I must be a bad parent. A couple weeks ago, on March 22, I let my son skip school and then encouraged him to get into a fight. A real battle royale it was, in fact, in which we fought alongside at least 200,000 allies in downtown Montreal in an ongoing war to keep university education accessible to all in Quebec, no matter how rich their families are.
The massive demonstration against steep university tuition hikes that day was the largest I’ve ever participated in, and I’ve covered and been a part of my share of protests over the past three decades. This event was inspiring for much more than its size, as thrilling as it was to be part of a crowd of that scale. Even the most cynical of observers had to acknowledge the creativity, good-natured solidarity and determination of the protestors. Not a single untoward incident was recorded, not a single arrest, no broken windows, not even any angry motorists (that I saw) swearing at the demonstrators – despite the fact that they basically tied up the entire downtown all afternoon.
It was a historic day, one that was symbolized by the phrase on several placards: “Le printemps érable.” It’s a play on words for the revolutions that swept through the Middle East last year, a time known as the Arab Spring. But this, this is our struggle, one that exudes a sense of renewal and hope that accompanied the first full day of spring. Personally, I have no choice but to support this cause, not only for the benefit of our society in general, but for the very fact that I am a parent.
That’s why I pinned a red felt square on my son’s t-shirt and set him loose. To my mind, this is part of his real-life education. And it’s one that will benefit him in the future if enough parents – and their children – step up and climb into the ring.
He’s almost nine, and as regular readers might remember, this is not the first political adventure in which I’ve had him ride shotgun with me. Last fall he participated in the initial Occupy Montreal event in front of the city’s stock exchange tower. He came away with a vivid experience and dozens of questions I did my best to answer. I feel he needs to get a taste early about what it is to struggle collectively to defend common rights. Especially because those battles are only going to get tougher as he grows into adulthood.
This time, he was right into it, chanting slogans, dancing to the drumming and insisting we complete the entire five-kilometre route of the march, even when it started pouring rain toward the end of our trek. He’s getting the spirit of democracy, which is made possible by people who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.
The struggle to keep post-secondary studies as accessible as possible should be as basic as the right to basic education, to health care, clean drinking water, decent housing or a safe community. In other words, the essential pillars of a democratic society. In Quebec, we pay collectively for all of these societal goods according to our ability. In this sense, it’s true that we live on a threatened island of civilization in an increasingly turbulent and barbaric political sea. That’s why we must all do our part to strengthen the levees that protect us from the killing flood. That’s why this fight is about much more than the price of university tuition.
The visionaries who represented Eeyou Istchee back in the 1970s understood this when they established the principle of funding Cree students through their post-secondary studies. Advanced education is a huge benefit for a society if all those who have the ability are able to access it. Limiting this opportunity only to those whose families can afford it will weaken that society’s economy and culture.
There is much progress to be made on this score. But few would argue that the huge political, economic and cultural growth of the James Bay Cree has nothing to do with the increasing numbers of highly educated Crees who help govern, administrate and instruct your society.
This was made possible by the generation of young people (who were supported by their Elders) that made the perilous gamble to stand up to authority in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s what all those annoying students are now doing throughout Quebec.
They are standing up to arbitrary authority on behalf of all of us, not just for their own narrow interests. They deserve our admiration, not the insults and denigration that characterizes much of the media coverage of their movement.
And yes, I want my kids to have the opportunity to push their studies as far as their ability and motivation allows for, without the limitations of my financial resources. That’s why I am so proud of my son for his enthusiasm, and his desire to understand what this uproar is all about.