The general American impression of Canada ranges from the pleasant (our genial, polite neighbors to the north – the country upon whose border nobody's all up in arms about building a dividing wall) to the dismissive ("they're not even a real country anyway," hockey, bacon, snow, 'eh,' hoser, aboot, etc.). What we yanks do not often consider is their potential for political turmoil, police brutality and street-clogging throngs fo protestors. Such was the case in the recent (and ongoing) "Maple Spring," which featured the largest political protest in Canadian history back in March – some 300,000 people.
What was all this about? Well, in a country where being in favor of universal health care can get you branded as a traitor, it might seem unthinkable, but it's over tuition fees. Specifically, Quebec Premier Jean Charest's attempts to raise them, thus stoking fears that their socialized education system – Quebec's current base tuition rate is only $2600 per year – is moving towards the whacked out American model, where it's simply expected that we sacrifice our first born child on the seal of whatever university deigned to accept us. As hard as some Americans fight against socialization, Canadians are fighting to keep it.
If you want to learn more about this, you should soon be able to do so in comic book form, which is, of course, the best way to learn about anything. Two of the community organizers, protestors Laura Ellyn and Jane Dough, have started an Indiegogo campaign to try and crowdsource their funding for a graphic novel they're calling En Greve, which "means, quite simply, 'On Strike,'" Ellyn says. "It's a reference to the student strikes that have been happening at schools across the province. We came up with the title after a friend of ours made a banner that said, "Dans La Greve, C'est Un Reve", which means, 'On strike, it's a dream.'" We spoke to Ellyn about the project and got a primer on the Canadian education system to boot – not to mention some preview art from En Greve. Read on, folks, let's learn something, shall we?
Q: Since we're speaking to a primarily American audience which sadly tends to remain unaware of events in Canada that don't involve goalies, can you give us a background of what the "Maple Spring" is, exactly? What were the events leading up to the demonstrations, and are they confined to the Quebec province or have they expanded beyond Canada?
LAURA ELLYN: The "Maple Spring" is the name given by Canadian media to the ongoing student protests in Quebec. Technically, it refers to the demonstrations which started in March – the term was coined after a massive demo on the 22nd of March that consisted of about 300,000 people, the largest protest in Canadian history – but students have been organizing and protesting against tuition increases since at least late 2009. In the past several months, protests have consisted of huge public demonstrations and economic disruption. The Quebec government's response has been increasingly repressive measures, most notably the implementation of a new bill, Loi 78, which restricts peoples' rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and has been publicly condemned by the United Nations.
Since March, the protests have cost the Quebec government millions of dollars in economic disruption alone – countries like the US have issued warnings to people intending to travel to Montreal, police violence has resulted in mounting casualties, and Quebec students are actively working to incite student strikes in English-speaking provinces. It's honestly been pretty shocking to me that there hasn't been more coverage in the States, considering that students in the US generally seem to be even more financially vulnerable than Canadian students are, and a large part of what has mobilized Quebec students has been a resistance to the idea of Canada moving towards a more "Americanized" model of post-secondary education.
Q. Well, we do tend to have a chronic case of myopic self-aborption with respect to the ability to see any other country's perspective. Here in America, tuitions are absolutely insane and put people in debt for much of their adult lives, and while students hate it, the loudest voices tend to crow about the "free market." How does the Canadian education system actually work, and what are the changes being protested against?
ELLYN: In Canada, tuition varies from province to province, and so does student financial aid. Currently, Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country - everyone pays the same "base" tuition rate, which is around $2600 a year. Students coming to study in Quebec from other Canadian provinces pay out-of-province fees on top of their Quebec tuition, and international students pay international fees. Historically, whenever Quebec tuition has gone up, international fees have skyrocketed, making it harder for students from countries like America, where education is more expensive, to get a more affordable education in Canada.
Student loans in Canada are another major difference from the US system; they're managed by the provincial government and student debt is capped, so it's impossible for Canadian students to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In Quebec, your debt is capped at $30,000. The maximum amount of money students get through loans is about 9 grand a year – but for low-income students, there is a grant program that converts a significant percentage of your loan to a government bursary, so on a 9k loan, you may only end up incurring about 3k in debt.
So the plan that the Charest government has proposed is to raise tuition by nearly 80% over the next 5 years, and to raise the debt ceiling for students in order to "compensate" for the increase in tuition. This adds up to a massive tuition and debt increase for Quebec students, but perhaps just as importantly, it would set a troubling precedent for other provinces. Since Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country, other Canadian provinces have had to keep their tuition relatively low as well, in order to compete with Quebec schools. This has obviously been hugely beneficial to Canadian students, and the concern is that if tuition goes up in Quebec, it will go up in other provinces as well – especially in provinces that don't have as strong a student movement as Quebec does, like British Columbia and Alberta. And to add insult to injury, the budget released for the increases shows that only a tiny fraction of the money from the increase will actually go back into colleges and universities – most of it will go straight to the government, and none of it will be used to raise teacher's salaries, improve facilities, or do any of the things that university communities have actually been asking for for years.
I've heard a lot of criticism from American students, that Canadian students shouldn't be complaining because out tuition is already so low – but frankly, I think that it's precisely because our tuition is so low that it's important for Canadians to mobilize to stop it from going up. When people outside of America look at American student debt, it just looks completely horrifying. People in Canada are terrified that we might slowly be moving towards a more American style of post-secondary education. I mean, when you have students with degrees and bright futures literally killing themselves in record numbers over their student loan debts – as they are in America right now - it's time to start looking outside the existing system for alternatives. I suppose I hope that, on some level, the Quebec student movement can be an inspiration to American students, and maybe En Greve can help get the word out.
Q. The term "Maple Spring" brings to mind the similar phrase "Arab Spring" used to describe the multiple popular uprisings against oppressive and brutal dictatorships in the Middle East. Initially, I thought that was a little excessive, comparing this to rebellions against dictatorships, until I realized I was a complete idiot and that the term "spring" wasn't used just because the revolutions began in the springtime – it is actually used to refer to a period of political liberalization – which this certainly seems to be, at least among the student population – and to describe a transition of a political regime to a more democratic one. What sort of change have the ongoing demonstrations affected within the Canadian government, and are they on a provincial level or nationwide? If it's still a work in progress, what are you hoping to achieve?
ELLYN: I've heard comparisons made between the Maple Spring and the Arab Spring, but honestly, I think it's more appropriate to compare it to the Paris Spring of 1968. That was the first general strike in an industrialized country that really succeeded in bringing the country to a standstill. Like the Maple Spring, the Paris Spring began with student demonstrations, in opposition to a conservative government. And like the Paris Spring, in recent months the students of the Maple Spring have been joined by worker's unions. There hasn't been a general strike yet, but I definitely wouldn't rule it out, especially when the new academic year starts in the Fall.
I might get in trouble with some of my fellow organizers for saying this, but I think that at this point, if the momentum from this keeps going, within a couple of years we could completely change the way tuition is handled in Quebec. There are student associations that have decided to go on strike until tuition in Quebec is totally free, like it is in Finland and Germany. That's what I want, anyway. Overall, though, the first priority is to stop the tuition hikes and implement a tuition freeze so that the government can reassess tuition in Quebec and work with student groups towards making education more accessible.
There's kind of a running joke among my friends, that we can all relax "in two or three years, after the revolution." There has definitely been a shift in terms of both local and provincial politics – the Liberals (who have more in common with the Conservative party in America than you'd guess by their name) are losing ground in Quebec, and may be forced to call an election soon. I guess we'll see – what I and a lot of students and organizers are hoping for is a switch to a more progressive, socialized model of not only education, but other social services as well, and a more democratic approach taken to economic development, especially in northern and rural areas of Quebec.
Q: Now that we've got some context for En Greve, let's get into the more personal responses – which I imagine will be a big part of what the final graphic novel turns out to be. What have been the high points and low points of the Maple Spring?
ELLYN: It's really hard to say, because it's just been such an intense thing overall to be a part of. I think for me – and for most people who are demonstrating regularly – the low points have been the mass arrests, and the police violence. Early on, in April, there was a relatively small demonstration at the Lotto Quebec offices, and police hit a student in the face with a flash grenade – he ended up losing an eye. That was pretty awful, and it wasn't even the last time a protester lost an eye as the result of police violence at a demonstration. There's a sense that whenever you go to a demonstration, you don't know what's going to happen, if you'll be attacked or not. I've been clubbed by police while wearing a cheerleader uniform and carrying pom poms, and been stopped by police just for wearing a red square [ed: an icon proponents of the movement wear to symbolize red tape and student debt] on my jacket – It's just a frightening atmosphere.
I think the first time I really felt confident that we could get somewhere with the government was on March 22nd, though. There was a huge demonstration – the biggest in Canadian history, with over 300,000 people. At one point in that demo, I jumped up onto a traffic divider to get a look at the crowd, and you literally couldn't see where it began or ended – it was just this massive stream of people, packing the streets, as far as you could see. That was pretty amazing. I think the community response to Loi 78 has been really amazing, too; we're approaching the 100th consecutive evening demonstration, and every night in various borroughs in Montreal, there are what we call "manif des casseroles", which is when people come out of their houses at 8 pm and just gather in the street, banging on pots and pans from their kitchens. I'd never seen anything like that before – you get all kinds of people at those demos, not just students but kids, families, people walking their dogs, everyone in the neighborhood comes out. It's just really cool.
Q: And this is how you came to know your En Greve collaborator, Jane Dough, right? What's the working relationship like in creating these comic stories?
ELLYN: Jane and I met while demonstrating together – I forget exactly which demo we met at, as they tend to sort of blur together at this point. We're both fine arts students at Concordia, and were both heavily involved in picketing during the strike at our school. I was talking to people about doing strike comics at one point, and Jane approached me and asked if I wanted to put a graphic novel together with her. I said yes right away, which is kind of unusual for me. Neither of us do a lot of collaborative stuff, so it's good to be working with someone with whom we're on the same page politically.
We work fairly autonomously from each other, since the book alternates a lot between our two perspectives and the perspectives of the people we interview. Jane is a lot more careful to disguise herself in her work, whereas I'm kind of just out there in mine – anyone who knows me can instantly tell which stories in the book are mine. But we help each other with the editorial process, reviewing content, and the overall design of the book, so that even though there's a lot of information and a lot of different perspectives, it still feels like a coherent narrative.
Q. Well, if you're intending to put yourself out there with your own perspective in En Greve, what HAS been your personal experience with the whole Maple Spring phenomenon? How has it changed you?
ELLYN: That's a really hard question to answer. My personal experience has been all over the place. I go from being completely exhilarated to being utterly terrified – one minute you're cheering, and the next you're running from police with tear gas in your eyes. It can be really exhausting. It's also changed the way I look at my own education; I'm not as focused on grades as I used to be, and I'm expecting my degree to take a lot longer to finish, but I'm strangely okay with that. I've started to appreciate the process of learning a lot more than I did a year ago, in part because the student strikes have prompted many students like myself to take our educations into our own hands – "out of the classrooms and into the streets," as they say. At the same time, I try to remain critical and not idealize what's going on; there have been a lot of issues with the ways student associations have been organizing, and it's important to recognize and try to learn from them as we move forward.
I'm hesitant to call myself an activist, but ultimately that's what I've been for the past several years – I've done anti-gentrification work, organized around issues of gendered and racilialized violence, etc – I'm not exactly a stranger to demonstrating and community organizing. But this is just a lot bigger than anything I've ever been involved in before. Most of the organizing I've done has been around peoples' immediate and urgent needs; housing, food, safety. This is the first time I've been part of something that feels like it has real, tangible consequences not just for peoples' immediate situations, but for the future of education and politics in Canada.
You want more? Kick in to the En Greve Indiegogo effort, trying to raise enough money to get the book published by September. Give 'em a hand, won't you?