On Being a Revolutionary Turtle

[I wrote this over a week ago. Since then I have joined in the casseroles almost every night going on two weeks. The talks between students and government have broken down.]

Kitchen casualties of the Casserole protest

It is hard for me to make noise. I have spent a lifetime trying to take up as little space in the world as possible- clinging to the edges of sidewalks so others can pass, wearing mute colours, not raising my voice.  To raise my hand in class and give my opinion was an act that took a lot of courage and drained me of energy. Angry red blush. Hemming and hawing over what I think because I want to say it in a way that will offend absolutely nobody.As I get older, this gets a little better. I am not so afraid to express my opinion, though I do so in a crowd rarely.

I am thinking of this, because for the past three nights I have participated in the charivari (I love that word! I love its history! Do you know this protest goes all the way back to the middle ages, and was utilized when the community disapproved of an “unnatural marriage”, like an older man marrying a younger woman? Fun fact.) of Les Casseroles.

 Now, it has taken me a while to figure out if I support the students. This sounds stupid I know, but, in keeping with my reticence to give my opinion, I hesitate to form one when I feel I am uninformed. And because I am a pretty busy person- full-time work, children and other stuff (just like the rest of the world, I know) I haven’t had time to really look into it.

And besides, it was all about tuition hikes, right?

Well, after long consideration, conversations with different people and reading the wonderful articles my very politically minded friends share on Facebook, I have come to think that no, it is not. The tuition hikes are a symptom of a bigger idea, a neoliberal vision of the world where everything is a commodity and ruled by the vagaries of the market, education included. Either we accept this or we do not.

Obviously, the people do not. I do not.

So here is the evolution of my support for the movement:

1. At first I was ambivalent about the whole tuition hike thing. I am anglophone and received my BA in BC where the tuition is way higher than it is in Quebec. So what are they complaining about? Then I read this blog post (which I have just spent a half hour trying to find unsuccessfully) and realised not only was I asking the wrong question, I was being petulant. The author tells us to ask not why Quebec students are being so whiny, but why are students in the rest of Canada not whining more?

2. That got me thinking about education in Quebec in general. I have already ranted about this, actually. How there is currently a three-tiered education system going on, One that is quickly beginning to resemble the U.S. system. We have the private schools (English private schools very expensive and French private schools less expensive) and then we have the public schools. But wait- that is only two tiers, right? No. Within the public schools we have the charter schools- that is the schools where you have to apply to get in, either through passing an exam or by an audition, or (in the case of the alternative elementary school my daughter attends, previously being the one who can endure a night in February outside to be the first in line, and presently by having your name being drawn from a lottery). So what are we doing here?  We are already assigning the notion of scarcity to education. The idea that there is only a little of it to go around and that little is only available to those who a) can afford it b) are educated enough to know how to navigate the system c) are good at taking exams.

The tuition hikes is not the only issue here. It is putting the spotlight on a system that is inherently flawed. It is asking us whether we think education is a commodity or a right. It is asking us to think about what we value as a society. Do we want an educated population – innovative , creative, productive citizens who are unburdened by crippling student loans, or is education to be relegated to one class only?

Now, when I made this argument with a friend and a colleague the other day, she made several points:
1. She doesn’t think higher education is a right, but a privilege.
2. That even in the Scandinavian model not everything is beautiful (a couple of my co-workers have mentioned an article written in the Gazette a few weeks ago- I wish I had seen it so I could counter it better).
3. That even if the students get a degree it doesn’t mean they will get a job (this in argument to my belief that the low tuition fees will be paid for by the students as they get into the workforce and start contributing to society through their work, their taxes, etc).

Here are my arguments:
1. The right/privilege thing has always stumped me.  I tend to agree with her (but here comes my reticence again) but I honestly do not know. I do think that it should be a viable option for all members of our society and that the more people we have educated the better our world will be. The great thing about the Quebec education system is that people can go to Cegep where they can either learn a trade or take courses to go to University, all for very little money. You don’t necessarily need to go past that to make a decent living (have you seen what plumbers and electricians make? It was waaaaay more than I make even with a Masters degree under my belt). What is important is that everybody has the option to pursue what is best for them.

2. I can’t speak much to how University works in countries like Finland and Sweden, but I am not at all surprised to hear there are some flaws in their system (though I haven’t been able to get a good idea of what those are). But does that mean we throw the whole baby out with the bathwater? What attracts me to the Scandinavian model is the importance they place on education. They put their money where there mouth is in terms of teacher’s education, salary and classroom freedom. I am sure that going to University still requires an application, that you still must get in even if it is free, and that is how it should be. Okay then -yes, education is a privilege, yet one where everybody should have the chance to benefit from it, not just the rich.

3. I don’t know what to say to that. Of course some won’t get jobs. But doesn’t that just speak to the fact that our system is flawed? That a university degree is more necessary than ever, yet is the most expensive it has ever been? And that even when you get a degree it is no guarantee that you will even be able to use it?

4.  Who is profiting from higher tuition fees? Well, let us just follow the money…and where does it take us? Why the banks of course! They are the ones who stand to benefit from the huge amount of interest students will have to pay. How does it make sense to have a system that requires you to go to an institution of higher learning in order to get a better job so that you can in turn spend the first few years of your working life deeply in debt. It makes me think of the sugar cane plantations and the company store:Here are the only jobs around so come work for us. However your wages are so low and our prices at our store (our only store) so high you will end up owing us money for the privilege.

Overhaul, people. We need an overhaul.

Now this is just talking about education. We have not mentioned the fascist  law 78. Or the budget cuts to the arts and to much needed social programs happening in our country. Or what our governments (provincial and federal) are doing to our environment. When I wrote this, I attended a fundraiser for the artist coop the Long Haul right before going to bang on my pots. They, like so many valuable and worthwhile institutions, have lost their government funding.

The student protest is not just about tuition hikes, it is about what we stand for as a society. And though it took me a long while to figure this out (I am a revolutionary turtle) I can say for certain that I do NOT like what is going on.

So, every night at eight, despite my abhorrence at standing out and making noise, I leave the house accompanied by my children and my husband with our pots and pans.

 The first night we participated, eight o’clock came and we strained to hear some pots and pans (did I mention I am also not an instigator?). In the distance we could hear some banging so J and I went to check it out and lo and behold Les Casseroles had come to our neighborhood! We rushed back got the pots and pans and my youngest, who was already in her pajamas (the oldest was too thus declined that first night). People literally came out of the wood work. It starts with a core group of people, banging on their pots. Then a few more people come from down the street. Or emerge from their house. Or seem to appear out of nowhere. We all have this huge grin, one that is mostly seen on Buddhist monks (sort of a benighted, all-encompassing, one with the world Happy). In our eyes is a slightly bemused expression- where did we all come from? I didn’t know I had so many neighbours among my neighbours.

This user-generated google map shows where many of the casserole protests are occurring.

The gathering grows. People start taking over the street.  There are young people- the requisite hipster youth. Mothers with their toddlers. Our Pakistani neighbours. Old ladies. A drunken man who dances to the cacophony. Cars honk in support.  Bus drivers open their doors, honk their horns. Cheer us on.

On Thursday, the police blocked the street to oncoming traffic. On Friday, they stood back and watched as the protest took over the street then began to march through the neighborhood. Last night, two police came to talk to the people in the crowd. I couldn’t hear what they were saying so I asked a woman I now know lives down the street from us. She said they just wanted to let us know that when we started our march, to let us know and they would lead with  their cars in front and in back of the protesters to keep them safe.

The grins got wider. The clanging took to the streets. Hopefully, the government is listening.

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