Beginning on February 13, 2012, students throughout Quebec province began to go on strike in response to the provincial government’s long- and short-term plans of hiking their tuition. Several weeks later, an estimated 200,000 students and supporters took to the streets in solidarity against the Quebec government and its negative response to the student strike. Following the passing of Bill 78 on May 18, a protest deemed “the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history” shook the streets of downtown Montreal with a clear, resonant message: the government cannot and should not silence the voice of its people.
Bill 78 was intended to do just that. The province-wide law aims to restrict protesting or picketing on, or near, university grounds, and further requires organizers of a protest consisting of 50 or more members to announce their detailed plans of protest to the police for approval. Unsurprisingly, the bill was severely criticized by various provincial, national, and international groups and scholars, including the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which referred to the bill as "a terrible act of mass repression".
Most important in this situation, however, is the widespread public reaction. The thousands of protesters marching against the newly introduced Bill 78 took part in the long-standing and fundamentally necessary tradition of civil disobedience—a tradition we cannot stand to lose in our day and age.
The vital act of civil disobedience has the ability to function through a multitude of perspectives; the unsatisfied citizen can, as such, approach and undertake the process of civil disobedience in their own specific, individualized fashion. Nevertheless, the end goal or result of any act of civil disobedience is not meant to benefit the individual, but the community at large. The ends of such an act should not be a private gain, but a public gain.
Furthermore, any act of civil disobedience should function as an act of subversion or opposition against the status quo and legal norm. Despite the undeniably great leaps made in the realm of human rights over the past half-century, the laws of any state—whether ‘developed’ or ‘developing’—oftentimes function to benefit their privileged and socially advantaged citizens.
It would be a mistake, then, to think of civil disobedience as an act unnecessary or archaic for our modern, presumably ‘enlightened’ democracies. The illusion of an ideal democracy does not negate the necessity for civil disobedience, for any state in which all citizens do not hold equal rights—in every respect, to the smallest detail—demands improvement. A healthy democracy cannot be achieved otherwise.
Christian Bay, author of “Civil Disobedience: Theory”, argues that the fundamental purpose of politics is not to bolster or perpetuate any given political order, but “to protect human life and basic human rights.” And yet, to this day, our political systems work in favour of those who are in a position of socio-economic power.
Bay goes on to state a necessary fact: the prevailing belief that democracy has been achieved—and that its laws ought to be obeyed—must be torn down; citizens must wake up from their contented stupor and strive for the seemingly unattainable.
The widespread Quebec student strike and nearly daily protests of the past scholastic semester—particularly those following the introduction of Bill 78—function as an exemplary undertaking of civil disobedience, encompassing both active and passive disobedience: doing that which is prohibited, while also failing to do that which is required.
One lesson, undoubtedly among many others, to be learnt from the events of the 2012 Quebec student strike, and the protests which followed, is a lesson in the rejection of indifference and apathy.
The daily marches and pot-banging of the past spring—an ode to the Chilean anti-government protests of the late-twentieth century—worked to rouse the province out of its detachment to and disinterest in student politics. Students’ and their supporters’ continued acts of civil disobedience prompted an extensive and much-needed debate over our right to accessible education.
Nevertheless, the debate is not solely one of economics, but also of fundamental principles and basic human rights. It is a debate over our right to challenge our governments, have our voices heard, and participate in something truly bigger than the individual. It is a debate that has not been left in the hands of politicians, but has gotten students, their parents, their teachers, and thousands of supporters involved. Civil disobedience is, needless to say, a campaign for the rights of those whose rights are all-too-often ignored.
The Quebec student strike and protests, having quieted down over the summer months, will return in full force in mid-August, as courses are set to begin again at fourteen junior colleges.