by Dawne McFarlane
RSCT Storytelling Department Chair
I didn’t mean to join the revolution. I was just visiting Montreal on Tuesday May 24th, the 100th day of student protests against tuition increases, when 250,000 people flooded the streets. Women, men, young, old, silver hair, fashionable red streaks, mothers with babes in arms, strident youth, softened lined faces, all poured through the streets like the waves of humble worker ants that come to the aid of the hero/ine in distress in fairy tales to complete an impossible and unexpected task. They wore little red squares of fabric pinned to their t-shirts, red rain boots, red umbrellas, red shirts and hats to mark their membership. Even away from the main protest areas red articles of clothing appeared on people everywhere. No one was unaffected, walking towards or away from the protest, snarled in traffic- it was on everyone’s lips and the chopper overhead loudly marked the progress of the crowds into the night.
The great number of people seemed to surprise everyone- 250,000 humble protesters successfully completed the impossible task of peacefully joining voices to say a clear “no” to tuition increases and to legislative action that restricted their voices. Some violence and 113 arrests in the late night hours could not take the focus away from this larger statement.
The next day, lively debate filled the radio air waves, asking for “expert” and “lay” solutions to the conflict that began in 2004. How can all of these needs be met; rising costs of inflation and administering universities and public demand for low tuition fees? “But tuition fees in Quebec are the lowest in North America- but universities are free in places in Europe- but they are mediocre and Europe is in economic crisis- but more loans and bursaries will be available-” and on and on.
There are many points of view and lots of history to be considered, yet here and now one thing is clear to this observer. There is a clear public demand for tuition costs to stay the same, and the policy maker in the greatest position of authority (Mr. Charest) says this is the one thing he will not discuss. Any teacher or parent knows that if a youth confronts you on an issue, no amount of dialogue on other issues will resolve the conflict. Not to assign roles of parent and youth here, just to expose the ineffectiveness of a patriarchal response. There is a philosophy professor in Montreal who understands this- he works in the place between administrators and students- and he literally places himself in between the students and the police during protests when tempers get hot- “to be a buffer”- dressed in a panda suit! He says “being vulnerable” is an important part of his response. This creative approach sometimes gets smiles from both sides and sometimes diffuses potential violence.
This is a wonderful opportunity for students and policy makers in Montreal to creatively meet the future of university education. There is the potential here, in this conflict, for new standards to be set for accessible quality education- standards that could inspire post-secondary education across North America and Europe. There are calls for students and policy makers to problem solve “around the table.” There is no shortage of informed and passionate participants. I just hope the philosophy professor with the panda suit is one of the people at the table. Creativity may be the most important guest invited to this forum.