Quebec student protests echo movement abroad, as noose tightens
Note: This article originally appeared on OpenFile Montreal, to which this blog post linked for the full text. Since September 2012 OpenFile’s website has been “on hiatus” and the news organization shut down due to financial insolvency. Therefore, the full text of article is now posted below.
By day, then by night, they came out en masse to protest the cost of education. Months of protests only ended in increasingly violent episodes by the police baton, if not by the student’s stone, peppering a political landscape dominated by the student movement.
No, this isn’t Quebec. It’s the streets of Chile and the massive student uprising that has overtaken the country for close to a year now.
“The mobilization has been quite similar, but of course the tension at protests in Quebec has been toned down compared to Chile,” said José del Pozo, a Chilean native and professor of Latin American history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). “Social conditions and historical and cultural factors in Chile mean that there is a greater degree of aggression towards the carabineros.”
And of course, in Quebec, there are no water cannons.
Still, in both places, marches brightened by costumes, sticky slogans and a festive air have given way to tear gas, broken glass and projectiles, as tens of thousands of students have flooded the streets in the biggest upheaval seen in decades.
This week the parallels multiplied as legislation to stymie protests was introduced Thursday and Quebec’s education minister, Line Beauchamp, resigned. Chile has pushed forward a proposed law that would impose severe penalties for public assembly and has already seen two education ministers expire in the heat of boiling student tensions, with corresponding cabinet shake-ups.
The pressure, however, hasn’t knocked Quebec’s three main student groups off balance. In Chile, “they had to build the unity of the movement to be able to go into the streets united and strong against the government,” said Marianne Breton Fontaine, a student at UQÀM who also believes unity has been “decisive” in Quebec because of the sheer number and diversity of student associations.
Breton Fontaine, a member of the Communist Youth League, had followed the Chilean crisis, but got to meet a central player when Camilo Ballesteros, one of the movement’s three original leaders, came to Montreal as part of a cross-country tour.
Ballesteros spoke to a group of over 100 students and members of the public at UQÀM about the origins of the Chilean movement and what they seek. “We demand free, accessible and quality education,” he told Breton Fontaine in an interview.
CLASSE, called the most radical of the student groups in Quebec, has also proposed moving towards free post-secondary schooling.
Ballesteros conceded that free university in Chile is not immediately possible, but that students want broader change in how public money is managed, insisting that Chile’s natural resource revenue must more widely benefit society.
Though, as Del Pozo argued, both movements’ demands are mainly economic, Chileans are facing tuition fees that shackle families with debt.
“In Chile tuition fees are triple what they are in Quebec and that’s in absolute terms,” stressed Del Pozo. Part of the problem is the privatization of Chile’s education system brought about by reforms introduced during the Pinochet dictatorship in 1981. Students argue this has made education a lucrative business. And with Chile’s gross domestic product (GDP) per person pegged as the lowest of the OECD countries, high tuition is salt in a large wound.
UQÀM masters student Simon Morin has written about the Chilean conflict in his political science studies. “We can’t understand what’s happening in Quebec without also looking elsewhere,” he said.
Like Jean Charest in Quebec, Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera has held a hard line. Concessions made to students this week and in April failed to inspire Chile’s students.
Public support, however, has not been comparable. Chile’s students have consistently held the support of a large majority of Chileans, whereas support in Quebec opinion polls has dropped after hovering near 50 per cent at the outset.
Public disturbances and clashes with police have not helped. Ballesteros has publicly denounced disturbances which seem to favour the student movement. Gabriel Nadeau Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, has seemed unwilling to do so.
And where has it all led in Chile? President Piñera’s approval rating hit record lows and stands at 24 per cent as of April with an election coming in 2013 and education the hottest issue among Chileans.
If their latest public plea is any indication, Quebec students want to negotiate. “Students want to participate in defining the solution, the conditions of the return to class and the management of university funds,” said Morin.
“In short, they want to participate in the society in which they hold a stake and the situation is very similar in Chile.”
Photo: Luis Fernando Arellano — Student march May 16, 2012, Santiago, Chile – High school and university students march, demanding free, public, secular and quality education.