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Student Protest: Reflections on Quebec's 'Maple Spring'

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Whoever said that student protest was ineffective has clearly never heard of the manifencours that has gripped the Canadian province of Quebec this year. After six months of continuous protests, some of which attracted as many as 500,000 demonstrators, the student cause has emerged victorious this semester as the proposed tuition fee increased has been cancelled by the new provincial government.

The proposed increase in university fees for Quebec students, commonly referred to as the 'tuition hike' stood at approximately 82 per cent over the course of five years, starting in the 2012-2013 academic year and continuing until 2016-2017. Dramatic as this might initially sound, this increase would mean that fees would only actually increase by a mere $325 (£201.05) per year until 2017, at which point the cost of a full academic year would total $3793 (£2392). For those facing the almost 500 per cent increase in fees at some UK institutions this year, such increases may seem trivial by comparison, especially since even with the proposed increase, Quebec's tuition fees would still have been the lowest in Canada. Nevertheless, the Quebecois showed massive opposition to the hikes - and later to the now-infamous Bill 78 which tried to contain the strikes - resulting in what turned out to be the largest protest in Canadian history.

Whilst the demonstrations did not make UK headlines until late April, strikes and protests had been in full swing since 13th February. As an exchange student living in Montreal, I was a regular witness to the unrest sweeping over the city. Lecture halls progressively emptied on university and CEGEP (sixth form) campuses all over the province as the increasingly politicised student populations voted to strike. Even those students like myself, whose departments had voted against striking, found that their classrooms were often barricaded by picket lines. Thousands of demonstrators appeared in the streets, swathing the city in red flags and placards crying out contre la hausse. Montreal riot police came out in force, often unable to distinguish between protestors and those simply trying to get home. The red square, the symbol of the protest, became iconic overnight; within days, it was pinned to clothes, accessories, houses, lampposts, street signs - and in the case of one particular character, his nipples.

Fourteen weeks into the protest, the government of then-Premier Jean Charest announced the introduction of an emergency in an attempt to control the escalating situation. Bill 78, more commonly referred to under the French 'Loi 78', was passed on 18th May. In addition to suspending classes at 11 universities and 14 colleges where large proportions of the students were striking, the law also imposed restrictions on students' right to protest on or near university campuses, freedom of assembly and the wearing of the red square.

It was at this point that the protests took on a whole new dimension. Suddenly students were no longer the predominant demonstrators as the wider population of Quebeckers took to the streets. The 22 May demonstration, which marked the 100th day of protest, saw an estimated half a million people march through the streets on Montreal. In addition to the usual student demonstrators, babies now sat in pushchairs with the illegal red squares pinned to their clothing, parents and children waved red flags, and the elderly hobbled through the rain with placards demanding the abolition of the new law.

Later that day, a new form of protest emerged as the city's neighbourhoods came alive with the sound of banging pots and pans. For weeks thereafter came the nightly chorus of casseroles, marking the city's resistance to the tuition hikes and controversial law.

From that point on, nightly marches also continued, often punctuated with conflict with the police, instances of tear-gassing, popular vandalism and mass arrests.

As the protests evolved, so did the demands of the demonstrators. Demands for the ousting of the Charest government became ubiquitous, and his Liberal government has now been replaced by Pauline Marois' Parti Québécois. Amidst the accusations of fascism levelled at Charest (extremists went so far as to compare him to Joseph Kony, which anyone must admit is going that little bit too far) came shouts for greater egalitarianism and socialism, as the omnipresent red flags soon made clear.

What began as an objection to tuition hikes - and not especially extortionate ones at that - has undeniably come to signify in Quebec something much broader and more fundamental. The movement in Quebec, now referred to tongue-in-cheek as 'The Maple Spring', harks back to wider trends all over the world, and notably, with all its socialist overtones, to last year's worldwide Occupy Movement.

Whilst the protests have long been about far more than fees, the successful cooperation and engagements of student groups with trade unions, the broader population and wider fundamental issues clearly lie at the heart of the student's success in their battle against the hikes. Their defiance, it must be said, serves to demonstrate the comparative apathy of British students in their equivalent protests in 2010. Whilst it's too late now to challenge the infamous £9000, and whilst I'd hate to be accused of being a revolutionary, it's worth noting for the future that this is how it's done.

This article was originally published as a feature in 'The Student' newspaper at the University of Edinburgh, October 2012.