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The connection of Occupy, the Québec Student Strike and Idle No More as examples of contemporary youth movements

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.


What is the connection between Occupy, Idle No More and the Québec student strike as examples of contemporary youth movements?



This question is of special concern in the wake of neoliberal globalization because increasingly more youth feel powerless against the monopoly of corporate capitalism and a political system which does not represent them. Mobilization for social justice has taken new strategies and arrived in Canada in the form of the protests against the G8/G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. The Occupy Wall street movement, Québec student strike and Idle No More fit this tradition of youth-based anti-austerity protests. Analyzing the connection and messages of these movements will help understanding the necessity of youth struggles for a more democratic and just world and hence contributes to the study of youth culture. In order to do so, a qualitative research method will be applied in the form of academic peer-reviewed articles, news articles and information from recognized organizations. The sociological approach on society which will be reflected in this paper is conflict theory since the examined movements highlight a conflict of interest between the ruling and oppressed classes.

Youth groups worldwide have historically been engaged in protests and movements to call for social and political change in their respective societies. Youth demands for a better future have resonated wide and far and brought about change in the political sphere in the 1960s and recently as observed in the Arab Spring. After briefly discussing the relevance of youth movements, this paper will explore three contemporary youth movements in Canada: The Occupy Movement, the Québec student strike and Idle No More. The inspiration, course and demands of these movements will be outlined, compared and contrasted. It will be argued, that the common ground these youth movements have that interconnects them is the fight against austerity measures as part of neo-liberal policies which in contemporary Canada are diminishing the welfare state and protection of the poor, Aboriginal peoples and the environment. A discussion about the relevance of these youth movements shall conclude the paper.



My initial research focus was to explore whether Occupy Wall street was a youth movement in form of a debate. Even though resources on this subject online were ample, it seemed as insufficient for the requirements of this paper. I broadened my research to include the Québec student strike and Idle No More to have examples of contemporary youth movements in Canada. For personal interest, I wondered about the ideological connections of these movements and found it in my research by compare and contrasting each movement's objectives. Apart from five assigned course readings I have used Ebsco database and Google Scholar to find academic articles and Google Search to find news articles and publications by official organizations to gather data. Search keywords included “Occupy”, “Québec student strike” or “Idle No More”, respectively and “youth”, “movement”, “austerity” or “neoliberalism”. I felt obliged to use Google Search as the availability of scholarly, peer-reviewed articles on university databases were limited since the researched movements were very recent or as, of the time writing, still occurring.


The relevance of youth movements

Youth movements must be understood in terms of being part of a youth culture which David Smith (1981) defines as “level at which social groups develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience” (p. 240). Since we live in capitalist societies, this culture, he argues, must be understood in class terms as we live in the context of a class society (p. 248). Youth mobilization against societal inequalities in the western world emerged mainly in the 1950s and 60s in the form of fashion, music and politics in order to transform class hierarchies. Youth sub-cultures were a central part in the cultural transformation of Euro-American cultures in the second half of the twentieth century (Rattansi & Phoenix, 2005, p. 112). The importance of youth subcultures as catalysts of change is that it represents an “imaginary resolution to the fundamental contradictions in capitalism itself which are hidden by the construction that is bourgeois ideology” (Stratton, 1985, p. 206).

In today's context, youth in general appear as neither fully politically engaged nor apathetic, however, many youth feel disillusioned to political structures which do not represent their needs which motivates them to be recognized by the power structure. This is particularly expressed in the opposition to corporate globalization (Harris, Wyn & Younes, 2010, p. 9-10). Hand in hand with the new youth protests came a shift from hierarchical social movements to new forms of protest such as online activism, consumer activism and participation in decentralized transnational anti-corporate globalization movements in order to form a global civil society (Harris et al., p. 13). The three introduced movements shall illustrate local examples of youth movements against structural oppression and for an alternative to the neoliberal model.


The Occupy Movement

Following chronological order, the Occupy movement was the first of the three to spread in Canada. Occupy Wall Street started in the autumn of 2011, inspired by the youth revolts of the Arab Spring that brought about the fall of dictators, as well as social justice movements in Europe against social cuts and the general strike in Greece (Walzer, 2012). In the United States, the movement soon attracted many people who felt marginalized in society and silenced in the political system. The reasons for occupying public spaces with tents for most were home foreclosures, sky-rocketing health care costs, the fact that banks were bailed out and the bankers who caused the financial crisis of 2008/09 received bonuses while public goods and services were diminished. Especially youth was concerned which had increasingly limited access to higher education, faced a 25% unemployment rate among college graduates, shrinking wages, vanishing pensions, and poverty (1 in 5 children being born into poverty). All were more or less a result of neoliberalism with its ideas of de-funding and privatization (Aaron, Davis et al. 2012; Brown, 2011).

With their slogan “We are the 99%”, protesters attempted to encompass the poor, working and middle classes, young and old, under- and unemployed (Brown, 2011). Many were educated and unemployed (Walzer) and there was a large support from unions (Aaron et al.). While there was a lot of solidarity and unification among protesters, it was mainly started and carried out by youth groups. As in the Arab Spring, the movement was facilitated by social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook which is often (though not exclusively) an organizing tool of the younger generation (Walzer).

In a different rhetoric, Occupy was not a movement but rather an idea or movement comprised of many movements, which is also why there was no single demand that protesters could come up with that would represent all. Nonetheless, 'ideas' people were fighting for included accessible education, workers rights, plubic space or a political structure that would serve everyone equally (Arnall, 2012). The movement spread across North America as well as the western industrialized nations with a notion of an alternative model to neo-liberal globalization and the oligarchic rule of profit-driven corporations. The alternative approach was transparency, direct democracy in the form of general assemblies with a consensus decision-making process. It was hence an approach to community life, meeting people's needs (Aaron et al. 2012).

All in all, the lack of funding to public healthcare, education, jobs etc. can be attributed to austerity measures. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines austerity as “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure” meaning the de-funding of public goods and services. However, Aaron et al. put it in a more frank, working-class rhetoric which seemed to represent the views of the movement: “Austerity means sacrificing the wealth and the rights of the working class (i.e. jobs, wages, pensions, housing and public services) in order to preserve the wealth and the rights of banks, large corporations, and those few families who live off profits and interest (i.e. capital).” With its approach to solidarity and community life as well as alternative approach to corporate capitalism, Occupy provided the base platform for movements to come.


The Québec student strike

The next social movement would indeed only take a few more months to arrive: The Québec student movement. It began when the liberal Québec government led by Jean Charest proposed a 75% tuition increase over three years. Since Québec had a long history of student protests, students again took to the streets to fight the tuition hike. However, the demands went far beyond a tuition freeze: it was against the sell-out of education under neoliberal capitalism, as they perceived it. It was against the formation of universities and colleges into economic enterprises. In extension, it was a refusal of capitalism at large (Barney, 2012). This perfectly coincided with the “Coalition contre la hausse des tarifs” (Coalition opposed to the raising of public services tarification) against the raising of rates who organized a blockade of the Stock Exchange Tower on February 16th, 2012. The student strike was thus in solidarity with this coalition (Lamoureux, 2012).

The clear opposition against neoliberalism and austerity measures connects this movement to a worldwide altermondialist movement with the slogan “another world is possible” as well as European anti-austerity protests, the Chilean student protest and Occupy Wall Street (Massumi, Barney & Sorochan, 2012). In honour to the youth protests in the Arab world, the movement termed itself the 'Maple Spring'. Many members from Occupy Montréal would join this new movement (Lamoureux) and the student organizations carried out the same decision-making processes in their general assemblies (Rebick, 2012). The connection of the Québec student strike with a global movement was expressed by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for l'Assé (one of the major striking student unions):

We must stop being afraid of words…The struggle against rising tuition fees, the struggle of the Occupy movement around the world, must be referred to by its name. This is a class struggle, between a possessing minority and a majority that owns nothing, a minority that sees life as nothing but a business opportunity, a tree as nothing but raw material and a child as nothing but a future employee (Barney, 2012, par. 13).


Over the course of the months and nightly demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of participants, the youth movement faced violent police repression and a refusal of the government to negotiate the hike (Lamoureux). Attempting to repress the movement, the Charest government passed special law 78 which banned spontaneous peaceful assemblies of more than fifty people as well as restrictions on the organization of protests and political action in general (Barney). The government's harsh response to the democratic and peaceful youth protesters represents a public fear of urban youth, seeing them as “delinquents, criminals, and the cause of general civic problems”, as Ginwright and Cammarota state (2002, p. 82).

The state repression only further broadened and increased the movement. While, as a student protest, it is naturally a youth movement, Bill 78 now attracted also a large number of families and neighbours who would get together outside the nightly demonstrations, meet on crossroads in residential areas and bang pots and pans together. These “casseroles” were a sign of solidarity of the student strike by the wider population including children, retired people, local business owners, etc. (Barney). Lamoureux states that these politicizing effects of activism turned the student movement into a social struggle, whereas Al-Saji termed it as élan which transforms itself as it evolves (2012).

Even though the government accused the youth movement as being violent and divided, calling it a 'boycott' rather than strike, the student struggle was largely peaceful, unified and had a large support in the wider population (Martin & Tremblay-Pepin, 2012). What has started as a grassroots student movement turned into a social movement for accessible education, against government corruption and oppression, environmental destruction and neoliberalism as a whole. An indicator of its strength are the sheer numbers of people protesting: in May 2012 protests encompassed around 500,000 people (Martin & Tremblay-Pepin; Al Saji; Robert, 2012). With the election of a new government in September, the movement could denote a partial success since the proposed tuition increase as well as Bill 78 were revoked. Even though the demand of free tuition of some protesters could not be met, the larger victory was that the opposition was heard and that mass mobilization has the possibility of influencing politics (Holzmann, 2013).

As was demonstrated above, the Québec student strike has several similarities to the Occupy movement with its basis-democratic organization, clear opposition to government cuts and neoliberalism and the wider call for an alternative to capitalism. The differences may be that the Québec strike was mainly a youth movement with larger numbers of people in support of the movement in relation to the population of the city of Montréal.


Idle No More

The last section outlines the emergence of the most recent movement in Canada, Idle No More, its similarities and differences to the preceding movements, followed by a discussion about the implications of these movements, conclusions drawn and suggestions for future research. The movement was started by four Aboriginal women in Saskatchewan who held teach-ins about Bill C-45. This omnibus budget bill was proposed by the Stephen Harper Conservative government in October 2012 and passed in December. This budget imperils the protection of thousands of lakes and waterways, opening them up for development and privatization. Many of these waterways run through traditional Indigenous land, however, First Nations communities were not consulted, therefore this Bill clearly amends Canada's Indian Act and undermines First Nations sovereignty (Poynter, 2013). Opposition to this bill spread quickly across the country in the form of traditional round dances, flash mobs, demonstrations, hunger strikes and road- and train track blockades.

However, as with the preceding movements, the Bill was only the tip of the iceberg. In the wider sense, Idle No More reflects an opposition to austerity measures and policies of the Harper government as well as deteriorating living conditions among First Nations communities. The 2012 budget, for instance, provides limited funding for public services such as education or community infrastructure and cuts to Aboriginal health organizations. Apart from that, the focus on individualism in neoliberalism stands in stark contrast with the collectivist nature of indigenous societies (Fanelli, 2013). The demands are also for greater environmental protection, a concern stemming from the fear of resource exploitation and the construction of oil pipelines on native land (Sheedy, 2013) in addition to the establishment of a nation-to-nation relationship with the Canadian state (Rebeck, 2013).

Though not exclusively a youth movement, First Nations Youth have voiced concern about their future and Aboriginal people under 18 are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population. Hence, it is largely Aboriginal youth and women who organize around Idle No More, usually through social media platforms (Poynter; CBC, 2013). For youth, the movement is also an awareness-building of their cultural history and the relationship First Nations communities had with the government over centuries. Some native youths also expressed a passion for cultural renewal and a commitment to improving economic and sociocultural prospects in their communities (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2013). Finally, as Pam Palmater, Indigenous activist and spokesperson for Idle No More stated: “First Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have of protecting lands for food and clean water for the future-not just for our people but for Canadians as well” (Rebick, 2013).

With its demands, Idle No More, ideologically coincides with the Canadian Occupy movement and the Québec student strike. All of the three introduced movements critique austerity measures and the neoliberal ideology of selling out public goods for profit. Assé publicly voiced their solidarity with Idle No More, arguing that Aboriginal peoples have the best chance of defending the environment and thus deserve support in the name of mutual respect. As symbolic sign of their solidarity, some students adapted the red feather instead of the red square, which was the emblem of the student strike and named the Idle No More movement “native spring” (Assé, 2013). It was demonstrated that Idle No More shared with its preceding movements the decentralized, grassroots organization and opposition to state austerity measures.



While the movements are demographically differently comprised and were of different origin, all are grassroots based and demand free, accessible education, healthcare, housing, government transparency and environmental protection. Idle No More certainly also resembles Occupy with their focus on community life (Aaron et al.). According to Rebick, there is now the possibility of forming a pan-Canadian movement which unites all the three of them to unanimously oppose Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his neoliberal agenda (2013). The long-term success of these movements is still unclear. A common problem that Rattansi and Phoenix see is the commodification of cultural movements as it has happened before due to the profit-driven capitalist market (p. 113). Since this is the very core of what all introduced movements oppose, however, one may hope that the movements will reshape, transform or rebuild over the time. Due to the helplessness felt by youth as a result of state rule in the interests of corporations, youth movements will continue to emerge if to demand a more democratic way of life and a future that in worth living for.



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