By Matthew Leone | June 5 2012
“We are witnessing the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada,” read the Twitter feed in French from the Québec student association CLASSE, which estimated 250,00 people in the streets of Montréal on May 22, the 100th day of student protests against tuition hikes. This time, students joined with black-robed lawyers and citoyens to demonstrate against Bill 78, called “La Loi Matraque,” or “the rule of the truncheon,” by opponents. The law was enacted in response to growing student protests after the provincial Liberal government raised post-secondary tuition fees by C$1,778 over seven years, a 82 per cent increase per student. The“carre rouge,” or red square, taken from the phrase “carrement dans le rouge,” or “squarely in the red,” has inspired actions in solidarity across North America, South America, and Europe.
The National Assembly of Québec rushed through an emergency measure in the early morning hours of May 18 which declared demonstrations of more than 50 people at any location in Québec illegal, unless the dates, times, starting point, and routes of those locations, as well as the duration and any means of transportation, were submitted to and approved by the police. The bill also carries fines of $250 to $125,000 against student associations and unions if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds. Another provision says, “Anyone who helps or induces a person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same offense,” an ambiguity that may allow for arbitrary enforcement in a further challenge to freedom of speech. In Montréal, the city council passed a bill that bans the wearing of masks at public protests. The measures have drawn the concern of two Special Rapporteurs to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Chants of “La loi spéciale, On s’en calisse câlisse” have rung out on the streets: The literal translation is “The special law is in a chalice;” The meaning uses a Québécois swear word to express absurdity. The expression dates back to the 1960’s Quiet Revolution against the Catholic Church, which resisted attempts of the secularization of education at a time when advancement to the university level was only available to the few. Sacred items were used as profanity in protest. In 1969, protests helped lead McGill University to provide courses in French, and to the creation of Université du Québec à Montréal. As this student strike has been called “Maple Spring” with its flavor of casseroles—the clanging of pots and pans—a wider debate has opened discussions ranging from free post-secondary education to the concept of education as a commodity to questioning liberal-democracy aloofness.
In 2009-2011, Iceland had its own “Kitchenware Revolution,” precipitated by a September 2008 leak of internal documents from Kaupthing, the largest bank in Iceland, to WikiLeaks. The documents revealed that the bank’s highest loans, totaling more than €6.4 billion, were given to companies connected to only six clients, four of whom were major shareholders in the Kaupthing. Also revealed was the practice of lending millions to individuals and holding companies so that they could buy shares in Kaupthing itself – effectively propping up its own share price. In October, following months of currency devaluation, with difficulties in refinancing short-term debt, and reports of a possible bank nationalization and high leverage, there was run on deposits in Icelandic banks in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Icelandic singer and activist Hördur Torfason then took to a stage.
“The first Saturday of the demonstrations I just stood out on Austurvöllur with an open microphone and invited people to speak,” Torfason told The Iceland Weather Report. “I felt that my human rights were being violated, in that a few people could bankrupt my country in this way and put me and my fellow citizens into such massive debt.” Uncomfortable being the one person responsible for the demonstrations that took place each Saturday, and with the constant effort of keeping away groups that wanted to infiltrate the movement, the unfocused anger finally took shape into demands:
Ríkisstjórnina burt! (away with the government!)
Stjórn seðlabankans burt! (away with the central bank’s board!)
Stjórn fjármálaeftirlitsins burt! (away with the board of the financial supervisory authority!)
Kosningar eins fljótt og auðið er! (elections asap!)
In January 2009, protests intensified into clashes with riot police. Early parliamentary elections were announced, but protests continued. On February 1, the Social Democratic Alliance formed a new government, and elections took place in April. The center-left ruling party made gains along with the Left-Green Movement, at the expense of center-right Independence Party, which had been in power for 18 years.
In November 2010, Iceland moved forward in a unique experiment in direct democracy: 25 people among 523 candidates, all given equal airtime on Icelandic radio to make their platforms known—but not running as a member of a political party—were elected to a Constitutional Assembly. The assembly drew on material from a previous project, the National Forum. Over 1,000 randomly chosen Icelanders, and members of businesses and other groups—aged 18-89 and representing all six of the nation’s constituencis—offered their views on what should be in the constitution. The forum was organized by groups of grassroots-citizen think tanks. In July 2011, the Constitutional Council presented its revisions to Parliament, a produced with the involvement of online crowdsourcing.
The Chapter on Human Rights, which now includes nature, says that the people of Iceland own resources, not under private ownership, collectively and eternally. A new article is introduced providing that authorities should inform the public about the state of the environment and nature and the effect of land development on it. The changes, including a separation of church and state—abolishing The Church of Iceland—will be put to a vote by October of this year. The election was not without snags: The Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the election, but Parliament decided that the problem was in procedure, not outcome. The proposed constitution seeks to increase the separation of powers, possibly avoiding confusion of which the much of the world may only be aware of in a high-pitched Björk video, like “Declare Independence.”
Last year, Icelandic voters again voted down a referendum on government-approved deals to repay the UK and the Netherlands for their citizens’ deposits; The UK and the Netherlands have said that they will take the matter to court. The vote stalled installments for a $4.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, and the British and Dutch governments have said that they will vote against Iceland’s bid to join the European Union until the matter is resolved. May Icelanders continue to believe that they should not have to pay for the mistakes of their banking elite, making a choice in contrast to Ireland, which voted to accept austerity measures.
In June 2011, Torfason, who first held that one-man protest, visited camp-outs in Madrid, Barcelona, and Palma de Mallorca, Spain. In response to a question from the audience during one visit, Torfason noted that no claims had yet emerged from 15-M in Spain. “How can you speak to politicians even though you don’t like them?” he asked. “They are people we put to work for us.” He advised making a few clear claims and developing more when these are achieved. 15-M, or May 15, 2011, refers to the beginning of the protests in Spain, sparked by groups such as ¡Democracia Real YA! (Real Demoncracy Now!), called under the motto “no somos mercancías en manos de los políticos y banqueros” (“we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers“), iand nspired by the Time for Outrage by Stéphane Hessel, a French diplomat, member of the French Resistance, and concentration camp survivor. One of the names given to the 2011 Spanish protests was Los Indignados (The Outraged), taken from the title of the book’s translation, (¡Indignaos!). Hessel calls for non-violent action and for a peaceful uprising against the powers of finance capitalism. On October 15, 2011, the date marking the sixth month anniversary of the demonstrations, Los Indignados and the Occupy Wall Street movement saw international coordination.
Iceland—where about two-thirds of its population of approximately 300,000 live in Reykjavík or its surrounding area—is different from the decentralized population of approximately 46 million in Spain, let alone the United States, and second-largest country in the world—geographically—Canada. However, Maple Spring, organized largely through university settings converging on urban centers, has mustered the numbers of demonstrators needed to defy anti-protest laws after coalescing around the issue of education. And Bill 78 gave the demonstrations a sense of urgency in defending civil liberties. Successful consistent turnouts then opened a discussion to a wide range of issues in Canada’s rapid political climate change. As it becomes difficult to pin down which group is taking what action, it becomes more difficult for the state to manage them. Students have gained sympathy from Canadians who may not agree with their demands, but have been appalled by the handling of street protest, involving police brutality—one student lost the use of an eye—sometimes in response to confrontations, and sometimes seemingly random: patrons sitting at the patio of a bar not involved in a protest were pepper-sprayed by riot police after a chair was apparently thrown at an officer. The bar owner produced the canister of a stun grenade he says that was thrown by police.
“We will maintain and expand the strike not only because of the future inaccessibility of post-secondary education the tuition hikes ensure, but also because of the ways in which the government’s ‘fair and balanced’ funding plan will fundamentally change the spaces we inhabit, and the knowledge we are able to explore and articulate,” writes Ultimatum, the newspaper of La Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE). “The privatization and commodification of education, the forced ‘profitability’ of all academics, the military research, the administrative bureaucracy’s centralized control…we oppose it all. And it is the ability to make such connections and oppose the broader agenda behind tuition hikes that ultimately sustains our collective strength and power.” The issue, according to CLASSE, is not merely the cost of college—for which protestors have been chided, as tuition in Québec is quite low compared to US standards, and lower than in other Canadian provinces—and the debt that still ensues, but an educational ideology increasingly influenced by the private sector.
In the media, protesting students have faced scorn, as demonstrated by the cover of the national-Canadian magazine MaClean’s: a photo of a masked protestor with title “Quebec’s New Ruling Class.” “For the last month, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Montreal in what might be described as a schizophrenic display of righteous, pacifist outrage and opportunistic violence,” writes Martin Patriquin. “When violence happens, and it often does, police often have little choice but to tolerate it; the sheer number of people on the street don’t allow for anything else.” There is also disagreement among student groups. The outgoing president of Quebec’s College Student Federation (FECQ), Leo Bureau-Blouin, said that students are “ready for a compromise” on tuition fees on CBC Radio. CLASSE has not made such an opening.
“Many commentators have criticized the lack of respect by the student movement for court rulings and laws voted by the National Assembly; it is indeed a concern,” Jacques Godbout, of Quebec’s L’actualité, told the CBC. “But I would argue that the legitimacy of these legal actions is undermined by the clash they cause with a long tradition of consensual politics in Quebec.” As Montréal “tends to be closer to left-wing than right-wing thinking,” as Godbout says, the student protests reflect a fast-changing political climate in Canada. Our polite, friendly-neighbor with public-health care has moved sharply to the right as its political center has moved to the West, and to the right, as the nation emerges on a geopolitical stage as an energy empire.
“All of Canada’s #StudentDebt could be wiped out for less than the cost of her F-35 Fighter Jets,” tweeted Occupy Wall Street in support of Québec and #ggi, which stands for “grève générale illimitée” (unlimited general strike). The F-35 fighter has long been streaking a path across Parliament.
Canada’s Auditor General sent Conservatives scrambling for political cover with a report released in April: The cost of 65 F-35 Lightning II “fifth generation” stealth fighters—manufactured by Lockheed Martin and developed by nine nations as part of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program—was underestimated by about $10 billion. The Department of National Defense (DND) had estimated $25 billion. The report also said that the F-35, Prime Minster Steven Harper’s government’s jewel in the crown for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), was selected to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets without a “fair competition” and a proper assessment of RCAF needs. Spending is now frozen on the fighter, and opposition MPs are asking whether the government has something to hide. On May 29, a Conservative motion to wrap up the public accounts committee’s investigation into the purchase was introduced during a closed-door meeting of the Commons public accounts committee.
Back on March 25, 2011, the F-35 debate climaxed in a political sonic boom. For the first time in the history of Canada, and all the Commonwealth of Nations, a government fell on charges of contempt of Parliament. A House of Commons committee ruled that the Harper government failed to produce requested documents, or an explanation for withholding them, on the cost details of the F-35, crime legislation, and corporate tax cuts; This impeded Members of Parliament from carrying out their duties, and thereby constituted contempt. The House then voted 156-145 to pass a vote of no confidence, triggering the dissolution of Parliament, and new elections—with surprising results.
The April report of Auditor General may have vindicated Liberals who requested cost details, but it came too late in last year’s election. The once-dominant party lost 43 of their 47 seats. The Conservative Party picked up 23 seats, a total of 165 out of 308, to form a majority government. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 67 seats to hold a total of 108 to become the Official Opposition, another first in Canadian history.
Why does Canada need 65 F-35 super-stealth fighters? The single-engine aircraft, more vulnerable in extreme conditions, still needs to be equipped with satellite communications for the Arctic. Why does Canada need jet fighters in the Arctic? In February, Mr. Harper visited Iqaluit, Nunavut, to announce funding to improve literacy and job skills for aboriginal adults who did not finish high school. High Arctic relocation of Inuit took place in the 1950s for what the government said was humanitarian reasons, and native peoples said was a forced relocation to solidify Canadian claims of sovereignty in the Arctic. First Nations communities have been plagued by low graduation rates, sexual abuse, and most recently, OxyContin addiction. First Nations and Inuit communities have asked the federal government for equal funding, more control, and better infrastructure in an attempt to improve dismal graduation rates. Mr. Harper has recognized the need for change, and has agreed that improving education outcomes is a prerequisite to economic independence. Visiting the Arctic also serves another purpose: “The first and highest priority of our northern strategy is the protection of our Arctic sovereignty,” said Mr. Harper on a previous tour of the Arctic—the “third ocean” for Canadian forces to defend, one filled with vast deposits of oil and natural gas—and the potential for a catastrophe in an unforgiving environmental.
From whom? A report released in March by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says, “In May 2011 it was reported that Russia’s first Arctic special forces brigade had been unveiled, based at Pechenga on the Kola Peninsula…these forces ‘balance the situation’ with NATO forces in the Arctic.” According to a NATO Review report titled “Under The Ice of the World,” “…the High North is suddenly a high political and security priority…changes there are affecting areas from oil to trade to the environment.” “Arctic Sovereignty” stirs Canadian national pride, as in verse from the national anthem: “The True North Strong and Free!” Canada has claimed history’s long-sought Northwest Passage—more than a 6,000-mile shortcut from Dalian, China to Newark, New Jersey—now open due to climate change, as part of its territorial waters.
However, a diplomatic cable from the US Embassy released by WikiLeaks titled “Canada’s Conservative Government and its Arctic Focus” reads, “Conservatives make concern for ‘The North’ part of their political brand . . . and it works…The message seemed to resonate with the electorate; the Conservatives formed the new government in 2006.” The cable goes on to poke fun at the Harper government: “The persistent high public profile which this government has accorded ‘Northern Issues’ and the Arctic is, however, unprecedented and reflects the PM’s views that ‘the North has never been more important to our country’—although one could perhaps paraphrase to state ‘the North has never been more important to our Party.’”
Fighting a Russian bear appears courageous, and Mr. Harper appears to know this: According to the US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, discussing a meeting between the Prime Minister and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in January 2010, “According to PM Harper, Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions…He commented that there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war, but that some non-Arctic members favoured a NATO role in the Arctic because it would afford them influence in an area where ‘they don’t belong.” The real alliances in the Arctic are between ExxonMobil and the oil giant Rosneft, 75% of which is owned by the Russian-government. The competition for ExxonMobil is BP, which has also signed a partnership with Rosneft.
As Québec students march to demand transparency from their provincial government, international nongovernmental organizations have used Access to Information legislation to gain information on the environment, and diplomatic activities to influence foreign environmental legislation—often heavily redacted. In March, Climate Action Network Canada, in cooperation with environmental groups across borders, released “Dirty Oil Diplomacy: The Canadian Government’s Global Push to Sell the Tar Sands.” According to the report, “Internationally, the Canadian Government’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol followed years of being singled out as a laggard at international climate negotiations,” according to the report. “The Governments’ of Canada and Alberta, along with the oil and gas industry, are now collaborating on the ‘Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy’ that attempts to undermine or kill other jurisdictions’ climate policies.” This includes efforts in the US: “Canada appears to have won this battle,” according to a Canadian Embassy email back in 2008 regarding an amendment to US legislation allowing oil sands imports, and “ongoing advocacy in the United States will be critical.”
In February, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and other groups launched a campaign to “unmuzzle” scientists and researchers. “Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency,” writes CJFE, “federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the ‘consent’ of media relations officers.” The Harper government maintains that it grants rapid and open access.
While it has become difficult to attain information from the Canadian government, Bill C-30, which was introduced in Parliament this year, if passed, would allow the government to obtain information on the online activity of its citizens—without a warrant. Although titled the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” glaring privacy concerns—now more in view in light of Bill 78—are apparent, with the potential for use against lawful protest and cyber-activism.
The casseroles protest in Québec reminded one demonstrator of the first cacerolazos protests in Santiago, Chile, by women of the middle and upper-class in the early 1970s. The women banged pots and pans then to protest the nationalization policies of then-president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup led by Captain General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. Allende had nationalized US copper mines, banks, and agribusiness. “The Chicago Boys”—a group of economists trained under Milton Freedman at the University of Chicago, and sponsored by the US State Department—then implemented privatization policies under Pinochet, and repressed dissent with the use of torture. It was not until 1998, spurred by the arrest of General Pinochet in the UK—who was ultimately released—that documents on human rights abuses in Chile were declassified on order of President Clinton. “Some of those documents make clear for the first time that the State Department concluded from almost the beginning that the Pinochet government had killed the men, Charles Horman, 31, and Frank Teruggi, 24,” reports The New York Times. “The investigators speculated, moreover, that the Chileans would not have done so without a green light from American intelligence.” The death of the young men were the subject of the film Missing.
For several months last year in what was called “The Chilean Winter” in the southern hemisphere, tens of thousands of students from high schools and universities across the country organized sit-ins and large marches to demand free education for all in an extremely-privatized system. “What is perverse about this system is that it was necessary to eliminate private banks from the agenda, but that doesn’t resolve the problem of profiting from education,” Camila Vallejo, a prominent student leader, told Al Jazerra. “The student financing proposal by the government just reinforces the subsidies for those who profit from educational institutions.” A statement of solidarity from Chilean academics was sent to the Québec student-protest website “The Conflict 101.” “We do this not only in solidarity, but also because we understand that any attack against freedoms in any part of this globalized world, is an attack against our own freedoms,” according to the statement. “The Chilean government’s so-called ‘Hinzpeter law’ adopts the same repressive and undemocratic measures as Bill 78.” “Marchons, chaque soir, jusqu’à la victoire!” (“Let’s march, each night, until we are victorious”)—a slogan of the Québec students—may be one of many steps to an unknown outcome, but has already moved higher education.