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Five snippets from Quebec's spring 2015 protests

Premier Couillard, an angry student, SNC Lavalin, police wear red squares, and night demos

by David Gray-Donald

March 21, 2015 "Popular Protest Against Austerity and the Petro-Economy". Grève sociale translates to social strike.
March 21, 2015 "Popular Protest Against Austerity and the Petro-Economy". Grève sociale translates to social strike.
Montreal police, the SPVM, wearing red squares on their uniforms, March 21, 2015
Montreal police, the SPVM, wearing red squares on their uniforms, March 21, 2015
Here are five small stories to give a bit of form to what has been happening in the Quebec anti-austerity movement recently, focusing on Montreal. These are not central but may add context and depth.
 
As a white boy who grew up going to a Toronto private school, it has taken a while to get a handle on what is going on in Montreal. In 2012, during the famous student strike, I was working at McGill University doing a job that was supposed to be apolitical. I mostly stayed on the sidelines, bewildered, stuck between my fairly conservative upbringing in Ontario and McGill circles, and the strong socialist, syndicalist and anarchist rhetorics in the Quebec student movement. 
 
So, trying to remember that forlorn feeling, I write these snapshots attempting to be accessible to English-speakers for whom the context is foreign, while also doing justice to what is happening on the ground. Enjoy!
 
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Philippe Couillard's rigour
 
Philippe Couillard (pronounced kwee-yard) is the Premier, or Premier ministre, of Quebec and was formerly a neurosurgeon. 
 
He headed two neurosurgery departments in Quebec. In between those jobs he set up his own practice in Saudi Arabia and legally deposited $600 000 of earnings off-shore.
 
In 2010 he was appointed by the Conservative government to Canada's Security Intelligence Review Committee where he worked with Arthur Porter, star of the Montreal super-hospital corruption scandal. The two have worked in other capacities, including when Couillard was Quebec's Health Minister, and when they served on the board of a mining company together. See the Montreal Gazette's full timeline or Porter's incendiary remarks about Couillard for more info.
 
The point is, Couillard is an astute businessman and politician, well connected and of the 1%. He is also leading the charge to cut public services in all areas of Quebec, transitioning the society into a privatized model based on user fees.
 
While many call this austerity and neoliberalism, Couillard calls it budgetary rigour
 
The image of the wealthy surgeon dissecting and reassembling Quebec society from his comfortable and fortified perch is disturbing for many. 
 
 
Concordia student yelling at those enforcing a strike
 
A Concordia University student in a class where the student association had voted to go on strike got very angry when a group of people came in to enforce the strike on its first day, this Monday March 23. Video of the incident, starting at 1:27, is available from The Link, a Concordia newspaper. He yelled loudly at one person enforcing the strike:
 
"What the f--- is wrong with you? Get the f--- out of here! Get the f--- out of here! I f---ing paid money to f---ing be here."
 
This response helps articulate different ways of viewing what education and other public services are. Is education a work activity we do together to have a good society, or a service that individuals pay for for personal gain? 
 
It seems this student believed their education was strictly a relationship between them and a service provider, the university. Contrast this with the view that it is a collective piece of work and that members doing the work can vote to take action together.
 
While these ideological contrasts appear within francophone circles, they are especially apparent in the cultural divide between English North America and much of the world, including Quebec, with English-speakers taking a more individualist approach.
 
The administration of Concordia recognized the strike that first day, March 23. Approximately 60 000 students at campuses all over Quebec were also on strike Monday and seemingly all strikes were respected.
 
 
Police in front of SNC Lavalin headquarters
 
Also on the first day of striking, Monday March 23, students at UQAM (University of Quebec in Montreal) took to the streets to be heard. They walked through downtown and stopped at the nearby headquarters of the infamous SNC Lavalin. There are plenty of buildings police don't gather in front of when protests go by, but there were dozens of armoured police standing in front of the SNC Lavalin headquarters. 
 
SNC-Lavalin has been involved in major corruption scandals internationally and in Quebec where they took millions of dollars away from the Quebec public through unfair dealings for a super-hospital project. Through those times of corruption and up to today the company steadily increased its dividend payouts, providing good monetary rewards for holders of capital, the investors.
 
With students stopped on the street in front of the SNC building, the police eventually advanced into the crowd from the front and back. That scene can be seen starting at 2:13 in this video by MADOC.
 
There was pushing and shoving between the students and the police. Some scuffles broke out at which point dozens more riot cops came running in wearing riot gear. The students were pushed back, some beaten by batons, and it appears tear gas was fired. 
 
The absurdities of a scene like this are not lost on protesters. A familiar chant goes, "le capital nous fait la guerre, guerre au capital," which translates as "capital does war to us, war to capital."
  
 
Montreal police wear red squares
 
It is impossible to talk about the Montreal police, officially the SPVM, without discussing the red squares they now sport on their vehicles, uniforms, helmets, shields, office buildings and elsewhere.
 
The red square, a widely used symbol during the 2012 Quebec student movement to call for free education, has been curiously appropriated by the SPVM in their labour negotiations with the municipal government. Curious because it is the same police force who, after beating students regularly in the streets in 2012 for protesting for better funding, then copied those students' campaign symbol to advocate for their own better funding. 
 
And while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, the fact that they are getting paid to use violence against protesters makes for a bizarre dynamic.
 
And it goes one level deeper. The SPVM have used the slogan "On n'a rien volé (nous)" printed on their red square stickers. This translates to "Us, we didn't steal anything" and implies that perhaps someone else did steal something. The slogan has been used often in recent days by protesters in the streets when police are nearby. 
 
Yes, the protesters are using the police's protest slogan. It at times feels like an appeal to the police. Kind of like, we didn't steal anything and you didn't steal anything (except our freedom of peaceful assembly) so we're kind of in this together. Not quite, but almost.
 
Another police-related chant goes (translated) "the police, the police, in the service of the rich and the fascists" (it sounds better in French). While aimed partly to insult the police, it is also a nod to the context, to the many layers that have led to the police donning red squares and at the same time using violence against people wearing red squares.
 
 
Night demos
 
Nightly in the spring of 2012, groups of students would walk through Montreal taking over the streets in protest. As people went to sleep in the city, helicopters could be heard droning through the sky following the demonstrations deep into the night. 
 
These demonstrations (aka demos) were a core fixture of spring 2012, and were a show of force for the student movement, too big to be shut down.
 
Now, in 2015, night demos are back. 
 
One last week, on March 19, went through the streets with over a thousand people and police tolerated it. 
 
On Tuesday March 24, a night demo starting at 9 pm downtown got momentarily blocked by police at a major intersection, René Lévesque and St. Laurent. Time passed then when the crowd wasn't sure if it would move forward or go back. Eventually the crowd broke through the police line and the demo triumphantly gathered people along the next few blocks to around 10 000 people for over an hour. 
 
Later in the night, when police blocked an intersection (Drummond and de Maisonneuve), and were repelling the crowd with sheilds, baton hits and pepper spray, some protesters had thrown snowballs, banners and pylons at the police lines. At the same time hundreds of others in the crowd put up peace signs with their middle and index fingers.
 
Later in the night police actively dispersed the crowd, including by use of tear gas and rubber bullets
 
The demo on the same night in Quebec City was shut down very quickly with strong use of police force, including attack dogs.
 
More night demos have been planned, including this Friday and a feminist one Tuesday March 31, for example.
 

 

   


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