Monday, June 4, 2012

Hedges: cheering the Quebec protesters

By Chris Hedges, from June 3, 2012
I gave a talk last week at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Many in the audience had pinned small red squares of felt to their clothing. The carre rouge, or red square, has become the Canadian symbol of revolt. It comes from the French phrase carrement dans le rouge, or “squarely in the red,” referring to those crushed by debt.
The streets of Montreal are clogged nightly with as many as 100,000 protesters banging pots and pans and demanding that the old systems of power be replaced. The mass student strike in Quebec, the longest and largest student protest in Canadian history, began over the announcement of tuition hikes and has metamorphosed into what must swiftly build in the United States—a broad popular uprising. The debt obligation of Canadian university students, even with Quebec’s proposed 82 percent tuition hike over several years, is dwarfed by the huge university fees and the $1 trillion of debt faced by U.S. college students. The Canadian students have gathered widespread support because they linked their tuition protests to Quebec’s call for higher fees for health care, the firing of public sector employees, the closure of factories, the corporate exploitation of natural resources, new restrictions on union organizing, and an announced increase in the retirement age. Crowds in Montreal, now counting 110 days of protests, chant “On ne l√Ęche pas”—“We’re not backing down.”
Perhaps this cautionary voice is too "purist," letting perfection be the enemy of the good; yet, the original issue, tuition fees, does not merit the kind of protest being mounted by the students.
On the other hand, perhaps the Quebec government is taking a far too narrow view of the reasons behind the protests...if they now think they can solve the issue simply by fixing the tuition issue, they are wrong.
The Quebec government has been struggling for months, if not years, with bungled dealings over the construction industry's cozy relationships with Quebec politicians, and has failed to show leadership on too many fronts, for the protests now to be considered "only about tuition".
On the other hand, social unrest, including thousands of students filling the streets of Montreal is having a chilling effect on the tourism industry for the summer of 2012, set to be the summer of white hot protests, that could easily and feasibly turn violent. Also hundreds of students will fail their year at university, preferring to march in protest of the government's decision to raise tuition.
However, in Quebec, as usual, there is a kind of frenzy, and level of passion and a history of protest against government, against the establishment, that is reflected in the current protests, as it was in the former sovereignist campaigns for separation.
If the protest morphs into another for separation, as it surely will, those advocating for the continuation and the deepening of its scale, will, in effect, be championing the break-up of Canada. And while there is a chorus of voices in the rest of Canada who sing the song, "Quebec, let her go!" there are also millions more who resist both that line and its political implications.
While there is profound and multi-varied reasons for a North American protest against the 1% who comprise the oligarchy, and tuition fee hikes could be the spark that ignites that wider protest, there is a real danger that the protests, and the protesters could and likely will lose control of their followers and their message, and, by default, become agents of forces beyond their control.
And while Mr. Hedges' motives for a sea change in the way the economy works, in both Canada and the U.S., are honourable, visionary and worthy, there is real danger in seeing Quebec as the locus for a North American movement to topple the 1% by the 99%.

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