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Éric Desrosiers May 26, 2012
Original French Text: http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/education/350992/ras-le-bol-des-idees-neoliberales
“To sum up this conflict as a generational clash would be a convenient way of shrugging off its ideological aspect”
PHOTO CAPTION: For several week now, a panda mascot has been at the protests’ front line. The anachronistic two-coloured teddy bear has elicited an unlikely wave of sympathy.
The Charest government will never get anywhere useful in the student conflict as long as it fails to understand with whom and with what they’re dealing, that is a generation unlike the others, one whose interests go beyond the education issues and one that’s not done with hitting the streets to be heard.
“It seems obvious that the Charest government fails to understand students today, observes Jacques Hamel, a sociology professor at Université de Montréal and a youth specialist. When ministers speak of the youth, it’s obvious that they’re speaking of what they were at that age, whereas that’s missing the point.
In their student life, young people today spend nearly more time at work than at their desks, he observes. Mindful of providing themselves training that’s in line with their field of interest, they often prefer custom-made curriculums instead of following a particular program, and they don’t hesitate to put their studies on hold if the chance to go on a life-changing trip comes up. “They’re the first digital generation and how they’re protesting is a reflection of this path, now turned against them, and they’re not letting themselves be kept from showing their solidarity when needed, thanks to social media, mainly.”
Often blamed of being entitled brats, these youths are rather “born negotiators”, upholds a sociologist from the centre for Urbanization, Culture and Society at the INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique, University of Quebec’s graduate school for research and training), Madeleine Gauthier, who has been studying youth for over 30 years. We’ve taught them from a young age to converse with adults as equals. “They don’t expect to always win, but they want to get to the bottom of things. For them, authority is the product more of ability and confidence than of hierarchy. My professor colleagues will tell you, once we take the time to speak with them and arrive at an understanding, they can become excellent collaborators.”
From this perspective, the Charest government’s refusal to hold honest discussions with the students since the beginning of the conflict, along with its habit of imposing unilateral solutions could not have been more poorly chosen, she said. “The two parties cannot even understand each other.”
From the right to education to neoliberalism
The issues of this conflict that has been going strong for over 100 days now across Quebec go beyond a mere conflict between generations, adds Marcos Ancelovici, professor at McGill University’s sociology department and a specialist in social movements. “I saw people of all ages at Tuesday’s protest. To sum up this conflict as a generational clash would be a convenient way of evacuating its ideological aspect. In my opinion, it’s principally a left right conflict.”
If what triggered this contestation movement was the tuition hike, other issues were added to it. The students were quick to observe that the Voyager bus terminal scandal, the explosion of satellite campuses, or the salaries the certain rectors are paid are an indication that there’s a lot of mess to clean up in the universities before we can start talking about under-funding. These accusations of mismanagement have spread rapidly to the Charest government itself, which is blamed for the corruption scandal [translator’s note: in the construction industry], the shambles regarding the shale gas issue, the way the Plan Nord is going, without mentioning the police repression against the students and the recent passing of law 78.
Past months have led to a large-scale denunciation of the neoliberal revolution, remarks Jacques Hamel. It is being condemned not only or its utilitarian notion of education and of its commodification of knowledge, but also for the rise of inequalities, for the ravages caused by the last global economic crisis, and its incapacity to help the world be greener. “The student movement has come to stand up for the welfare state threatened by the privatization of public services and the principal of pay-for-use.”
This rhetoric is reminiscent of the Indignants (indignados)movement in Europe or Occupy Wall Street, that made its way up to Montreal last year. It goes along with the great current of reconsideration of the fundamental principles of developed societies, observed Madeleine Gauthier. With the youth, it’s fed by a whole series of problems such as the rise of student debt, increased youth unemployment and the misdemeanors of the middle class, the scale of which is not as great here as elsewhere – for now – but that frightens nonetheless.
From local to global
The development of the very concrete and local issue of tuition hikes into a larger and more global issue questioning the neoliberal model is not the result of a loss of control. “On the contrary, it’s an achievement, claims Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the Coalition large de l’Association pour un solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE - roughly, the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity). The main critique of the student movement has been that it has become a large corporatist machine that is defending its own interests at the general population’s expense. Seeing the movement gain momentum and size, these same critics are now accusing the movement of embracing a large, vague and unmanageable cause.” If an agreement with the government on tuition fees were to occur, the students would know to put an end to this chapter of their struggle, he insists.
The way in which this conflict has been covered by the media has not allowed for the general population to see and understand all these factors, bemoans Marcos Ancelovici. “The amount of airtime given to violence is completely out of proportion and that only helps the government’s strategy of delegitimizing the student movement. In fact, when you tally the acts of violence that have actually taken place and you take the duration of the crisis into account and the number of protests that have been held, I find that on the contrary, there’s an incredible amount of restraint. I would be more concerned about police brutality.”
In a more amusing development, these young québécois, who have largely been inspired by foreign protest movements, seem to now be in turn influencing the international scene. Over the past few days, there have been reports of support protests elsewhere in Canada, but also in the United States, in France or even in Latin America.
It’s only a beginning
Quebec’s not done with large youth protests, warns Madeleine Gauthier. “Demographics have made them a minority, and they are no longer the electoral base we’re looking to seduce”, she states. The erosion of youth electoral influence, in Quebec as in several other Western countries, forces them to find other ways to have their needs heard. “They can be seen everywhere deciding to occupy public spaces, that is everywhere they cannot help but be seen and be heard.”
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois says that he’s proud that these students have come to accomplish so much over the past few months. “We’re showing that despite the prejudices that others have against our generation, we are still capable of mobilizing each other and of defending our rights, that we have no reason to be envious of our parents, of our grandparents. All this momentum has brought a lot of issues to the table. It’s a great contribution to the student conflict and to political debate in Quebec.”
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.