I’m starting to get rather frustrated with the student demonstrations here in Quebec. I’m impressed by their size and determination, I sympathize with their objective to keep university education accessible, and I do think that the police responsive on a tactical level has been unnecessarily violent - so far two students have lost the use of one eye, and another was in critical condition overnight after having their skull fractured (his condition has stabilized and he’s now expected to recover). Amnesty International, Quebec’s Ligue des droits et libertés, and groups of nurses and paramedics have all denounced the police aggression. I understand that while Quebec tuition is among the cheapest in the country, it ought to be given that we have the highest tax rates, and no-one’s proposing to cut those. That’s not what I wanted to rant about, but for more background and a good basic summary of what the students want and why, see this article from the Guardian, written by a journalist involved with the Dominion.
My complaint is that the students have been making poor strategic choices, mostly because they don’t care about popular support. Polls have been showing steadily decreasing sympathy for the student strike (as of last week, at just 32%), and with it steadily increasing support for the Jean Charest’s Liberal government (currently around 31%, or six points above the second-place Parti Québécois). The student movement keeps organizing protests which lose them popular support, such as the riot last Friday in Victoriaville in front of the Liberal Party’s convention. What, exactly, was the point of that, other than demonstrating just how frustrated and angry people are with the current governement? Charest, who is otherwise unpopular, has huge public support for these tuition hikes, and so is on the point of calling an election which he will try to turn into a referendum on this one question, especially since the second place party has placed itself firmly on the side of the students (at least for now – back in 1996 is was them who were raising the rates, so I have my doubts that they’d actually scrap these increases if elected). If there’s an election on this issue and the students lose massively, they will have basically no bargaining power with the government. It would be a total defeat. The only hope would be for all these youth who never vote to actually bother to go to the polls, but even that might not be enough.
All of this brings us to today, when someone let off smoke bombs in four separate metro stations between 7 AM and 9:30 AM, thus paralyzing the entire metro system and causing gridlock throughout the city as extra buses attempted to cope with the load. No-one’s claiming responsibility yet, but this and three similar attacks in the past few months are widely believed to be the work of striking students. What exactly was the point of this? If this was an action meant to support the student strike, I sympathize with their objectives. On an ethical level, no-one was hurt (although several ambulances were delayed in traffic). On a tactical level, no-one’s been arrested from the previous attacks, and the security camera photos released to the public were impossibly grainy, so I would expect that the people responsible will get away again. But on a strategic level, a small group of people managed to piss off every single person in Montreal who tried to get anywhere by car or public transit anytime before 11 AM today, and I doubt this is going to gain the movement any popular support.
I of course realize that no one person is in control of the hundreds of thousands of students on strike, but there are a small group of people who have been placed in a leadership role by those students, and it is entirely within their power to influence the character of these actions and demonstrations. I have yet to see that happen. I believe that if these senseless actions stopped, and if the students instead found more creative and coherent ways to bring their message to the people (what they want, why it’s reasonable, how to achieve it), they would gain the support of the masses. But that’s not happening now, and if this keeps up it’s going to be the death of their cause for the foreseeable future.