Thursday, February 19, 2004

Dodging Paint-filled Eggs near the Ice Castle

On Tuesday, February 17th, I was sitting on a bus at Concordia University in downtown Montreal. As far as I knew, this was a shuttle bus that would carry me to Loyola Campus where the Journalism department was waiting for my application with their pens set to "stun". The bus was close to full before someone at the front shouted out "This bus is going to Quebec City, not Loyola!". Immediately, half of the bus fled the scene. A couple of CSU members (Con. Student Union) were visibly disappointed.

I stayed on the bus, and within minutes, we were en route to Quebec, the oldest walled city in North America and capitol of our fine province.

You might ask yourself why we were going to protest? Currently, Quebec students enjoy the lowest tuition in Canada, thanks to our frequent injections of cash by our previous Parti-Quebecois governments. For a Quebec citizen, it costs approximately $ 2637.40 to study at Concordia while McGill charges $ 2726.00 per year (approx., including tuition and student fees). Students from other provinces haven't fared so lucky--a year at Queen's in Ontario will set you back a frightening $ 4932.00!

Quebec universities are currently negotiating with the Charest Liberal government. They are complaining that we Quebecers are getting a free ride with our non-life-threatening tuition costs. Heather Monroe-Blum, Principal and Vice Chancellor of McGill University, summed up this attitude in her piece that was published in the Montreal Gazette.

"For Quebec, as a first step, we must set a goal to raise our level of funding of the university system to at least the Canadian average. In the medium to longer term, we should aim to be the Canadian leader."
Not only does she seek to raise tuition in the near future--she wants Quebecers to pay the most, a dubious proposal in the very least! The problem with this type of thinking is obvious, at least to me--it will mean that even fewer Quebecers will have access to a university education and the only ones that will profit will be the Universities themselves. They will be able to reinforce their ivory tower even further, maybe give their administration a raise, and hopefully somehow reduce average class sizes and improve the quality of the education that they provide.

University education is often the stepping stone to a career and we shouldn't punish Quebec students just because the rest of the country doesn't value affordable education! In fact, we should push the government to invest in universities at a federal level, so that everyone can enjoy university if they so choose. (Plus, for the conservatives, every university graduate that gets a good job will be paying 40 percent income tax, so it is good for the government to support higher education).

We arrived at what appeared to be the Université du Québec and began marching towards the capitol buildings. A friendly policeman who had been notified of our peaceful protest was assisting us in disrupting traffic, driving in front of our group and waving motorists to side streets. As we marched, some of the various factions began to make themselves heard. A couple of guys with black scarves over their mouths were carrying anarchist flags. They were walking nearly on the sidewalk because they couldn't accept walking behind the leader of the march, a dynamic Quebecois student wearing a Palestinian shawl around his neck in support of their distant cause.

There were also members of the Quebec Communist Party, waving the red hammer and sickle flag. Their chants of "Gauche, gauche, extreme gauche!" elicited laughs from much of the crowd since most of us aren't seeking to overthrow the government or to bring in a corrupt totalitarian regime like the USSR (whose flag they were waving proudly). The majority of us were just regular students from Quebec universities who are politically active and who want our government to value higher education.

En route, we passed through a CEGEP chanting, "Dans La Rue, Avec Nous!" ("Join us, on the street!") in an attempt to attract more protesters to our cause. Most of them just gawked at us, perhaps being too young to fear university costs (CEGEP tuition is about $175 per year, so their wallet hasn't been stung as of yet). Before long, I was at the front of the march, carrying a black banner that read (translated) "Education is not for sale! Lower tuition costs, don't raise them!"

The banner had been passed off to me by a disappointed protester who disappeared into the crowd. He had been complaining that his arm was getting tired so I grabbed one side and gave the other to a girl who had been standing nearby. She was nice enough to carry the banner with me until the protest was over.

When we arrived at the capitol building, the police were already waiting for us. They were lined up behind a metal barricade that had been lashed together with wire. They were in full riot gear, obviously intimidated by our signs and banners. The front line of police were not wearing gas masks but they had full shields and face masks. Behind them stood several journalists and other police, one wielding a video camera and filming us, others holding tear gas rifles and waiting for a sign from their captain.

At first, we just stood there, shouting various anti-Charest slogans and also a particularly embarassing "Un flic de moins, deux profs de plus!" ("One less cop, two more teachers!"). When the protesters realized that this is how the protest would end, us standing in front of the building but unable to speak to anyone from the government or to make our opinions heard, some of them began to practice some civil disobedience. Two of them had already ripped down a flagpole and were striking the barricade with the Quebec flag, a few feet away from the police line. Others were tossing snowballs at the cops, striking them in the head or in the shield. I turned around after each volley and shouted obscenities at the crowd.

"What do you think this is, the "Guerre des Tuques"? I asked, hoping to appeal to their sense of humour. "La Guerre des Tuques" is a Quebecois movie from the 80's that depicted children tossing snowballs at each other and manning elaborate snow forts. My efforts did nothing to halt the snowballs completely and this was mob rule. Before long, the anarchists and a couple of NoFx fans were throwing paint-filled eggs at the police. Although the officers were getting visibly annoyed through their masks, I must admit that they didn't make a move until the anarchists began to shake the barricade and attempt to cross the police line.

That is when the firing began. My eyes, nose, and lungs were stinging from the tear gas. The police were advancing and the leader of the protest was screaming out "Don't Panic!" Everyone retreated from the front of the capitol buildings and the protest soon dissolved.

Upon returning to Montreal, I went with a couple of Concordians to a small Lebanese restaurant across from the Cock 'n Bull Pub on St. Catherine Street, not far from Guy-Concordia Metro. I ingested my shish-taouk plate as fast as humanly possible before crossing the street to the Cock 'n Bull for a pint or two. I figured I could use a drink, at least to get the tear gas taste out of my mouth.

As I sat at a table in the back of the bar and read George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia", I wondered if we had made a difference. Orwell was kind enough to provide me with a source of hope: "I believe that it is better even from the point of view of survival to fight and be conquered than to surrender without fighting." Even if our cause doesn't succeed, at least we didn't just sit there and play X-Box in our den as our education system became more inaccessible to future generations. Let's hope that we don't follow in the footsteps of our American cousins, with their $10,000 per year "State schools" that keep out thousands of willing students just because their parents live in a trailer.

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