their porches, watching the spectacle. There are no protesters here, no journalists except for us. But silently, potently, this street scene best embodies what’s driving the red square movement, better than any angry chant or smashed window.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s September 2012 issue with the title Uncivil disobedience.”


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