June 12, 2012

Students and feminists rise up in the Quebec student strike

Marianne Breton Fontaine

At the beginning of the Quebec student strike, the movement did not merely demand increased accessibility through a reduction in tuition fees.   There was, from the outset, a principled opposition to the policies of user fees and privatization.   But there is also a direction to this movement which is profoundly anti-oppressive and pro-feminist.

Afterall, in practice the increase in tuition fees would affect women, and especially working class women, more severely than most other sections of society. Now, the student struggle in itself has become an platform to promote feminist debate.

Sale hausse sexiste

As we have mentioned before, the increase in tuition will affect women severely on women, and marginalized populations, because women are still poorer than men.

According to Statistics Canada, women earn on average only 83% of the hourly rate of men. With the 75% increase in tuition fees, women will work harder than men to pay the same fees and longer to pay the same debt. On the other hand, access to education is a path that inevitably allows women to access the public sphere beyond the home, to participate fully in civic life, and to improve their living conditions in practice.   The increase in fees is, to borrow a slogan from the students, Sale hausse sexiste or a dirty, sexist increase.
Feminist groups who join the movement

Many women`s groups have enthusiastically joined voices with the students. Groups such as the Help Center which fights against sexual assault; the Quebec Committee of the World March of Women (which itself brings together fifty feminist groups who organize an annual march for women`s rights in Quebec and globally); the Young RebElles; the Shelter for Abused Women and Women in Difficulty and well-known the Federation des femmes du Québec.

Moreover, during the second conference of the Estates General of feminist activists and researchers, the feminist movement also took a position supporting the fight against rising student tuition, and by opposing   privatization of public services in general.   In short, all over Quebec, women's groups have supported not only the student strike but also its broader claims.

Long live the struggle! Down with stereotypes!

Several feminist groups came on board in the student movement in the street. The CLASSE also made it a point of honor to talk about the feminist perspective in the student strike in its conferences, workshops and popular education. The struggle for rising tuition combined with the fight against patriarchy has also given birth to the maNUfestation at the Grande Prix of Montreal – the now famous demonstrations of naked youth (nu is naked in French) that has caught the attention of tourists and the media internationally.

The first manifestation of naked youth was made in a spirit of derision: Charest wants to put us naked in the street with his rising tuition! And, in a re-mix of that famous Communist Manifesto quote ``Unite, we have nothing to lose but our clothes``!

But after derogatory comments of a journalist at English-language Gazette newspaper, Anne Sutherland, this action has taken quite a different character.

Sutherland published photographs of partially nude protesters over the Gazette blog and twitter, commenting on the protestors bodies -- they were just too hairy, too fat, unattractive, unworthy to pose in Playboy and she even mockingly asked them to get dressed because they were too ugly and yucky.

The reactions were very fast. Sutherland and her employer quickly issued a public apology.  This reopened the debate about the cult of the body and the distorted image that advertising and the media give us.
Then came the Montreal Grand Prix. This event generates economic benefits especially for luxury hotels, `pimps` and strip clubs, and economic lobbies close to the government.

What's more macho than sexualized young women, presented as objects on the arm of a rich men with his big racing car?  The event, sexist and elitist and very expensive, has nothing really to do with most people and was perfect for another naked protest.

So again the students chanted, Down with stereotypes! As the call to the protest declaired: "By getting rid of our clothes, we reject the social pressure and ideology imposed on us by the consumer society [...] Our goal is to raise awareness of the Grand Prix which presents itself as a charitable and positive spectacle. Yet behind the shiny cars, the intoxicating speed and the presentation of women in eroticized ways, hide values that are sexist, not environmentally sustainable, elitist and for-profit. "

Violence and  repression

In another example of women’s struggle, on April 27 the CLASSE and various women's groups called for a pro-feminist protest against rising tuition fees in front of the Quebec National Assembly.   About 150 people gathered in afternoon. The crowd was diverse, with pro-feminist women, students, teachers, young and old.

There were strollers and walkers. Everything was calm.

Nevertheless, the Quebec police decided to aggressively break the demonstration. The result was over 80 arrests, detentions and stiff fines under the high way code.   The police justified its excessive muscle power by saying that the event did not follow the route that the police demanded.

Providing your protest route (eight hours in advance and with all the transportation used and other details) and submitting to any changes or redirections is now the law under Bill 78. However, this attack took place before the bill had even been drafted.

As the arrests took place, the protestors in the street and onlookers were scandalized.   The protestors did not understand what was happening – everything was fine until police suddenly blocked the Grande Allée, the main street in front of the Parliament and trapped the protest.

This is another example of the mass arrests so criticized by Human Rights Groups like Amnesty International.
Rather than ticketing them on the spot, the 81 people arrested had to wait almost 2 hours in the cold before being processed by the police. Detained on the grass before being shuttled on a public bus to the central police station, they became a spectacle for the corporate media. After another hour of waiting, they finally received a fine of almost $500.

The offense that justified all this repression? Walking down the street, or obstructing police officers - that is to say protesting.   Many wondered if this political repression was to scare away social movements, including the feminist movement, from joining the students on the street. Do we see again here that the police forces have a totally anti-women approach to law enforcement?

The ploy of bullying, however, hasn’t worked. More pro-feminist events have been held and more women have joined the movement. But what worries the movement now is that not only do the police seem to target certain student protests and feminist  groups, but so does the extreme right also.

For example, on neo-fascists website, we see among other direct violent intimidation against young rebels who join in Quebec student demonstrations, forming contingents of young women. Some activists are photographed, identified and put up on the web for intimidation by these ultra-right forces. The new third co-spokesperson for the CLASSE, Camille Robert, radical feminist, was personally targeted on these web sites. Clearly, the joint work of feminists and young women with students deeply troubles the right-wing and the ruling class.

Marianne Breton Fontaine is the editor of 
Jeunesse Militante,
 the magazine of the Young Communist League of Quebec, and a member of the Central Executive of the Young Communist League of Canada.

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