MONTREAL — It simmered as a provincial dispute over tuition-fee hikes before exploding into a massive movement that grabbed the world’s attention.
Not only did Quebec’s boisterous, and sometimes violent, student unrest of 2012 lead to the cancellation of the tuition increases, it also ignited a wider social-justice movement.
The historic uprising dubbed the Maple Spring eventually faded away as the seasons changed, along with the government — but was this a harbinger of the political awakening of a new generation?
One of the most-prominent figures of the movement believes the students’ success has forever marked a crop of Canadian youth.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesman of the hardline CLASSE student group during the uprising, recently completed a cross-Canada tour to speak to young activists in more than a half-dozen cities.
The first question he said he usually fielded from people he met was: “How did you do that?”
How did a demographic group so frequently derided as apathetic, and so often absent from the political discussion, force itself to the epicentre of the public debate?
Protesters managed to make themselves, and tuition fees, a major election issue in a province where youth voter turnout had plummeted by half from the early 1990s to 2008.
That long-term trend exists across the country. In Canada, youth have had the lowest voting percentage of any age group in federal elections — raising the question of whether such a phenomenon could ever be repeated in other provinces.
Nadeau-Dubois said that during his cross-Canada tour he tried offering students hope by explaining that, while there were unique conditions in Quebec, the Maple Spring was propelled in part by broader international protests against government austerity.
It was also fuelled by hard work and more than a year of preparation, he said he told them.
“If you are able to convince the people that it is possible to mobilize and to make a difference… I think that the population will go a lot more in the street,” Nadeau-Dubois, who has become a household name in Quebec, told The Canadian Press in an interview.
Nadeau-Dubois said even though he hopes to encourage activists across the country, he doesn’t predict places outside Quebec to suddenly see similar-sized demonstrations consuming their jurisdictions.
“I always say social movements are not like peanut butter — you cannot think that it’s possible to simply spread them all over a country,” he said.
“What I hope is that it will give courage to the activists in the rest of Canada to say, ‘It’s possible here, too, so let’s get to work.’ ”
Nadeau-Dubois feels the country’s next big protest movement could eventually materialize in Western Canada, where he said he listened to many concerns about the ecological impact of oilsands development.
To date, however, there have been very few signs of a comparable mobilization elsewhere in Canada.
The lack of similar protests in other provinces is surprising for an Ontario-based scholar who has studied social movements since the 1960s.
Vincent Mosco said, for example, that Ontario invests less per-capita in higher education than most jurisdictions in North America. Yet, compared to Quebec, Ontario’s tuition rates remain high.
“It is puzzling to me because the conditions for students outside of Quebec are arguably worse than for students inside Quebec,” said Mosco, professor emeritus in sociology at Queen’s University.
Mosco believes there is a unique situation in Quebec.
He credits Quebec’s student organizations with traditionally wielding more power and unity than Ontario’s. Mosco also thinks Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty did a better job than former Quebec premier Jean Charest of easing tuition-fee hikes into the picture.
He said it’s difficult to predict whether social movements elsewhere will draw inspiration from Quebec protesters’ success in cancelling the tuition increases.
“There’s nothing that motivates people more than success and my sense is that the students — at least (those) who were involved — have a great deal more confidence than they did before,” Mosco said.
For months, student-union strikes forced numerous school closures, while a barrage of regular protests frequently snarled road traffic and triggered clashes between protesters and riot police, mostly in Montreal.
Even one of the most active opponents of the protests agreed that the Maple Spring an eye-opener for his generation.
Laurent Proulx, a university student who was the first to win a court injunction to have one of his classrooms reopened, said it also taught those who opposed the movement that they could defend their rights.
“There was a political awakening — that is certain,” said Proulx, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan.
“There was one for both sides (of the debate).”
Proulx convinced a Quebec Superior court judge that the strikes, declared by various student associations after votes at public assemblies, should not be able to keep him from going to one of his classes.
He said dozens of injunctions were won in court by students demanding their right to go to class.
If there’s ever a next time, Proulx said, the legal research has been done — meaning a similar court challenge would take days, instead of weeks, to prepare.
Proulx was among a silent majority in a noisy spring.
In fact, roughly two-thirds of Quebec students were not on a declared strike from their classrooms and were not necessarily participating in daily marches against tuition hikes.
The demonstrations were stoked by opposition to the Liberal government’s proposal to boost tuition rates by $325 per year, over five years. The government later tweaked the planned increases to $254 per year, over seven years.
Even though the hike still would have left Quebec with some of the lowest tuition in Canada, many students insisted they were drawing a line in the sand out of principle.
Some demanded a freeze to keep fees from creeping toward the much-pricier rates in other provinces, let alone those seen in the U.S. Others called education a right that should be free, just like in some European countries.
One thing the protesters had in common: They viewed the tuition hikes as unnecessary, and as a case of misplaced priorities.
Yes, Quebec is the most indebted province in Canada. But the additional $265 million that would have been raised through the tuition hikes was actually a miniscule fraction — 0.003 per cent — of the province’s overall $69 billion budget.
Protesters argued that Quebec had the money to freeze rates. They said cheap tuition made more sense as a public investment than the billions doled out each year in business subsidies, for everything from Montreal aerospace jobs to a Quebec City hockey arena.
So from February through September the province was politically paralyzed by a street battle over 0.003 per cent of the provincial budget.
Things quieted down when the Liberal government was turfed in a Sept. 4 provincial election. That electoral outcome has prompted some protest leaders to claim that they made history by helping to overthrow a government.
But did they?
The scandal-plagued Charest Liberals were so deeply unpopular that polls throughout the year suggested they could be wiped off the map in non-Anglo areas of the province.
Polls also suggested their tuition policy had strong enough popular support that the opposition Parti Quebecois stopped wearing their red protest squares as the election approached.
In the end, the Liberals campaigned on the tuition issue and they wound up losing by only four seats and by less than one percentage point of the popular vote. They had held the PQ to a minority.
Last week, new Premier Pauline Marois appeared on the popular talk show Tout le monde en parle and was asked whether her support of the students had cost her a majority government.
Marois’ reply: “Maybe.”
But she said it was a government’s duty to listen and to ensure social peace. She reversed the hikes, tuition was restored at the Canada-low rate of $2,168 per year, and calm returned to the streets.
She has proposed indexing any future increases to the rate of inflation and has scheduled a February summit to examine how best to fund Quebec’s universities.
The next battle line between the province and students could be drawn at free education.
Monthly demonstrations, held on the 22nd of every month, have not stopped, though the numbers are considerably smaller than last spring.
Some 1,000 protesters marched through Montreal on Nov. 22 to call for change on many environmental and social concerns — but their demand for free post-secondary education remained the No. 1 issue.
One protester said cheaper education would contribute to fighting poverty and help her generation manage future challenges, such as the looming health crisis linked to aging baby boomers.
“We feel like we’re being blocked, cornered,” said Université de Montreal sociology student Audrey Morin, raising her voice to be heard over a protest leader’s speech into a microphone.
“I have the impression that we are a new generation that wants to mobilize, that will be present, and that will seek the right to vote and the right to have a say in what’s going on.”
As the Maple Spring gained momentum, tuition hikes became just one component of the protests. The nightly marches attracted people espousing causes that ranged from anti-capitalism to environmentalism, anarchism, labour rights, and Quebec independence.
The movement inspired similar protests as far as New York and Paris.
Back in Canada, Nadeau-Dubois said he expects the student unrest to leave behind a legacy of activism.
“The hundreds of thousands of students who mobilized this spring will continue to be mobilized — not only on the campus, but also in their communities, in their workplace,” said Nadeau-Dubois, who is completing a major in sociology and history at Université du Quebec a Montreal.
“They will continue to be mobilized and to fight for social justice and for equality, and I think that’s very good news to see that the young generation of this province is really concerned by the political issues,” he said.
The protesters said they were fighting for democracy.
But, as their critics pointed out at the time, by breaking laws and ignoring court injunctions, many members of the movement thumbed their noses at two of the three branches of democratic government — the legislature and judiciary.
Many demonstrations were marked by smashed windows, Molotov cocktails and violent showdowns between protesters and riot police.
Nadeau-Dubois left his post as CLASSE spokesman in August, saying at that the time that he was tired of being demonized as a quasi-terrorist.
In a letter announcing his departure, an angry Nadeau-Dubois accused the government of tarnishing his reputation.
He was recently convicted of contempt of court and is awaiting a sentence. The case stems from an allegation that he encouraged students to ignore a court injunction handed down in Quebec City while doing a television interview last May.
But his supporters have also been vocal.
So far, he said he has raised more than $100,000 in donations — all from individual contributions — to fund his legal fight to appeal the contempt verdict.
“We were not in school during the spring, but I think we learned a lot — and I think that we have learned more than ever in our life.”