Daniel Tseghay and David Penner: What we can learn from Quebec student protesters
Avec Pas d'Casque, a Montreal folk band, released their album Astronomie in March. Its haunting lead track, “Intuition #1”, now serves as something of an anthem for the Quebec student protests. Since the videographer Jeremie Battaglia released a black and white video of the nightly protests—protests which have gone on for more than 100 days now—set to the song, it’s garnered more than 334,000 views.
The video presents images of thousands of people walking through streets in Montreal, banging on pots and pans and lids and anything else that might make a sound. There are fireworks, people blowing bubbles, and flag-waving. This cacerolazo, or casseroles, movement, inspired by protestors in South America, is now echoing across Canada.
Today (May 30), Vancouver and over 60 other communities in Canada, as well as London, Paris, Washington D.C., New York City, and Brussels, will hold their own demonstrations in an action called “Casseroles Night in Canada”.
The initial motivation, some months back, to take to the streets was the Quebec government’s announcement that tuition fees would increase.
Canadians may believe that education in Canada is more affordable than in the United States, considering that we have more people attending some kind of post-secondary institution. But we’re in just as much debt as students south of the border. In the United States, average student debt upon graduation is over $25,000, and Canadian students shoulder an equally heavy burden.
According to the Canadian Federation of Students, and supported by research from the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, students can expect to graduate with $27,000 of government debt. Of course, that number is only an average, with some students graduating debt-free and others graduating with substantially more. Nor does it include private or family loans.
In recent decades, cost of living has risen, a fact that goes without saying to many living in Vancouver. Students borrow more, both to pay their swelling tuition fees and just to live while they study.
For decades, Canadian youth have faced a higher unemployment rate—now at 13 percent—than the Canadian average, according to Statistics Canada. Prospects are better for those with post-secondary degrees, which increases the odds of finding a job by two-thirds. Evidently, education still leads to jobs. But with wages stagnant relative to the cost of living, and rising debts, even those with jobs are feeling the pinch.
Indebted graduates in B.C., for example, face higher interest rates than anywhere else in the country at 2.5 percent above prime.
Granted, Quebec students have enjoyed the lowest tuition rates in Canada for decades. Because of this, some have called them “whiners” or, as Margaret Wente, a prominent Canadian columnist, put it, “the Greeks of Canada”. “We’ve had it,” she says, both appalled and purporting to speak for Canadians.
Emboldened by such sentiments, the Quebec government has responded to the protests with Bill 78, a monstrous, draconian piece of legislation severely limiting the basic right to protest and decried by many in the legal and civil rights communities. Constitutional challenges have already begun, supported by no less than the head of the Quebec Bar Association, Louis Masson. Few experts outside the business community, which have been momentarily affected by the movement, support the bill.
The protestors speak for average Canadians, especially the young, who have seen both their own prospects, and those of the middle class, erode. The youth movement in Quebec is looking to maintain a semblance of the state we once knew— one which does not burden the young with prohibitive debts before they’ve even entered an increasingly hollowed out job market, and a job market that increasingly requires post-secondary training.
For that, Canadians can hardly blame them. We should stand alongside them. As the country-wide, and even international, demonstrations set for tonight prove, we’re already doing so. “Tu diras,” sings Avec Pas d’Casque’s lead in “Intuition #1”: “Tue diras que c’est l’instinct qui t’a/ Mené jusqu’ici”.
“You tell them / You tell them that it was intuition that / Drove you up to here”.