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Le fond de l'air est rouge: Stefan Christoff on the legacy of Quebec's 2012 student strike

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Graphic by École de la Montagne Rouge

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Le fond de l'air est rouge is a new collection by Montreal's Stefan Christoff that documents last year's historic Quebec student strike. Christoff is a rabble.ca contributor, an activist and musician. Le fond de l'air est rouge, published by Howl! arts collective, is a zine that captures and helps explain a key moment in Quebec popular history. With the zine set to be launched in Toronto this Thursday, and other events planned for the summer, rabble.ca editor Derrick O'Keefe asked Christoff about the project. 

Derrick O'Keefe: What remains of the Maple Spring one year later -- in Quebec and elsewhere? Is this zine an effort to maintain that spark, or primarily to learn the lessons of a powerful social movement that has now subsided?

Stefan Christoff: One sustained impact of the Québec student strike is that thousands and thousands of people have been inspired and empowered. Importantly this inspiration is rooted in real experiences, in grassroots action, not in hazy political rhetoric.

A key point that the Québec strike enforced is this immense power and capacity of street politics to create real political change; this is a key point to reflect on.

This is political reality that will continue to impact Québec society for many, many years. Thousands have been empowered through collective action to join and help create alternative political structures -- empowered to take action that challenges the relative impunity of political power today in Québec and in Canada, societies oppressed by the dictatorship of free market economics. 

DO: Now, I asked about the 'Maple Spring' instead of about le printemps érable. And this reminds of the time I clumsily gave an article you sent in to rabble.ca an Anglo headline, ignoring your French suggestion. I note your zine also has a French title. How much of le printemps érable was inevitably 'lost in translation,' and as an activist writing in English for an audience largely outside Quebec how do you deal with this challenge?


 SC: Rêve Général Illimité was the name of that article, translating to unlimited open dreams, a title that was trying to express an incredible feeling on the streets in Québec in 2012. Beyond a student strike I think it's accurate to describe what happened in Québec as an uprising. 

At each night protest, at each casserole march that built into a mass street orchestral, we were collectively resisting and united in supporting the incredible spirit of the Québec student movement, the syndicalisme de combat (combative unionism), expressed most clearly by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).

The intensity and spirit of the Québec strike was lost in translation, certainly lost to the mainstream media in Canada which consistently worked to undercut the significance of the strike movement. In fact the Québec strike only got serious attention from the mainstream media in Canada after international press outlets began covering the movement.

Also there is a serious institutional effort to undercut Québec's progressive history in the rest of Canada. Beyond simply nationalism, Québec's struggles have always included major debates on broader social visions.

I strongly recommend The Empire Within by historian Sean Mills for an alternative and progressive take on Québec history.

Free, universally accessible university education is an unanswered dream of Québec's révolution tranquille. An unanswered dream that still sustains wide support and that sparked thunder on Montréal's streets over the past year. 

DO: You're a musician, and a member of an important arts and activism collective in Montreal. How crucial were artists to the resonance and success of Quebec's student and social movements? Has this always been the case, or was their something new happening during le printemps érable?

 SC: Certainly art and creative expression was central to the Québec student strike.

In essence the carré rouge, or red square patch, was an artistic symbol, a creative way to express the many issues and historical tones on which the strike was built. From the bright red colour, to the popular and participatory nature of the symbol, the fact that anyone could make red squares, expressed the creative spirit of the strike.

Also the street music was central to the spirit on the streets last year. Mouvement de mobilisation des étudiants en musique, a group of music students, formed a mass street band that often played intensely at the night protests -- you can listen to a recording on Howl! website.

Broadly speaking arts and culture is such a key component to social life in Québec, so the carré rouge gave many artists and musicians a way to support the strike in public by wearing the symbol. Interestingly this also gave artists a way to support the strike publicly, but leaving the political space of articulating the demands of the strike to elected student spokespeople.

Howl! arts collective organized artistic interventions on the streets, creative protests, aiming to bring together artists to demonstrate public support for the strike movement via street actions. At one action we organized outdoor performances and a live street silkscreen printing set-up in collaboration with École de la Montagne Rouge.

The student strike took root in many aspects of cultural life, a reality expressed by someone like Ariane Moffatt, a Québec songwriter with mainstream success. Moffatt released Jeudi 17 mai to protest loi 78, enacted by the previous Liberal government in an attempt to squash the protest movement, the law that spelled the end of the Liberal government and sparked the casserole movement. 

DO: Some of us in English Canada sometimes slip into explanations for last year's social explosion in Quebec along the lines of 'they just have a different culture...', as if le printemps érable was conjured in a moment because of an advanced political and collective culture. We don't often hear about the years of organizing. You were there and took part: what do we need to know about the groundwork in the years leading up to 2012?

 SC: It's really important to stress that what happened in Québec is not mysterious or mystical, it's a strike that occurs against a backdrop of a fierce and determined student movement that has been fighting in a sustained way to abolish tuition since the late 1960s.

Also it's important to highlight that there have been past attempts by ASSÉ to organize student strike that weren't successful.

In 2005 there was an important student strike over an attempt by the Liberal government to slash $103 million from bursaries granted to students. This strike was successful and was also the first time that the carré rouge was distributed widely. Read this interview on Media Co-op about the 2005 strike.

In 2007 ASSÉ attempted to push a Québec-wide strike to demand the abolition of tuition and also to build strength against the impending tuition hikes that the Liberals were signaling would be coming. Although there were some amazing protests in 2007, thousands on the streets, that effort didn't mobilize the mass support and democratic mandates to strike across student unions in Quebec. It's my impression that lessons learned from this attempt to strike in 2007 really helped build for the strike in 2012.

Certainly Québec's history of combative popular struggles, driven by street protests not negotiation with power, from housing rights associations like Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), to the more combative strikes driven by Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) in the early 1970s, creates a context and history for the 2012 student strike.

One point that I think is important to express on this front is that the Québec student strike was rooted in mass organizing. ASSÉ is engaged with tens of thousands of students who collectively endorsed and many joined campaigns of economic disruption and direct action. So on this front its important to express the fact that there is an open political culture within ASSÉ that includes broad participation in shaping the political vision of the student movement. 

DO: One difference in Quebec (compared to English Canada for sure) is the presence of a party like Quebec Solidaire -- unabashedly a party that supports social movements. What was QS' relationship with the student uprising, and what is their role now, in a much different situation with a PQ government and a less visible student movement?

 SC: On the streets I recall many discussions with activists during the strike who talked about how the social vision expressed by Québec Solidaire is very similar to ideas expressed by the Parti Québécois (PQ) in the 1970s. There is a relationship between Québec Solidaire and social movements, but there are also many tensions around representation. Originally QS talked about focusing on social struggles but now directs a majority of its political energy into the electoral process, an issue that tensely debated within activist circles.

It's important that QS members joined and participated in the student strike, but I think that it's honest to say that QS wasn't key to the energy or mobilizations for the student strike, although certainly many people around QS did contribute to the movement. 

DO: Last year was unprecedented in the way activists in English Canada -- and actually around the world -- looked to Quebec as an example and organized Casseroles around the world. I feel like we're all looking to Quebec more than before, if however there's still a lack of understanding. But how much are activists in Quebec more interested in building solidarity networks with English Canada after last year? Or are they?

 SC: I feel that the spirit of the Québec strike was in many ways international in nature. Often on the streets solidarity with the Chilean student movement was openly expressed, and examples of combative student organizing around the world were highlighted often.

Concerning Canada I feel there is a great deal of work to do around building more meaningful links between social justice organizing in Canada and in Québec, there are major gaps of understanding.

I think that developing an understanding on Québec revolutionary history is important and critical, looking beyond simplistic takes on nationalism and working to understand the real historical issues. 24 heure ou plus by filmmaker Gilles Groulx is an excellent resource on this point.

Certainly a point that unites Québec and Canada is our collective colonial reality. Although addressing colonial history in Québec is difficult, there were serious and ongoing reflections around ASSÉ on Québec's status as a colonial entity rooted in the historical repression and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Asserting the colonial reality of all lands in Québec and Canada is key, and I think that we can build solidarity in deconstructing this colonial history and working toward a different society. Contemporary capitalism in North America, which asserts a vision that values education as a commodity and mother earth as only natural resources to be bought and sold, is rooted in colonialism.

In essence the Québec student movement was taking on this system, although the specific battle was against an unjust tuition hike, the spirit on the streets and in peoples hearts was inspired by our collective struggle to overturn a violent colonial capitalist system that is destroying our collective well being and the planet. 

DO: What has been the pick-up of Idle No More by the student and social movements in Quebec?

 SC: Certainly Idle No More and the student movement in Québec are interacting. That connection between Indigenous struggles and the Québec student movement was highlighted throughout the strike by ASSÉ. I think that this is really a key point of solidarity to continue to build on and its something that is happening everyday.

At the largest Idle No More protest in Montreal this winter, where a couple thousand people took the streets, there were many carré rouges pinned to winter jackets. Also people remixed the carré rouge and a feather on the street. ASSÉ also issued an excellent statement

DO: Why a 'zine' and not an e-book? Is there anything political in your choice of medium for this collection?

SC: Certainly! I wanted to collect texts that I had written during the strike for online publications and put them together in a physical format. I feel that there is a depth of reflection that is more possible when words are printed on paper. I wanted to have people read the texts and reflect on the texts outside of a computer screen. 

The idea for the booklet came forward when I was reviewing old texts written on past protests actions, specifically texts written in 2003 when the WTO held a mini-ministerial in Montreal and a variety of groups held protest actions against neo-liberal global capitalism. 

When searching for texts that I had worked on and others I know had worked on I discovered that many of the links were broken or missing, so I wanted to ensure that the texts written during the Québec student strike were preserved in printed format. 

Also the zine, or booklet, was created as an art piece, it has a beautiful silkscreen cover printed by Jesse Purcell of Justseeds Artists' Cooperative. Also I wanted to create a cultural document to contribute to our collective memory of the strike. 

DO: Where will you be doing events this summer, and what do you hope will come out of this?

SC: Throughout the summer going to be holding events in Ontario, in Winnipeg and in Vancouver. Honestly I wanted to talk with activists in different parts of the country about the Québec strike and reflect on ways that social movements in Québec and the rest of Canada could find common ground to challenge and confront Canada's Conservative nightmare. 

DO: What's your next big project?

SC: Next big project is an album of piano duets with musician Sam Shalabi, which will be released by Howl! arts collective in July. Music, and cultural generally, is a really essential element to sustaining the struggle; I feel that it expresses the emotion of sustaining the fight against seemingly impossible odds in ways that words can't. 


Graphic: École de la Montagne Rouge.

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