If nothing else, Karo Baillargeon certainly seems to have a knack for getting noticed. The former President of the Mouvement des Étudiants Socialement Responsables du Québec (MÉSRQ), otherwise known as the Green Squares, a Liberal attempt to astroturf support for their tuition increase among students, has had a tumultuous few months.
She was briefly a candidate for the Quebec Green Party, before being fired for refusing to support the party policy of free education, and went on to support Option Nationale before casting a strategic vote for Quebec Solidaire in her riding of Outremont.
Now, in an exclusive interview with rabble, she has come full circle, and decided to publicly renounce her support for tuition hikes, and go on the record as a convert to the cause of free education.
rabble: tell me how you came to be involved with the MESRQ in the first place?
Karo Baillargeon: In the beginning I was for the hike, as you know, and I learned about the MESRQ on Facebook. I knew they needed help so I got involved. I started out as the twitter account manager, and quickly rose in the organization until I got to the top.
I didn't do any interviews, I was more of an undercover president. Arielle [Grenier] was the spokesperson in the beginning, until Tout le Monde en Parle [a debate between the MESRQ spokesperson and the three student leaders on the most watched television show in Quebec. It was a turning point in the strike, as Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in particular politely and persuasively demolished the pro-hike spokesperson, and won over most of the show's hosts], after which, for her own sake, we tried to bring on someone else. Not because she's a bad person, but she writes better than she speaks.
rabble: What did the MESRQ do? What role did the organization play?
KB: There were protests organized, not by the MESRQ, but by members. We tried to not be involved, because we didn't know how they'd turn out [Green Square protests tended to attract single digit crowds, and were widely ridiculed]. Our main role was sending a spokesperson to all of the general assemblies, just so they would have the other side of the debate represented.
rabble: You were briefly a Green candidate, which obviously didn't work out too well. How did you end up being a candidate for a party that supported free education?
KB: Claude Sabourin sent me a message on Facebook, saying "Oh, you look like a person who's involved, we would like to have you as a candidate", I responded and said okay, but you know that I'm for the tuition hike, right?
rabble: So you told him who you were? Because when we interviewed him he claimed he had no idea who you were until the story broke.
KB: For sure, of course that's what he claimed! But no, he knew, he knew from the beginning. I mean, how could he not know? It was all over my Facebook, and that's how they contacted me. I told him that I was for the hike, and that I was actually the President of the movement for the hike, and warned him that it could create some drama. He said that's okay, I don't mind, if you want to get involved [with the Greens] let's do it. So I agreed to run.
Then a journalist from La Presse called me, obviously, and asked how I could run for a party that supports free education. I told him I supported everything else about the party, except the fact that they are for free tuition. That article came out, and wasn't exactly neutral, and then the Green education critic called me. She gave me one day to either come out publicly and announce that I'd changed my mind and now supported free education, or resign as a candidate. I said no, in both cases I look like the idiot, so either you fire me or I'm staying!
My experience with the Greens was that they were completely disorganized, and they really disgusted me actually. That's why afterwards I changed my values, and decided to support Option Nationale. That's when I really discovered the other side of the tuition debate.
rabble: What attracted you to Option Nationale? What brought you to them?
KB: First of all it was their position on sovereignty. I find that they manage it much better than the Parti Quebecois, who always put it off and push it to the side. Option Nationale really want to do it, and I love the way they actually talk about it, it's different from any of the other parties. I also love the way [ON leader] Jean-Martin Aussant speaks, he promotes his party so well. I think it's a party that's going to go far. It didn't go as far as we wanted this election obviously, but I like that he speaks in a far less cultural way than the PQ. ON is more pragmatic and inclusive than the PQ, and I really like that.
rabble: So how did you come around to the ON position on free education? Because it's obviously the same as the Green Party position.
KB: It started before ON actually. All through the spring, and all through the student crisis, I was really involved with the green squares, and really only spoke to other green people. I was totally closed off, and never heard from any red squares. This summer I went to a summer camp, and all the people working there were red. One friend in particular really got to me, and made me see the red position differently. She opened my mind to a reality that I didn't see when I was surrounded by green people. Not only statistics and facts, but the values and the philosophy behind the red side. I still wasn't for free tuition, but I was starting to be against the hike.
The more I researched the issue, the more I talked to people on all sides of the debate, and really opened my mind to the facts, the darker red I became. Then along came Aussant, with his position of free tuition, but only for students who completed their degree in a certain time frame. He made it seem so much more organized, and reasonable.
He showed me that tuition is really an investment, and a smart one. I did a lot of research and reading this summer, and I really hadn't done that before. The truth is the hike is completely unnecessary. If you actually research the issue, it's impossible to support the hike, it makes no sense.
The problem with the green squares is that they are totally closed off, and they refuse to consider what anyone who disagrees with them is saying. They don't seem to understand the basic fact that education is an investment. Their approach is much more ideologically driven than fact based. If students don't wander off in school for twenty years, then education is an investment, one of the best ones the government can make.
rabble: Since you've come around to the red square position, have you gone to any demonstrations?
KB: Yes, I went to the demonstrations on the 22nd of July and August. In July, I stepped down from my position with the MESRQ, although I still wasn't totally convinced by the red square argument. My friend from camp took me to the demo and it actually had a lot to do with convincing me. To see the energy and will of so many people, it was beautiful to see. The next morning I woke up and asked myself, why? If that many people are so passionate about the issue, there has to be a reason. That's when I really started to do my research, and change my opinion quite radically.
rabble: So do you wear a red square around now?
KB: Yes. I wear it almost every day. In the beginning I was a little shy to wear it, but now I'm not. I'm actually very proud to wear it. I would proudly wear it in front of my green friends.
rabble: Have you gotten much backlash from your green friends?
KB: For sure! I would even say I lost a few friends. Which is sad, because we should all be allowed to have our own opinions. Even when I was a green square, I always had respect for the red squares, and I think I deserve respect, even if I am a red square now. Some of them are still good friends, but I've had a really hard time with a lot of them. I've had to deal with a lot of harassment, people calling me names, and saying that they thought I was smart but now they realize I'm stupid. Which is ridiculous, just because I'm red now doesn't mean I'm any less smart than I was before. It was really disappointing to see that there was such a reaction. As soon as they thought I wasn't on the "right" side, they attacked me.
rabble: What about the red square side? Have you had any trouble fitting in, do people look at you suspiciously?
KB: Not at all. People have been incredibly welcoming. They've been so warm and open to me. A lot of people saying, finally! You saw the light! Welcome! I've had no problems at all with the reds, they've been so welcoming, so different from the greens.