Ten Years Ago, Canada Had Its Largest Student Strike in History, and It Made Me the Artist I Am Today

Wednesday Journal Entry – Week 7

Karina Lafayette – May 25th 2022

Screenshot from ‘The Student Diaries’, with Jean Charest pasted on the right

I sat in my English class that morning, stirring in my seat and unable to focus. The course that morning was very vague, but the rest of the day is as describable as though it happened now. Before everyone left the classroom our Professor, with a red square on his shirt, said, “Go yell at the government.”

Dawson College did not vote for the strike, so naturally few from our school took part, but the front entrance on DeMaisonneuve was filled nonetheless. The weather was rather warm, not a sign of the typical cold Canadian winter in sight. There was a sense of mystery somehow. We began to head down the street meeting with the students at LaSalle College nearby, but it wasn’t until arriving at the Concordia University campus on Metcalfe did we realize how numerous the protest would be.

The streets were crowded. The radio and media had warned drivers to leave their cars at home, but some still took the chance and alas were trapped in the midst of springtime, with students, families, professors and politicians filling the city of Montreal. Some drivers cheered us on by honking, while others sat impatiently.

Finally, we arrived at Place du Canada where people from various schools across Quebec sat, gathered. It was an image straight from the 1960s sit-ins. A fellow classmate handed me a red square- the exact same one is pinned on my winter coat till this day.

The only unnerving event was the sound of firecrackers going off several times. Beyond that, there were no arrests. Many people even brought their children. We had to stop many times throughout due to the large mass of participants, which made everything completely overwhelming. I held my camera, clumsily snapping photos and filming.

The walk remained festive as music blasted. People were cheering from their balconies and office areas. It rained briefly as we passed under the bridge near Sherbrooke metro.

The historic event concluded at Place Jacques-Cartier in the Old Port. We stood, listening to the speeches above the ecstatic screams. Nearby in one of the restaurants, a television was turned on the local television station TVA with a news report. On the small screen showed helicopter footage of the protest stretching beyond fifty blocks- 200,000 people. Officially the largest student protest in North American history.

The moment was simply perfect. My classmates were in awe seeing the footage at the exact moment everyone was gathered together. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, former speaker for CLASSE, gave his speech simultaneously, yet to be honest I could not focus on listening- the moment felt indescribable. My head was empty from thought as the energy of the crowd built.

A sample from a previous article called “March 22nd: One Year Later, What It Was Like to be There”, K. Lafayette

They say, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. Awhile back, I would’ve agreed with that. Today, I can’t think of a bigger lie. Art for me, as a writer, astrologer and filmmaker, is the only truth there is.

By May of 2012, the weather was blistering and muggy, but even that couldn’t compare to the amount of anger and rage in a hostile political atmosphere, being ran by a leader who clearly only cared for people of his class and social status. Protests and ralllies occurred every other week now, sometimes every day, for the past few months. The movement was labelled as ‘Le Printemps Érable’, or ‘Maple Spring’ in English. It was a sight for the ages, and as much as footage and pictures can say a lot, you really did have to be there. Fortunately for me, it was a huge moment in my life, one where I never looked back when it came to my views on many, many issues. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear we were anarchists, or as the media liked to call us, “spoiled entitled brats with IPhones who didn’t want to go to school anymore”.

Well, I was still in school. I was in college studying cinema, but throughout the semester I tried my best to attend some protests while thousands of university students across Quebec walked out of their classes, for what almost looked like indefinitely. The Quebec Government at the time wanted to increase tuition by 75% over the next four years. They claimed it was justified because Quebec already had (and still has) the lowest tuition rate in the country. And that is the exact reason why we were protesting, because we wanted to keep it that way. Many students from around the world and even from other provinces often study in Quebec, simply due to it being more affordable, and we couldn’t let that change.

A lot of us really thought it would be an easy negotiation, that all we had to do was go out and show our discontent and that alone would be enough, but as history shows, older white men in suits don’t respond very well to young people. They like to think they can pull the wool over our eyes and offer candy. When the strike officially kicked off in February that year, I got to cover one protest for a story I was asked to do for our school newspaper. It made me frustrated, because I didn’t expect to see so many people from both the Anglophone and Francophone community, especially considering the fact that pop culture likes to constantly endorse this idea of how Quebec is supposedly so divided. And sure, in a way that’s true, but it was obvious that it would much more than just a student strike.

So I decided to keep bringing my camera along to different protests, a small Fujifilm that my uncles had gave me. I also sent emails to various schools to try to get recorded interviews with students. It wasn’t enough for me to cover stories in our school paper, I needed people to see all this in action, which eventually turned into a documentary called The Student Diaries (Les étudiants, un journal intime). As much as I love my imagination, it’s always been integral to my work to tell stories that people relate to, and to focus on truth. By March 22nd, we were almost 250 000 people protesting in Downtown Montreal, and it was beautiful. It was by far one of the most emotional and pivotal moments in my life, not because of how many people actually showed up, but because of the fact that we had the right to express our frustrations, even with the Premier mocking us in his office.

In many parts of the world, people often get locked up and tortured for daring to speak up in that way. It felt validating, being surrounded by people who understood that yes, the world that we live in really does need to do better, and that no, education isn’t a commodity.

Jean Charest by that time had already been Premier of Quebec since 2003, and overall what you would expect from the average Canadian politician. Over the years, there had been the nurse’s strike and other key events, but I was too young to remember. Whether there was any good that even came from his time as leader, I can’t say. The only thing I can tell you is that as a young person approaching my twenties back then, Charest came across as an angry father figure eager to put his kids in place without having the conscience to even bother truly listening to us. On April 20th, while speaking at an event at Palais-des-congrès, there was a protest right outside that quickly turned into a riot. Rather than reassuring the public he had everything in order, Charest made a joke about it. He basically said with a grin on his face, “To all of those outside today, we’ll be happy to give you jobs up North as soon as possible.” All this while some of his own citizens were getting injured.

It was obvious that this was a man who lacked empathy. This only made the strike gain steam, and even people who disagreed with students in the past, many of them concerned parents and teachers, began attending protests. His jokes only provoked the province into further anger.

And as if that wasn’t enough, by the time May came along, Charest and his party proposed a bill that would basically make protesting illegal. In it, there were hefty fines that would be implemented to anyone seen either protesting or picketing in front of universities. It was like he wanted to poke a sleeping bear, that was already awake to begin with. Some of us got to be entertained by the constant back and forth between him and leader of the opposition Pauline Marois, who only a decade or so before, was supportive of a previous tuition hike that almost got passed. Whether you were in favor of an increase or not, it was hard to deny that the issue was clearly more than about trying to get classes back in session. It was a power game.

Amnesty International and other organizations began speaking out against this bill, since according to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, protesting is very much legal. Even celebrities like Arcade Fire and Michael Moore were wearing the red square symbol in solidarity. On May 19th, the night of my 20th birthday, Arcade Fire and Mick Jagger performed the song “The Last Time” on Saturday Night Live, and quickly Twitter blew up, with many Americans now wanting to know what that symbol represented. It’s amazing to imagine how mubigger the impact would’ve been had social media been as relevant back the as it is now.

Mick Jagger and Arcade Fire on SNL

Back home in Montreal, protests became a nightly occurrence. Even Amir Khadir, a spokesperson of Quebec Solidaire, got arrested while attending a protest. On May 22nd, over 400 000 people descended into the streets of Downtown in what was officially the largest protest in Canadian history to date. On one hand, I would’ve liked it had things between students and the government been resolved much quicker, but on the other, I honestly couldn’t think of a better place in history to become of age. Even as a kid, I always had a strong opposition towards injustice and have wanted to use my work as an artist to speak on these issues, to let others know that they’re not alone in their fight.

Overall, the protest was peaceful, with people of different generations supporting one another, singing songs and yelling at the top of their lungs. Actuqkly, a good majority of the protests were peaceful. Even though we basically committed an act of civil disobedience that day, there were too many of us to make fines relevant, and that is what you call strength in numbers. Protests in support of Quebec took place in areas all over the world, from New York, to Vancouver, France, and even England. I reached out to different creators on Youtube asking for permission to use clips of their protests, and they were more than happy to share them. Even if it wasn’t for making a documentary on it, knowing that there was this kind of support truly felt validating.

By the summer, Charest announced an election for September. He was later pushed out of office and replaced with Pauline Marois. The good news is that she stopped the increase. The bad news, she wasn’t all that different in terms of leadership, but I digress. The point is that when people are truly able to work together, that’s when magical things happen, but elections and protests really aren’t enough. The change needed is much deeper, within our collective psyche.

Screenshot from The Student Diaries

Ten years after, I don’t really know the legacy of the 2012 Quebec Student Movement. Every time I think of it, it makes me emotional, because so often as adults we give up on that starry-eyed vision we had as students, and I still believe in it. I do hope that anytime something like this happens, people are able to use that moment in Canadian history as an example of what we’re capable of when we commit to a singular vision. And hilariously enough, Charest is currently running for leadership of the Conservatives at the Federal level, because he likely thinks we don’t remember what he did to students.

Meanwhile in winter 2019, when students in Ontario were protesting changes to OSAP, to my surprise, I got contacted by unions asking for permission to show The Student Diaries to their classmates, so in a way, there is a legacy behind it after all. In my own experience, it’s made me committed to telling the truth, even when it makes others uncomfortable or downright mad at me. You might not hear about the Movement that often now, and perhaps mainstream media will always be a bit hesitant to even acknowledge it, but you can’t deny the fact that those of us who got to live it, were wholeheartedly transformed forever, and for the better.

(The Student Diaries will be re-released online later this summer. Date is T.B.A.)

Karina


To check out my books, social media and more, scroll to the menu, where you can also get a reading. And be sure to watch my new short documentary series on the Saturn Return! If you support my work, consider buying me a coffee.


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