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Maple Spring blooming: How the attempt to hike tuition in Quebec set off a powder keg of unrest

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The Quiet Revolution in 1960s Quebec

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As thousands take to Montreal's streets nightly banging pots and pans, a Canadian awakening dubbed the "Maple Spring" is beginning to paralyze the country's second largest city. What started as a general student strike against a 75-percent hike in university tuition in February has morphed into a broad social fight against inequality and an increasing state crackdown on rights to organize and protest.

The issue of accessible education has set off a powder keg of social unrest in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec. Premier Jean Charest's government -- embroiled in corruption scandals relating to the construction and resource extraction industries -- has tried to use riot police and authoritarian legislation to avoid negotiating with students.

More than 100 days of strike for 160,000 students has brought hundreds of thousands people into the streets. The backing of professors' unions, major labor federations and community groups has bolstered the movement. It is a conflict that has seen fierce clashes with police in Montreal's streets, at the governing Liberal Party's congress meeting and on campus picket lines. As police use rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, batons and mass arrests, protesters have dug in their heels. Police charges have been increasingly met by overpowering numbers of protesters repelling or swarming their lines, returning teargas canisters or hurling rocks and bottles as the riot squad forcefully attempts to end protests.

Consistently stating its unwillingness to compromise on the choice to hike tuition, the government first tried to use the courts to end the strike by encouraging injunctions against picket lines at striking schools. Students responded by swarming the campuses in defiance, forcing them to remain closed. Then, on May 18, the government pushed through emergency legislation barring the right to demonstrate within 50 meters of campus buildings, eliminating the right of spontaneous protest for more than 50 people anywhere in Quebec, and imposing massive fines on people in breach. The law can also hold student representatives and labor unions guilty of organizing protests even if they aren't present.

However, the law's intent on quelling protests backfired. The immediate reaction was fierce confrontations on the nightly protest marches of thousands. The boisterous night protests that have been happening in Montreal every night for the past month have spread to other cities in Quebec.

Outraged at the law and the police violence and mass arrests during the night time demonstrations, impromptu evening neighborhood marches of residents banging pots and pans has taken off. Inspired by the Argentinian protest against austerity following the 2001 economic collapse, the marches quickly spread across the city and province, carrying social frustration against an increasingly isolated political elite into the streets.

Although disillusionment with a government seen to be serving the interests of the wealthy and their supporters has been building for sometime, education has become the proxy issue for a greater fight over the direction society takes through the global economic crisis. This is because there is large support for universal access to education, which is viewed as both a social right and a social good that doesn't simply profit individuals. This principle has been the backbone of Quebec maintaining the lowest university tuition in North America.

"What is interesting is that the reforms that the Liberal government are trying in Quebec are based on the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education that is already applied in the US," says Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for CLASSE, the largest coalition of striking student unions. "So we see the consequences of this model in the US, we see what will happen to our education system if we don't mobilize enough to defend it," he adds, referring to skyrocketing student debt across America.

The alternative to a high cost and high debt vision of university and college education in Quebec is the notion of fully free access to public postsecondary institutions. This vision, which students say could be paid for if the government re-instituted capital gains taxes on property and financial transactions and diverted money invested into corporate research towards teaching, has roots in Quebec's historic social transformation.

Before what is known as the "Quiet Revolution" in the 1960s, Quebec was controlled by a small financial elite and the Catholic Church, a base of social power that was reflected in the universities. Following mass protests in Montreal in the late '60s, nine university campuses and a free college system were set up. While tuition was initially charged to cover the cost of university expansion, students believed this was only a temporary measure that would eventually be replaced with free education, paid for through progressive taxation. As a result, a popular view of accessible education being akin to the ingrained Canadian consensus on universal healthcare has taken root.

"Health and education are two examples of public services where the benefit is collective, not just individual," contends Nadeau-Dubois. "When you go to public hospital and get healed, obviously you have a personal benefit. But society in general benefits as well from having a healthy population. It's the same thing with education--when you go to university and get a degree, of course you have a personal benefit... but there are also collective benefits."

This longstanding social value has now returned to the streets of Quebec, wrapped in the influences of the Arab Spring, Spain's Indignado movement and Occupy Wall Street. "This is primarily a movement of refusal," says Nadeau-Dubois.

The expanding social unrest has also inspired a new crop of left-wing politicians similar to Greece's upstart Syriza party. Seeing the strike as an opportunity to rise to prominence by championing the voice of the unheard, the margins of Quebec's political establishment are bringing together student demands and social discontent in a bid to recapture the confidence of a public that has increasingly little faith in its elected representatives.

"Every street is Wall Street," Amir Kadhir, leader of the young left-wing party Quebec Solidaire says while walking his bike among thousands at an illegal night march on May 23. "We are a party that fights both in the streets and in the National Assembly," he says.

For this generation of students, the economy they look onto is one that will give them an increasingly diminished income and vanishing job security. And through potentially crippling debt, they see themselves turning into a new dependent labor force for the "knowledge economy." It is why for the youth in the streets, the value of education is not simply an academic question. It is about the existential reality of post-graduation life.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet on June 8.

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