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Transcript of Red Square
by Elvira Parent
December 2012 In 2005, the red square was adopted by students, as a small piece of red felt pinned to shirts, jackets, and backpacks. It was worn in response to proposed cuts to the loans and bursaries programs for post-secondary education. Students responded by going on strike that year. The red square, however, grew in popularity and entered mainstream media and political discourses during the 2012 student strike against a proposed tuition hike of 75% (or 1625$CAD) over 5 years. Message: The 6 month long student strike in Quebec involved, at some moments as many as 300,000 students boycotting classes and 200,000 people at national demonstrations. This was the longest and largest student strike in Canadian history - and the largest demonstration since the demonstration against the war in Iraq in 2003. The message was clear. Student associations and allies called for a cancellation of the tuition increase, while some went as far as to demand free education within the next 5 years. Until these demands were met, students participating in the strike would not attend classes, or complete assignments. They would picket classes and hold daily protests. Decisions about whether to renew the strike would be made every week in general assemblies. The red square represented participation and/or solidarity with students on strike. Read literally, it mean that students were Carrément (squarely) dans le rouge (in the red) - an expression that works better in French than English. The largest students association during the strike was the Coalition Large pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante. CLASSE made it clear that the student movement was connected to other social movements. Their manifesto spoke about the "moment of great clashes" to describe reactions to the global financial crisis and the austerity measures of governments across the world (CLASSE Manifesto). They outlined the many problems that the youth of this generation were facing - and examples of how they fought against it - from the uprisings in Egypt to the Occupy Movement in the United States. In this way, the movement attempted to extent beyond it's borders, in solidarity with students across the world.
"The initial student strike grew into a people’s struggle, while the problem of tuition fees opened the door to a much deeper malaise – we now face a political problem that truly affects us all. To find its remedy and give substance to our vision, let us cast our minds back to the root of the problem" (CLASSE Manifesto)
In a Manifesto by the leading student association, a connection is drawn between the problems our education system was facing and wider economic issues: "The economic crisis also has strong impact on education. Regardless of the disparity within each country, imperialism has launched an offensive on its quality and affordability at all levels of public education. Year after year governments cut education budgets, making it clear that for them education is not a priority. The consequences are precarious infrastructure and buildings, lack of teachers and professors, unqualified education workers, lack of student financial aid, etc." (CLASSE Manifesto, May 2012) CONTEXT
The issue of identity in Quebec is a loaded one. The province has been struggling to maintain its francophone cultural identity and language in the dominant English-Canada and the "homogenizing force of the market" (Lukacs 2012). I grew up in Montreal at the peak of this identity struggle - when a referendum was held about whether Quebec should separate from the rest of Canada. As a child with an anglophone father and a francophone mother, I have always been sensitive to both sides of the debate. However, I have also recently become aware of how nationalist discussions in the province ignored the concerns of First Nations and adopted an often xenophobic approach to dealing with immigrants and anglophones. Therefore, I had always felt a little uncomfortable with my identity as a Quebecoise, or a French-Canadian. CONTEXT cont'd
However, during the Spring of 2012, while I was going to an English-speaking University in Montréal, I learned that being Québecois could mean something different from language, culture, religion and ethnicity. I started to learn more about the events and values that shaped the Quebec I knew today. The 1960s in Quebec was a period of change named the Quiet Revolution. It included the secularization of society and the creation of a welfare state. Until the Quiet Revolution, higher education was only for a small minority of french-speaking people. The promise of the Revolution was free post-secondary education for all. The new society was to consider education a right and not a luxury. Since then however, student associations have resisted to threats to that promise - sometimes by going on strike. The latest, and largest confrontation in the history of the province took place in the form of an unlimited student strike that lasted between February 14th and early September 2012. I have chosen the symbol of the movement for this project. References:
"Share Our Future - The CLASSE Manifesto." Stopthehike.ca. Trans. Tamara Loring. N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.
Davison, Janet. "What Makes Quebec Students 'distinct'?" CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 27 Apr. 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2012/04/26/f-quebec-students-tuition-debate.html?cmp=rss
Lukacs, Martin. "Quebec Student mark 'Maple Spring' in Canada" The Guardian, May 2012.
Messer, Olivia. "Squarely in the Red." The McGill Daily, Mar. 2012. http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2012/03/squarely-in-the-red/ The strike, the strong mobilization, and the demands for free, quality education, as well as taking a concretely feminist, anti-racist (and often anti-capitalist) stance, created a solidarity that I had never seen or felt to that extent before. The time I spent as part of the movement really redefined my identity as a Quebecois(e). I feel that the symbol, rather than a flag, represents my Quebecois identity in a very particular way. My time living in Montréal has allowed me to realize what I could relate to about Quebec society - what I felt that I could claim as my identity. I also felt a strong sense of not being 'like' the other provinces or the rest of the country. It was the first time that I really felt compelled to talk about what it meant for me to be Quebecoise. I found that a common theme in Ethnic Studies was people strongly identifying as a certain identity as a tool for struggle and for change. When a part of their identity or community was threatened, it created a strong sense of solidarity and strengthened that identification with a group or community. Ethnic Studies has really been about community organizing and resistance in the face of racism, colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism (to name a few). To a certain extent, when it was announced that tuition would increase in the province of Quebec (which was the last place to have accessible education in the country), people rallied around their identity - which was more defined by values than by ethnicity or nationality. They pointed out that they were not necessarily like the rest of the country - that the context in Quebec was different and needed to be addressed in a different way. Therefore, the red square is relevant to Ethnic Studies because it is a symbol of social change, but also of community and solidarity.