It was four o’clock on May 31, 2012, the 109th day of the Quebec student conflict. Michelle Courchesne, then Quebec’s recently appointed Minister of Education, left the building where she had met with representatives of the student associations for the last four days. Courchesne faced a media scrum where she announced that the talks had just broken down and declined to answer further questions from the press. “We won’t discuss this on a sidewalk,” said the minister, holding on to her documents. “Let’s meet in a proper press conference in a couple of hours.” When the student leaders emerged 30 minutes later, they were more than ready to talk to the media. By the time Premier Jean Charest began the government press conference just before 6:30 p.m., the students’ talking points were already widely disseminated, thanks not only to social media but also to news broadcasts and online editions of traditional media.

This incident put an end to a criticalphase of the student conflict. But it also captured perfectly, in condensed form, what had been going on in Quebec since March 2011, when the provincial government announced its decision to raise university tuition fees by $325 a year for five years. In a nutshell, a government of the 20th century, visibly convinced that authority flows unimpeded from institutions and titles and political rituals like formal press conferences, faced a social movement of the 21st century, characterized by its nimbleness, its indifference to tradition and hierarchy and its capacity to define and control the semantic playing field.

Much has been written about the creativity of the student movement and the charisma of the student leaders, in sharp contrast to the lacklustre performance of the politicians. In October, Léo Bureau-Blouin, the student leader recently elected as the new Parti Québécois member of the National Assembly for Laval-des-Rapides, was featured on the cover of a fashion magazine – no risk of that happening to Jean Charest or François Legault. Bureau-Blouin’s Twitter feed has now gathered more followers than that of any other Quebec politician. However, it would be a mistake to see this conflict as a mere question of personalities or communication skills. As revealed by the evolution of the crisis, which broadened from a classic student protest to a full-scale social movement in barely three months, the issues at stake included questions about social justice and human rights, the rule of law and, in the end, the nature of democracy itself.

The Charest government

It was not the age of its members or their general lack of appetite for Twitter or Facebook that anchored the Charest administration in the 20th century. It was, rather, the administration’s strongly held belief that an electoral mandate is a sufficient condition to govern as one sees fit.

Indeed, if asking the students to pay a “fair share” of their education was the primary message of Premier Charest and his ministers throughout the conflict, the recurring theme in their public statements was the notion that the government was justified in unilaterally imposing its plan and vision because of its electoral majority. Rarely a day passed without someone stating that a duly elected government was there to make tough decisions or that the opponents of the tuition increase should wait until they could defeat the government in the polls, “the only right way in a democracy.”

But despite these motherhood-like statements, public opinion never really warmed to the rhetoric. Everybody knew that a “tough” decision is usually tough on a particular group of people. The public expected that instead of snubbing the students, Charest and his ministers should engage with the student leaders to see if there was any room for dialogue and agreement. And the idea that elections are the only road to policy change is clearly laughable in a province where the government has been known to entertain close relationships with business interests, to the point of being suspected of corruption. The same people who were so keen to blame demonstrators for ignoring official communication channels could be seen socializing with the corporate elite at gala dinners or holding fundraisers with dubious characters.

Michelle Courchesne’s predecessor as Minister of Education, Line Beauchamp, was the face of government in the conflict. Until her surprise resignation on May 14, Beauchamp was also the Deputy Premier and one of the very few ministers who could claim a public persona independent of Jean Charest. Beauchamp constantly referred to her ministerial status and bitterly complained at the time of her resignation that journalists and the public should have shown more respect for her position as minister.

This obsession with titles and status is typical of 20th-century governments: authority is supposed to flow naturally from the function, like some sort of magic substance, instead of being earned in (political) blood by triumphing over obstacles and circumstances. Beauchamp was not alone. This attitude was unmistakable in the communication strategy of the government as a whole, with its insistence on tightly controlled declarations, carefully crafted press releases and formal press conferences. Journalists and the public were supposed to pay attention to the message simply because it came from the mouth of a minister. Of course, student organizations made a mockery of this approach. To be frank, it was not difficult to do so.

Public relations

Almost everybody would agree that the student movement won the public relations war. Little red squares appeared on lapels of all kinds, from the pinstriped suits of politicians and lawyers to the vintage vests of world-class artists. At the height of the conflict, some Montreal neighbourhoods looked like Pyongyang or Tsinghua University during the Cultural Revolution, with red flags and sententious banners waving from hundreds of windows and balconies.

More important, students were in total control of the semantic field, starting with the designation of their movement as a “strike” rather than a boycott; indeed, after a few weeks, merely using the word boycott was enough to put someone in the government’s camp. While free access to public education is guaranteed to all citizens of the province from kindergarten up to Cegep (junior college), student leaders kept talking of their opposition to the tuition hike in universities as a fight for “free public education.” Soon this confusing statement was repeated everywhere without a word of caution or any other qualification.

Crowd estimates for demonstrations came mostly from the organizers, who also framed most news stories about police intervention; journalists and columnists who questioned the students’ viewpoint were booed during public events and subjected to ferocious attacks in social media. It also quickly became impossible to have a conversation involving numbers of any sort, in part because the government’s “final offer” kept changing but also because students always insisted that the fee hike should be looked at as a whole rather than as a yearly increment. For example, the government’s initial proposal was usually cast as an increase of $1,625 or 75 per cent, rather than $325 or 15 per cent or less per year. And when Premier Charest suggested on April 27 that his latest proposal would not cost students more than 50 cents a day, nobody bit but a few government stalwarts.

A new era

It’s tempting to reduce the student movement to its masterful command of modern and postmodern media. This equation is persuasive because the student leaders themselves at times seemed totally consumed by their own image and tended to privilege high-impact tactics – which fed the stunt-addicted media – over strategies that mature slowly. Welcome to the 21st century, with its fascination with instant communication, visibility and “street cred.”

But there are other aspects of this movement, over and above its capacity to monopolize the evening news, that made it truly the product of a new era. Something that began in the weeks following the release of the 2011 Quebec budget as a classic illustration of group politics in a corporatist state mutated two or three times over six months to become first a social, then a generational and, finally, a cultural movement, complete with its load of prescriptions and excommunications.

The parallel with Occupy Wall Street is evident. There as well, a social protest movement was able to capture the anger of a generation and develop complex cultural dimensions. There as well, the movement ran into credibility problems and internal conflict when the time came to transform the protest into policy and to move from tactics of occupation and dissent to a strategy of social change. What made the Quebec student movement interesting in comparison, and perhaps unique, was its process of transformation, which took place over a longer period of time, and the fact that government decisions and undertakings, more than the movement’s internal dynamics, precipitated the most important mutations.

Before February 13, 2012, and the first wave of votes on college and university strikes, the student movement mirrored its many previous incarnations. This was not the first time students had opposed tuition hikes or changes to the public financial aid program. In fact, the coalition of student unions that formed following the release of the 2011 provincial budget did not appear more threatening to the government than other groups it had had to confront in the past to impose its fiscal or economic policies. On the contrary, the students may have seemed less of a problem than other powerful interests.

Every stakeholder in the education sector supported some increase in university tuition fees, with the usual exception of the public sector unions. Moreover, in the eyes of the Charest government, higher education was seen not as a “social” program but as a tool for economic development – who can be against development, except lefty wingnuts? Nonetheless, in just a few weeks, arguments about the need to pay a “fair share” of one’s own education, together with the constant reference to university training as a “personal investment,” were superseded in public discourse by the students’ insistence on accessibility, income redistribution and social justice. This war of words fuelled support for their movement in many circles.

The government made an offer to the students on April 27 after nearly ten weeks of daily confrontations. The proposal was to spread the tuition increase over seven years instead of five, to enhance bursaries and to make the repayment of loans proportional to income. The conflict about redistribution and accessibility should have ended at that time. Indeed, just as a thought experiment, it is even conceivable that a government with some appreciation of these notions – instead of the individualistic and consumerist approach that permeated all its communications – and less disdain for public discussion would have successfully turned the rhetoric of social rights against the students. After all, it is a well-known fact that low university tuition fees mostly benefit the children of the middle classes. The government could have argued that a sensible policy aimed at increasing access to higher education should address the root causes of the problem rather than padding the pockets of the comfortably middle-class. Everybody knew that it is during the first years of high school (if not earlier) that students decide on their future and that support was lacking for children from low-income families during those crucial years.

In the debate that followed the rejection by the Quebec students of what they claimed was an “insulting” offer, a new ideological dimension of the movement was revealed. This time, the issue was intergenerational equity – the notion that the benefits of the welfare state are skewed to the baby boom generation, while their children are left with massive public debt and very few advantages. How could people who paid next to nothing to get a university degree now complain shamelessly about youth being expected to pay its “fair share”? Once again, the argument appeared to catch the government by surprise. To be honest, the student leaders were not much better in articulating their position. In Quebec at least, the theme of intergenerational equity has been used mostly by the political right, for which it has been ammunition for public spending cuts and aggressive debt reduction. Therefore, it was only when the issue morphed into a question of power sharing and participation in decision-making that everyone looked comfortable again.

The next offer, which resulted from the first direct negotiations on May 4 and 5, provided the students with a symbolic share of power over resource allocation in universities. (It was to take the form of a “supercommittee” overseeing universities’ expenses and budgets to which student associations would appoint a few members, but this ill-conceived project was quickly forgotten when the strikers massively rejected the agreement.) By this time, though, the movement had already entered another phase: artists, intellectuals, disgruntled citizens of all ages and activists of all persuasions were adopting the students’ cause as their own. In a little more than a month, and peaking just after the government passed special legislation to restrain demonstrations, Quebec went through its very own cultural revolution.

A quiet cultural revolution

Of course, this being Quebec, it was a quiet revolution, even if this last phase of the movement was symbolized by a nightly concert of people banging pots and pans. In a society where it has been impossible of late to discuss publicly matters other than government deficits, rising health care costs and resource development, it is clear that this exuberant spring came as a relief. Everything was on the table again and people came to the daily protests for a range of reasons that included shale gas anxiety, old age security, food policy, child care, the environment and unemployment.

The movement did not last very long but it was intense. At eight o’clock every evening, thousands of people walked through their neighbourhoods to denounce the government’s attitude, while the students continued to demonstrate (illegally) in downtown Montreal and Quebec City. The sense that it was now an authentic popular movement seemed to empower the opposition parties, which became more present along the way. The leader of the PQ, Pauline Marois, gained a lot of media attention in mid-June when she was seen awkwardly banging two pot covers in front of the office of a defeated Liberal candidate.

At the beginning of the conflict, public opinion was behind the Charest government, or so it seems. Polls indicated that more than two thirds of the population were favourable to the increase in tuition fees, although one now suspects that this support was for the principle of an increase rather than for the particular solution chosen by the government. When people were asked later what they thought of the government’s behaviour vis-à-vis the students, a majority of Quebecers appeared to be impatient to see the government take a stancd and adopt a hard line. The moment the National Assembly adopted Bill 78, however, public opposition to Charest’s approach to the conflict reached a record 60 per cent and the government found itself more isolated than ever. At one point in May or early June, most observers were asking for an election to settle the question. When the Premier finally called an early election, the same people protested that this was not acceptable.

We know how the story ends. Jean Charest lost the election on September 4. One of the three student leaders defeated a minister and became Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier. In the hours after being sworn in, the new PQ government cancelled the tuition hike but maintained the measures promised by the previous government to mitigate the impact of increasing fees. The government also recalled Bill 78 except for a few aspects regarding the academic calendar. With the exception of Finance Minister Raymond Bachand, all the major figures in the Charest government involved in the student crisis who had not left politics prior to the election were defeated at the polls – including the Premier himself. The students claimed victory on all fronts and on September 8 Martine Desjardins, speaking on behalf of the students’ unions, declared that the crisis was over.

For how long? Not a single issue from accessibility to sustainable funding has been resolved. Neither cameras nor microphones intimidate the new minister in charge of higher education, former journalist Pierre Duchesne, but all of Duchesne’s communication skills cannot change the dire financial situation of Quebec universities. (Unless, as Duchesne has hinted, he sides with the student unions and conveniently holds that the problem is not funding but mismanagement by university administrations.) After all, sooner or later, even subsidized students will be affected by quality teaching and learning – or their absence.