The Maple Spring

As politicians and media pundits emphasised an imagined dichotomy between “honest taxpayers” and “egoist students”, the movement sought to express solidarity with struggles outside the scope of the education system. Through its public appearances, CLASSE began to more explicitly frame the conflict as part of a broader struggle against neoliberalism. The slogan “The students are on strike, but the people are in struggle” was used on banners and publications and the expression “Maple Spring”, a play on words tying our struggle to the “Arab Spring”, came into use. Although several attempts were made to break the limits of the student strike and generalize the struggle, for example by organizing joint demonstrations with workers on strike, this proved very difficult.

The unfolding of two events, which occurred at the end of April seemed to reveal some success, however. The first was a government convention to promote Plan Nord, a plan to exploit natural resources in northern Quebec, and the second was the Earth Day rally. While unconnected to the student strike, the context in which they took place produced unexpected effects.

On April 20th, CLASSE organized a demonstration to disrupt the Plan Nord convention in Montreal. Though the government plan was heavily criticized by ecologist and native groups, CLASSE’s primary intent wasn’t an ecological one. Rather, it was an opportunity for action, like many others before it, aimed at disrupting business as usual and putting more pressure on the government. After entering the convention building, a few dozen demonstrators were confronted by riot police guarding the entrance to the hall and were violently evicted. As they rejoined other demonstrators outside, comprised mainly of students, worker’s unions, and native groups, the police attacked the crowd with tear gas. For the next few hours, police and protesters battled it out on the usually dull downtown streets. The prime minister was embarrassed and the protests raised awareness about Plan Nord, which suddenly became a controversial issue for students. In a way, CLASSE became environmentalist by association.

Two days later, on April 22nd, an Earth Day march took place, also in Montreal. It’s estimated that over 200,000 thousand people took part, and judging from the chants and placards, a huge number of students also participated. Several previously isolated issues like the environment, native rights and the right to education seemed to converge and all become part of the movement.

In many ways, the 2012 student strike was breaking new ground. All the government’s attempts to contain or break the strike proved ineffective: settlement offers, playing student unions against one another, injunctions, heavy-handed policing, etc. As massive nightly demonstrations happening on a daily basis gathered thousands, tens of thousands even, police were unable to keep order on the streets. The usual dispersal tactics were incapable of ending these rowdy protests, as people kept on regrouping even as riot squads charged the dense crowds. Provincial police in riot gear and surveillance helicopters were brought in and became a common sight in Montreal for days. The government appeared to be in total loss of control in the face of the movement.