On March 22, Montreal had almost 200,000 people protesting in solidarity with students in Québec who are facing big tuition increases at the hands of the Charest Liberal government.
There hasn’t been a protest of this size in Canada since a quarter million marched in Montreal against the Iraq War in 2003.
Some have taken to calling the movement supporting Québec students le printemps érable, or Maple Spring (in French it doubles as a clever word play on Arab Spring).
Opponents of the student protests note that they have the lowest tuition fees in Canada; they see this as ungrateful. But I think they have the right idea: at the first sign of attack, you push back hard and you don’t give an inch.
This makes me lament the lack of a big fight against our own Liberal government. Actually, the Liberal government in Québec has a lot in common with the B.C. Liberal government.
Pursuing a hard right neoliberal agenda, with occasional moves closer to the political centre, both are ‘Liberal’ parties in name only. In fact, they are pro-corporate coalitions of liberals and conservatives.
When it comes to how much these governments have harmed students, labour and the environment, the balance sheet is worse in B.C. Partly because in 2001 when the Liberals were led by Gordon Campbell, they enjoyed free reign in the first couple years of their mandate, since the opposition NDP had been reduced to just two MLAs. Although to a certain degree, we have ourselves to blame, in that we were not able to fight back as ferociously as they have in Québec.
However, there have been some impressive mobilizations. In early 2002 there were rallies of tens of thousands in both Vancouver and Victoria against government attacks on the labour movement. In 2004, there was a labour and community pushback against the cuts and privatization targeting the Hospital Employees Union (HEU). And a spirited – and ‘illegal’ – teachers strike in 2005 made a small dent in the Liberal agenda.
But the past half-decade has shown little in the way of popular mobilization against the provincial government. It pains me to say that in some sectors a sauve qui peut attitude took hold, and unity broke down.
One shameful example is the Nurses Union. They engaged in raiding their union brothers and sisters in the already wounded HEU. So, it was that labour organizations that should have been organizing a united fight back were instead engaged in internecine battle.
During these years of quiet on the streets, the Liberal government declined in public opinion. The HST debacle, among other factors, finished off Gordon Campbell and, picking up the pieces, Christy Clark has disappointed her backers, and proven unable to significantly turn around her party’s popularity.
So, there’s hope for us yet, B.C. For one thing, the Liberal government is fraying badly, and there are signs that key players are looking to abandon Clark’s ship. Just last week Abbotsford MLA John van Dongen ditched the Liberals for the Conservatives in the legislature. More may soon follow him across the floor.
But these are just opportunistic politicians fleeing a sinking ship. Without a renewal of mobilization by social movements and civil society, it is doubtful that much of the regressive legacy of 12 years of Liberal government will be reversed, if and when, they are finally removed from power.
Thankfully, there is some hope on this front too and, like in Québec, a lot of it is coming from students. With B.C. teachers facing massive fines if they go on strike, some of their students have stepped up to support them.
On March 2, thousands of students walked out of classes across the province in support of their teachers. Although the numbers were smaller, the spirited tone hinted at the power of youth and the student protest that manifested on the streets of Montreal.
The optimism and confidence of the brand new activists was evident. It makes sense, since the new generation has not suffered through the demoralizing defeats of the past decade.
We may not get anything quite like the Maple Spring here in B.C., but political change is coming to the province. I’m thinking the kids are going to lead the way.