This is an adaptation of the presentation I gave at the launch of the English-language edition of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ book, In Defiance. It was translated from the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award winner for nonfiction, Tenir tête (Lux Éditeur).
When asked to speak at this book launch, I gladly accepted. As soon as the book first came out in French, I bought it and read it right away.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is a strong political commentator. He speaks with authority in a clear language. Unlike many politicians, he doesn’t use double talk (langue de bois). He wants to inform. This should be a common quality among all communicators and media personalities, but it isn’t.
During the printemps érable, the so-called Maple Spring of 2012, as Nadeau-Dubois became a lightning rod for government and media attention and scorn, personifying all that was dangerous and evil during the “social crisis,” he never flinched and was never apologetic about the positions he was defending. He behaved with dignity and never wavered from his progressive approach. In my opinion, he was the only person on any side of these events who came out looking good and sounding credible.
Since then, as a regular critic on Radio-Canada‘s morning show, debating the news of the day with other (generally slower) commentators on a variety of topics, he always comes across as well prepared, remarkably well-read and capable of extracting teachable political points from complicated situations, while others rely on knee-jerk reflexes. He is mature and responsible. We are lucky to have him in our community.
I want you to read this book. I read it twice: first in French when it first came out, and then again this past week in English. I enjoyed it both times.
Some chapters are exciting play-by-play descriptions of certain events in 2012, replete with colourful commentary and a personal analysis:
- the first of the student strike votes, at the CEGEP de Valleyfield
- his visit to the SQ (Québec provincial police) headquarters on Parthenais Street – a surreal adventure. He was there at the invitation of the SQ. The police were aware of death threats against him and wanted to discuss how to protect him. On his arrival, he was taken to an interrogation room from which he couldn’t leave; he realized he might be subject to intimidation or blackmail, or might be asked to become an informer. When the police were later questioned about this incident, they claimed not to remember.
- watching from the visitors’ gallery at the Assemblée Nationale as the infamous Bill 78 was being adopted; the debates proceeded “often with scant regard for grammar,” and were far poorer in content than any of the student meetings.
- the public reaction to Bill 78: nightly marches in many neighbourhoods, beating pots and pans as an act of civil disobedience. For Nadeau-Dubois, a profound respect for law and democracy is what explains and justifies protest against those who abuse it: the civil disobedience of 2012 was not contesting the existence of laws, but the transgressions of those who enacted them. In this sense, civil disobedience is a profoundly democratic activity.
- the contempt-of-court procedures brought against him by a non-striking student, alleging that Nadeau-Dubois did not comply with the terms of an injunction. This raises the question: does a student’s individual right to attend class trump collective rights of a political nature when a majority has democratically approved a strike? Nadeau-Dubois cites a well-known decision of former Québec Superior Court Chief Justice Jules Deschênes in a case involving the Montréal transit corporation (STM), where the judge held that contempt-of-court proceedings were not an appropriate remedy for the courts to use to settle social issues. (The decision of the Superior Court, that Nadeau-Dubois was in contempt of court, was overturned in 2015 by the Court of Appeal. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada should be heard in 2016.)
In other chapters of the book, Nadeau-Dubois presents an extensive social and political explanation of the student protests:
- The effect of the tuition fee increases on accessibility to higher education
- Not only will a fee hike affect accessibility in the short-term, the fear of long-term debt associated with increased fees will deter potential students from continuing their education. The purpose of the student strike was to guarantee access to higher education.
- Problems stemming from increased tuition fees in the US include an enrolment imbalance among certain disciplines (as students fearing higher debt avoid humanities, social sciences or arts programs that could lead to lower-paying jobs); a higher rate of attrition among faculty members, a proliferation of managers, attacks on academic freedom, lowering of academic standards, etc.
- The role that the fee increases play in the government’s intention to change the role of the university
- The government’s message that each “must pay his fair share” characterizes indebtedness as a personal investment, where individuals must share the costs but do not share the wealth; it sees higher education merely as a lever for personal gain rather than as an asset to society as a whole.
- Nadeau-Dubois explains that inexpensive education has been responsible for the creation of Québec’s middle class since the Quiet Revolution. A generation later, those now in control want to deprive the next generation of the same benefits. It is becoming increasingly difficult to stay in the middle class.
- It is false to pretend that lower taxes ‒ with students forced to assume a greater part of the costs of education ‒ will benefit the majority; workers’ standard of living is maintained through high-quality public services; lower taxes lead to fewer public services and to a lower standard of living for workers.
- The university’s striving for “excellence” implies an abandonment of its role to serve the local community. Universities must become “engines of economic development, centres of intellectual entrepreneurship” (according to Judith Woodsworth of Concordia); higher learning “must coincide with the needs of business” (according to Guy Breton from the Université de Montréal). Universities should become agents of just-in-time delivery to the market place.
This discourse is accompanied by a privatization of knowledge itself (e.g., patents which are sold by universities to the private sector). There is a trend for universities, financed by the public and students, to assume a greater proportion of research and development on behalf of private corporations. The concept of the university solely as an economic development machine, Nadeau-Dubois argues, is insidious.
- The dismantling of the Quiet Revolution and the re-engineering of the state
- The current attack on public services (education is but one example) was launched in 2003 by the Liberal government of (former Conservative) Jean Charest, aimed at rolling back the gains of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, put into place by a very different Liberal Party at the time.
- Dictated by a corporate agenda, this “user-pay” model, which has already resulted in significant increases in fees for electricity, day care, health care, etc., is revoking the principles of solidarity and accessibility developed over a generation. This “revolt of the rich,” the war on taxes, amounts to a war against what those taxes pay for: education, public health services, pensions, culture, etc.
- The role of media in attempts to isolate and delegitimize the protests
- Those who see politics as little other than the defence of private interests would logically see the student strike through that filter and be unable to fathom the concept of solidarity between students and the rest of society.
- The mainstream media was substantially hostile to the student protests. The protesters’ arguments weren’t given any serious treatment or criticism; the students were regarded as illegitimate. “This is a confrontation between reason and madness… It’s hard to engage in a debate with pots and pans” (Alain Dubuc in La Presse).
- CLASSE, an expanded coalition around ASSÉ, the radical student federation, was often taken to task by the media for its slow response time, its idealism and its (time-consuming) democratic procedures.
- The media tried to “impose” a role of “leader” on Nadeau-Dubois, who refused the label, explaining that he was a spokesperson for the democratic student bodies; much of the media was unable to accept that such a spokesperson would refuse to make unilateral decision on behalf of the protesters;
- Nadeau-Dubois explains the difference between his approach and that of Léo Bureau-Blouin, the president of another student federation (and soon afterwards a Parti Québecois candidate and elected member of the Assemblée Nationale) who ended up playing into journalists’ expectations and proportionately lost influence and support amongst students. Nadeau-Dubois saw himself walking a difficult line, often displeasing both sides. “I could have left my position as spokesperson to become a star, like Paris Hilton, representing no one but myself.”
The student protest, understood at the beginning to be about tuition and other student fees, grew into a broad-based political protest against government policies, exacerbated by Bill 78. In October 1970, to justify the imposition of the War Measures Act, the government of the day invoked the concept of likely or imminent insurrection (“apprehended insurrection”) following a political rally of (merely!) several thousand supporters of the FLQ. In comparison, in 2012, a quarter of a million people deliberately engaged in civil disobedience; hundreds took part in “illegal” nightly demonstrations week after week; 400 lawyers, dressed in their courtroom cloaks, marched in protest against Bill 78.
Naomi Klein, in her introduction to the English edition of Nadeau-Dubois’ book, says that the greatest danger to a government is people’s belief that change is possible. The response of the governments (both provincial and municipal) in 2012 was to unleash the police on the protesters. A report by the Ligue des droits et libertés showed that the majority of the more than 3,500 arrests during the protests took place during mass “kettling” operations, i.e., indiscriminate, non-targeted police arrests, which were unquestionably a violation of the protestors’ freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
In the end, the Liberal government called a snap election, which it lost.
In Defiance is not the definitive history or chronology of the events of 2012, nor did Nadeau-Dubois intend it to be. As I have said, it is a combination of selected personal memoirs with a description of the social and political background, to make the events intelligible to an outside reader.
Still, there are several aspects I’m sorry were not included in the book:
- We learn little about ASSÉ itself, which groups were its members, and why and how it differed from the other student federations;
- While Nadeau-Dubois speaks of intensive political debates at different instances of ASSÉ, there is little information on the content or even the topics of these discussions;
- There is hardly any mention of Jeanne Reynolds, the other co-spokesperson with Nadeau-Dubois during the protests. The one time I heard Reynolds speak, which was on completely different topic, she was easily as dynamic as Nadeau-Dubois. (At height of the media hysteria about the irresponsibility of student protest, a small article mentioned that Reynolds had just won a provincial prize for the highest marks in a particular subject.)
- How did Nadeau-Dubois see the role of union federations? During the Maple Spring, unions offered material support to students and at times, some (welcome or unwelcome) advice. The extent of union participation in supporting the protests, especially after Bill 78, had an important effect on the ongoing events. But this is not discussed at all.
Maybe Nadeau-Dubois will deal with these issues in a future book.
I welcome the English translation of this book, for English-speaking readers inside and outside Québec.
The book explains many aspects of the protest and the roots of 2012, which may already be familiar to Québec anglophones who read French and follow political affairs closely. It is particularly important for anglophones who rely on the mainstream English media, as they were very badly served in 2012.
It took a long time for the English media to realize that something was going on – students protesters had set up a small tent city in front of the Education Ministry offices in Montreal as early as the summer of 2011– and to start covering the protests. Probably because the English media were not particularly interested in what French CEGEP students were doing, it missed the first of the votes and strikes around the province. For a long time, the fact that English CEGEP and university students were also voting and taking part in the protests did not make the front pages.
In terms of providing background information and editorial comment in the mainstream media, the dozen or so major French-language dailies with regular political columnists offered many opinion pieces, which were for the most part one-sided.
In English, however, the Montreal Gazette, a second-rate paper at best, had little in the form of commentary and opinion to edify its readers. Whatever it did muster generally characterized the protests taking place across Québec as simply the misguided work of self-interested, irresponsible, anti-democratic, greedy students.
A notable exception, though clearly not part of the mainstream media, was the student television station at Montreal’s Concordia University. CUTV, broadcast on the Internet, did an excellent job of covering the protests. Night after night, its crew, portable cameras on their shoulders, walked the streets with the demonstrators, interviewing students and other protesters and passersby, in English and French. They showed and described the police tactics. Sitting safely in front of my computer screen in another part of the city, I could follow, on any night of the week, the tear-gassing, the kettling, the arrests of the protesters. No other media was doing an equivalent job; often, they weren’t even present. CUTV deserves recognition for its contribution to information access and human rights during the protests.
Nadeau-Dubois’ book will finally let English readers understand much of what happened in 2012. The experience of student protests in English Canada might be somewhat different than what we have experienced in Québec. Widespread post-secondary education in Québec is relatively recent: high schools in rural areas were not common until the early 1960s; CEGEPs weren’t in place until the late 60s and universities did not exist in much of the province until the 70s and 80s. These institutions contributed to the economic, intellectual and social development of contemporary Québec. An attack on the role of the universities and their accessibility may have provoked a greater reaction and resonated more widely in Québec than elsewhere in Canada, and this book will greatly contribute to understanding this phenomenon.
In Defiance, by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois
Translation by Lazer Lederhendler
Foreword by Naomi Klein
Paperback / softback, 190 pages
Published June 2015 by Between the Lines