31.05.2012 - 02.06.2012
Yes. I know I left the USA many months ago. And yes, I did return to the US from Canada. And yes I know most entries that follow will sound strange based on that. But they were mostly written whilst I was there (honest), and it is only my incompetence – and, occasionally, incontinence, although that is another story – that has delayed their postings, and for that, I hope you all can forgive me. If you can't, well, realistically, there is b***** all you can do about it anyway.
It was more accurate than any clock. At exactly 20:00 every night, the quiet evening air was suddenly shattered by the bashing of pots and pans. People standing on street corners, on balconies, in their front gardens, all banging metallic kitchen pots and pans. This is casseroling. I was in Montreal. And this is protesting and civil disobedience, Quebec style.
For makers of kitchen equipment and drum sticks (musical, not chicken varieties) this has been a huge boon. For musical producers, it has doubtless opened a world of opportunities: unlikely as it sounds, some of the accidental melodies produced by the bashing of such diverse types of metal pots are surprisingly good. There is definite un-taped musical talent there. For tourists down town watching the parades and the police, it was mostly bemusing. For the non-protesting local, it has mostly become a weary, boring distraction. Each night varies: some nights, the protests die down with an hour – sometimes they are still going strong at midnight, and this has been going on for several months.
Protesters on a march around central Montreal at night, and Police out in force to prevent them going places they don't want them to
Though it has only received a minor note in most world – and indeed, non Quebecois Canadian – news outlets, Quebec has been in increasingly serious trouble for some time. What follows is my my – probably entirely incorrect – understanding of affairs and events.
It started in late 2011, when certain students started getting into disagreement over student fees. In early 2012 increases were announced by the government: The increase was 325 dollars about 200gbp) for the next 5 years, for a total of about 1700 dollars, or a bit over 1000gbp. Sure, not cheap, but on the grand scheme of things, a modest amount: Even after the full increase, fees would still be the cheapest in Canada, let alone North America, and as prices in the UK are this year rising by up to 5750gbp (eg: 28x the annual rise in Quebec, and almost 6x the total rise planned over 5 years) in one year, fairly inconsequential on the grand scheme of things.
But the students didn't like it. Quebec students apparently rarely like fee increases, and have protested on and off for 20+ years; in fact, every time an increase has been announced. Hence why the current rates are so low, and in the current economic situation, un-sustainably low.
By February, some social science students were out on strike, and protest marches were occurring. Talks continued, compromises were offered. But it wasn't good enough. The number of students on strike rapidly rose, hitting almost 400,000 across the province and every French speaking institution. From what I can attain, English speaking Universities were relatively immune and continued pretty much as normal. The protest marches became a daily event, causing chaos down town, and being attended by anything from 500 to 50,000+. One rally is believed to have had over half a million protesters.
As the protests built up, they evolved. Yes, tuition fees are still an important part, but the demo's became anti-government, anti-capitalist, anti-corruption. The Quebec provincial elections are due later this year or next year, and the more pro-independence/French parties have got on the bandwagon, at least unofficially. Protest badges have been worn by opposition politicians. Protest stickers appear all over town. And the average local got more and more anti-protest: the general view being that the students should just grow up and take a reality check.
Northern Quebec is mostly uninhabited, unexplored, often ice bound regions. But there is lots of oil and mineral wealth believed to be there. The protesters believe that this is being sold off by the state government to big construction and exploration companies, often run by friends of the ruling politicians or where former party members are now in charge. Some are against the sell off; some against who it is being sold to; some totally anti-exploration, wanting the wilderness to remain just that. Others agree that it should be done, but think the contracts should involve profits going back to the government and taxpayer which at present they are not, despite taxpayer funded development in infrastructure etc and construction permits being spent. Honestly what the real situation is, I have no idea. And the variety of things I was told or read suggest that many locals have no real idea either. Rumours spread like wildfire, even if they have no basis in anything even resembling truth. Unions are heavily involved, but depending who you talk to are either for the protest or against it; good or bad.
Last week (this is being written on June 4th) marked two big moments: protest marches hit their 100th consecutive day, and the local government, tiring of the lack of protest made a fatal error. Believing general support to be wavering and wanting an end to the strike, they introduced Bill 78 into law. Big mistake. Far from crushing the protest as they hoped, it was so heavy handed that it reinvigorated the masses and the level of protests rapidly rose. Casseroling became more commonplace, and the marches more serious.
If I understand this anywhere near correctly – and to be fair, I probably don't - the bill officially suspended all classes (so even those students and lecturers who had continued to study were kicked out) until at least August; it also banned any gathering of more than 50 people, unless the police were given 8 hours notice (naturally just before the summer festival season, which is Montreal's defining feature, and attracts millions of people each year); all parade routes have to be cleared with police; scarves, masks etc have all been banned in any circumstances whilst at the the same time, police have started covering up their own individual identification numbers. It has been made an offence to incite people to strike, to join a demo, to prevent people entering a classroom, and much more, and in all cases, burden of proof lies with the protester/arrested party and not the officials. And it appears that powers of martial law have been handed to the education minister. Not the police, army or legal people – the education minister. Who in herself, has been in the job barely 2 weeks after the previous one resigned. In total over 2500 people have been arrested during the protests; over 1000 of those have been in the last week since the new law was passed.
This has all had the affect of galvanising the protesters, and swinging public support back towards the protests. It was striking to me how many people were protesting on street corners were normal people: elderly, disabled, families, especially those with small kids (who, admittedly, almost all love making as much noise as possible, so being actively encouraged to bang things must be great) as well as more student types. On my first night in town staying with CouchSurfing friends of friends, we joined the main march. French speaking people on strike? It felt just like being back in Europe!
But if nothing else, it gave me a tour of the city at night! Several thousand were involved, and whilst there was gunshot heard and riot police in place, it was fairly calm despite being totally illegal. Everybody has scarves due to threat of tear-gas and smoke bombs, and though there were any number of 'rougher' looking people involved, and troublemakers, it was all fine. The main problem was communication – it had been planned that night as a silent protest with no casseroling, but hundreds were banging away. This meant that the songs and chants could not be heard. Talking to assorted others, they all had different grievances. I suspect this will run and run.
Chaos is promised for this weekends F1 GP amongst much else; the Americans have issued an official travel advisory against all travel to the province of Quebec. The Grand Prix, Beer, Jazz and other festivals all promise to bring the protests more into main stream and foreign press, but at the moment all I can say is watch this space.
Note: Yes, this was written in June. Yes it is being published in October. My apologies for my lack of punctuality. And obviously, some things have changed and the situation moved on. But, because I am not in Quebec any more I have no idea.