Charest, it’s time

Yesterday marked the 100th day of student protests against Quebec tuition hikes.

Over 150,000 people (estimates go as high as 450,000) demonstrated in Montreal’s downtown, sporting red squares, playing musical instruments and chanting. And starting at 8 p.m. in neighbourhoods close to the protests several thousand people banged on pots and pans in support. In New York Occupy Wall Street held a protest in solidarity with Quebec students, as did students in Paris.

Both the Quebec government and the City of Montreal have taken hardline stances towards the protests. Last Friday the Quebec government passed Bill 78, which is facing a constitutional challenge on the grounds it violates human rights.  That same day Montreal passed its own bylaw banning the wearing of masks at public demonstrations and requiring protest organizers to provide police with a route eight hours before protests take place.

Judging from yesterday’s turnout, both the Quebec government and the City of Montreal are mistaken if they think passing laws will quell the demonstrating and the defiance. Quebecers don’t appear to be afraid to break laws they consider draconian. And if the Quebec government doesn’t sit down with the students, the protests will continue.

One commentator described yesterday’s huge turnout as “an ocean” of people. Since the beginning of these protests students have had company. Along with the seniors and union members, women’s groups, parents and other supporters you’ll find Anarchopanda, a philosophy professor trying to diffuse tension between police and protesters by showing up at protests wearing a panda bear suit.

The protests are drawing international attention. Arcade Fire band members donned red squares when they performed Saturday with Mick Jagger on SNL. Quebec director Xavier Dolan and cast members of his film Laurence Anyways sported red squares on the red carpet at Cannes.

While the mood was fun and festive during daylight hours, the nighttime protests have featured violent clashes with the police pushing and rounding up and arresting  protesters, innocent bystanders and even journalists and other media types. Every night there seems to be another ugly scene. Somebody will throw something or break a window or some other stupid and dangerous thing and the police will declare a protest or protests illegal.

Then the riot police show up. Then you have tear gas, pepper spray, percussion bombs, rubber bullets, handcuffs and injury.  CUTV, Concordia’s campus/community television station, has been there night after night providing livestream coverage but sometimes you fear for their reporter and crew (UPDATE: Their main journalist  was allegedly injured and technicians attacked when police were kettling people on May 23rd. Footage of the incident may be seen here). Too often riot police are right in their faces and even though CUTV reporters flash their press passes it doesn’t seem to make a difference. They were knocked off the air when their camera was shoved by a riot police shield, they’re often running to get out of the way as the police make arrests, you hear police officers telling them to “Bouge, Bouge.” Last night OpenFile Montreal reporter Justin Ling became the latest journalist  or photographer to be arrested and then released. You can read his account here.

One the one hand it’s encouraging to see so many people outraged by their government’s policies and willing to stand together for change.

But while protests are exciting and interesting and sometimes even fun, when they go on for months it’s a sad comment on our broken democracy. Where is Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s government? Where is the leadership?

It would be so easy to declare a moratorium on the tuition hikes and create an Estates General, a province-wide discussion to examine tuition fees, education policy and spending. If Charest’s government would do this, the protests would stop.

Sooner or later Quebecers will be at the polls for another provincial election. As things stand now Charest doesn’t have a hope in hell of being re-elected.

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