COMMENT: More than tuition at stake as Vancouver rallies in support of Quebec students

COMMENT: More than tuition at stake as Vancouver rallies in support of Quebec students

On a rainy Tuesday, Vancouverites rallied and marched in solidarity with the Quebec student movement.  Today’s demonstration took place exactly 100 days since the monumental student strike began.  Many speakers, including Margaret Orlowski, lucidly articulated how this movement out of Quebec is relevant across the whole country.

“It started with tuition, but it’s about a lot more.  Obviously we’ve heard about the [police] violence and repression and all of that...there is really a strong sense of the movement being anti-capitalist.

As we’ve heard, the average student debt when someone graduates is $27,000 in this land we are calling Canada.  Amalgamated, all together, there is over 20 billion dollars of student debt.  That’s a huge market...that’s very attractive for investors.  

It’s not just about having low tuition, it’s about refusing these austerity measures and refusing to transfer public money -- through students, through debt -- into the hands of the One Per Cent who are going to make interest off of that debt.”

It would appear, measured by the loud cheering and cries of “shame” from the crowd, that many unfortunately acutely resonated with the bleak picture for many Canadian students Orlowski was painting.

Meanwhile over in Quebec, the Liberal government of Jean Charest recently attempted to bully the movement into submission with it’s passing of the unbelievable Bill 78.  While Bill 78 did stop short of initiating a curfew and tanks in the streets; it did however, effectively criminalize protest.  

Nevertheless, it would appear as though Bill 78 has not had it’s intended effect: it was signed into law on Friday, while the weekend saw some of the most spirited protest of this movement to date.  Moreover, reports out of Quebec are stating that hundreds of thousands -- and potentially up to half a million people -- took to the streets today on a work day. 

While it is unclear if Charest’s new law stipulates how to deal with an assembly of over 400,000 people, the bigger question is what will this mean for the future of social justice movements, not just in Quebec, but all across Canada?  The analysis coming out of the Quebec student movement is relevant to 99% of the entire Canadian population.

"Whatever the name given to it by governments, it clearly and definitively involves the dismantling of public services aimed at privatizing what remains of the commons. The student movement has focused on the issue of tuition fees and the commoditization of the universities. However, it is not unaware that this measure is integrally linked to a larger project affecting elementary and secondary education, the healthcare sector and the unfettered development of natural resources. Our resistance to the Quebec government's neoliberal measures has to take into account all of these sectors, establishing a social link that enables us to speak of a community."  - CLASSE (The CLASSE is the largest of the student coalitions or federations leading the strike movement across Quebec).


what is to be done?

There is one basic, foundational ground on which all politics in Canada must find traction, or not have any effect.

This is it. Less than 15% of the people are "political" as part of their daily thinking and activity. They are the few to whom the actions of politicians, and their words and opinions, matter. The rest are not going to bother with politics until an election.

Bill 22 in BC? Bill 78 in Quebec? The Ontario act that legalized police illegalities during the G20 last year? The new federal budget? They matter to me, and to you the reader of this, but to how many others?

I know that Bill 22 is an attack on collective bargaining, on union functions, and on education. I know Bill 78 is an attack on constitutional rights of protest and assembly. I know the G20 protest policing was grossly wrong. I know Harper is using the budget to re-engineer this nation's political and social culture with massive changes "under the radar." And so do the media writers and journalists, and the people who read them and talk about it.

But.... There is more to life than politics, as so many working and middle class people will tell me. Job, family, health, recreation, sport, and friendships are not less interesting than politics.

The meaning of politicians' "agendas" is not something a majority of people care to decode or spend time thinking about. Stephen Harper is a new kind of conservative in Canada, but not so outrageous as to mobilize street actions by tens of thousands of Canadians across the land in all major cities.

At election time, there will be immensely well-planned strategy by each major leader to "control the message" and "frame the ballot question"  --- and these strategies will or will not work at that time. But for certain, what is happening today, years before the election, will not loom large in the electorate's mind then.

Abstract issues of "values" or "vision" will not be decisive to make people vote for or against Harper. Many will not vote, perhaps as many as 48% will not, because the effort to understand politics is arduous, or because a person feels they live life in ways that politics do not make an impact on them. I feel differently. My good friends feel differently. We are interested and we read and hear and analyse news on a pretty regular basis.

So --- the events in Quebec, the tactics of Harper in his budget, the intent of the BC Liberals towards teachers, and Ontario's policing record in 2011, just do not matter to many, many Canadians. Democracy is having a vote, right? We have elections, so things are fine.

Opposition parties will try to make them matter at election time. The federal Liberals last year tried to make us care about Harper being found in contempt of Parliament, and we gave him a majority. Abstract notions of democracy matter less than a job, a sense of security, a feeling that Canada is a haven of peace and prosperity in a very dangerous and troubled world. 

Obama mobilized tens of millions of Americans to his hope and change message four years ago. He won, and people in the bottom half of society rejoiced, and many affluent liberals too. But politics is more than the election campaign, and he soon had to compromise his best intentions because the massive support he needed in the streets to back up his big changes -- close Guantanamo, regulate Wall St., give public-option health insurance -- was not there. People cannot be politically mobilized daily.

Occupy is another movement that dissipates energy fighting an entire system of economics, politics and law by trying to make it simply a fight against one percent, when it is far from that simple.

Quebec will come through this present crisis without a revolution, just as France in 1968 overcame its student revolt. The forces of law, order, property and corporate norms, will prevail. The culture is on their side.Canada will be altered by Harper's incremental conservatism, not because he conspires with banks, and manipulates us, but because he understands Canadians are willing to go along that path with him.

"People get the government they deserve." Or, as Nelson new age speak would say, "We manifest this reality. Harper is us."

Charles Jeanes


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