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Student protests revive debate over Quebec independence

Hundreds of students were arrested in Quebec this week as the protests that have gripped the francophone region for over three months turned violent. As the movement grows, it is breathing life into the contentious issue of independence for Quebec.


When thousands gathered in Montreal this week to commemorate 100 days of student protests events soon turned ugly.

As the day wore on, demonstrators began hurling rocks at riot police who in return charged at protesters. Hundreds were arrested.

Despite the best efforts of Quebec Premier Jean Charest to quell the ongoing unrest, it was clear the movement was gaining momentum.

What had started as a minority student protest against a projected 82 percent hike in university tuition fees back in February has escalated into a popular movement, bringing together anti-capitalists and environmentalists under the same umbrella.

The protests, which have been backed by the separatist Quebecois Party (PQ), have also given a much needed boost to the independence movement in the predominantly French speaking region.

‘Winning conditions’

The debate over sovereignty for Quebec had receded in recent years after the 1980 and 1995 referendums ended in defeat for the separatists.

But some believe the protests, and in particular Charest’s bungled crackdown, could rekindle the longstanding issue – and even force a third vote.

“One consequence is the rest of Canada, which might have been spared a third round of national-unity wrangling, is now back on track for more of the same,” Michael Den Tandt wrote in a provocative column for Post Media News.

Den Tandt points the finger of blame firmly at the feet of Charest, who heads the non-separatist Liberal Party.

In a desperate bid to end the protests, Charest introduced a controversial law known as Bill 78, which restricted the right to protest. Demonstrators are now required to seek prior police approval before they take to the streets.

The draconian law, which has been dubbed ‘bludgeon bill’ because of the expected violent police crackdown, was deemed a step too far by many Quebecois and merely increased the ill-feeling towards Charest.

A poll released on Tuesday by the Journal de Montreal found an 18 percent shift in favour of the students, compared to a poll taken 10 days previously.

Charest faces an election next year, and while his and his party’s popularity nose dives, the chances of the separatist PQ gaining power increase with every passing day.

The imminent release of a report into corruption in the construction industry could be the nail in his coffin.

With the PQ in government Den Tandt believes the famous ‘winning conditions’ – the circumstances which would provoke Quebecois to seek independence – will be in place.

“It seems the Quebecois may at long last realise their dream of full independence within a united Canada,” he said.

Although the PQ has been firmly behind the students, some believe they have failed to take advantage of the unrest and promote pro-independence feeling.

Federal government silent

In a sign of how delicate the matter is, Canada’s federal government in Ottawa has remained conspicuously silent, despite the protests grabbing increasingly international attention.

Most politicians have kept their lips firmly sealed, wary of appearing to interfere in provincial politics and stoking the fires of separatist sentiment.

With education and university fees being a matter for provincial authorities, the government has had an excuse to stay out of the battle.

“The federal government does not want to add fuel to the fire and turn this into an independence movement,” Gregory Webber, a Quebecois lecturer at the London School of Economics, told FRANCE 24.

Distinct Society

Whether or not the protests will switch to calls for separation from Canada, they have highlighted Quebec’s difference from the rest of the country, a trait often referred to as its ‘distinct society’.

The differences do not just encompass language – there are also major cultural and social divisions. Free education for university students, although long gone, is an ideal that remains enshrined among many in the region, unlike in the rest of North America.

Whereas a rise in fees caused outrage among students in Quebec, even greater hikes in University costs were met with little more than a whimper in other parts of Canada.

Even the press coverage in the country highlighted the divide. Whereas the Francophone press are considered to have reported both sides of the row, the Anglo media have often been harsh on the demonstrators.

In the Globe and Mail, journalist Margaret Wente derogatively described the protesters as “the Greeks of Canada”.

“The Greeks want the Germans to send them more money every day and no matter how much the Germans send they keep asking for more. The students who are protesting are the Greeks of Canada and we do not want them anymore,” she said.

Writing in the Toronto Sun, Megan Harris slammed them as ‘self-righteous’.

But even with the notable division between Quebec and the rest of the country resurfacing, LSE’s Webber does not believe the protests will increase the likelihood of another bid for separation.

“These protests simply highlights the fact that people from Quebec are different from the rest of Canada,” he told FRANCE 24.

“These protests are simply a reflection of a ‘distinct society’ movement rather than a campaign demanding independence for Quebec.”

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