From Sept-Îles to Jonquière, the sound of the casseroles (pots and pans) protest is drowning out the political cant of Québec’s political class. Night after night, these pot-beating protesters are bearing witness to a population nervous about official efforts to roll back North America’s most advanced social sector. The sap of revolt from Québec’s ‘maple spring’ marks the first major rupture with the austerity agenda being imposed by Canada’s neoliberal establishment.
It started quietly enough, with student dissent over attempts by Jean Charest’s Liberal Party to increase university fees over the next few years. The government hung tough, assuming the students would quieten down and go back to class. They didn’t, and the carré rouge (the little red square which has come to depict personal bankruptcy thanks to the French phrase carrement dans le rouge – squarely in the red) popped up more and more on shirts and skirts.
Montréal is the epicentre of the movement. The nightly demos, which involve thousands of students, are being met by increasingly repressive police measures, including kettling and mass arrests – resulting in heavy fines for both young students and their organizations.
As the size and scope of the protests grew during April and May, Charest responded by bringing in – literally overnight – a draconian law (Bill 78) that severely restricts the right to assemble and express political dissent. This only increased the numbers and militancy of the demonstrations, with the feeling of political estrangement spreading to other sectors of the population.
On 22 May, the carré rouge movement brought out a quarter of a million Québécois on to the streets of Montréal, as trade unions, community groups and pensioners all came together for the common cause. This marked the hundredth day of the ongoing social strike and clearly showed that the movement was about far more than tuition increases.
It is, in effect, the first shot across the bow of a neoliberal establishment led by the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa. Québec students are looking at a future of marginal employment and high debt – a future that also plagues students in the US and elsewhere in Canada – and they are saying a resounding ‘non’.
As grievances build over the collateral damage of the austerity assault – degradation of public services, corporatization of university life, ignored environmental costs of the growth paradigm and a constant gathering of wealth and power by the financial élite – other constituencies are becoming natural allies of this new generation of radicals.
Despite a stream of press invective against the ‘spoiled brats’, the protests are beginning to spread across Canada. The carré rouge has succeeded in actively mobilizing a movement that shows no sign of letting up.