Although words can in no way come close to explaining my experience of the Quebec Student Movement, as a writer I am obligated to try. Upon learning about the student movement brewing in Quebec, my reaction quickly progressed from mere intrigue, to anger, to taking to the streets. Last year, in the way of protests, students began flooding the streets to oppose the 75% tuition hike proposed by the Liberal government in power. The movement grew very quickly, with as many as 250 000 people protesting in the streets of Montreal by March of 2012, and more protests throughout Quebec. And soon enough, rally actions had spread across Canada to show solidarity.
Beyond March, protests were called Casseroles. This meant that rather than holding picket signs and loudly chanting slogans, people would gather and walk through the streets banging pots and pans. The first time I heard of the idea of a Casserole, I smiled at its peculiarity. In hindsight, it was perfect.
I remember my first Casserole so vividly, although it was the first of many. I reached Dufferin Grove Park in downtown Toronto just as a large group was gathering. People had their red felt squares, the symbol of the movement, pinned so proudly on their chests. I wore mine with pride, too (to this day, it is still pinned to my bag). I held my little bowl and wooden spoon. In the midst of drummers, photographers, hundreds of students and families, we waited. I did not know anybody, but I was always at arm’s length of the person beside me. The smiles were endless. The kindness was overwhelming.
When we started marching, I learned that the students of Quebec were right. It was magic.
I remember so many people expressing that the first time they came home from a Casserole, they cried. And during my very first Casserole, I understood. As the 2000 of us marched through the streets of Toronto, starting in the residential neighbourhoods and ending in the core of downtown, you could not feel anything except that you were part of something big. Something great. Something right.
The drums were loud, and they joyfully led the banging of hundreds of pots and pans. Sometimes on key. Most of the times, not so much. But we did not care. Our sound was strong, it was loud, and it united us in a way that we had not known possible. The ground felt like it was vibrating. We marched from evening, to sunset, and under the dark skies.
I remember a text I had received from my friend during the Casserole. “It looks like it’s going to rain. Hear that thunder?” I laughed. My first thought was that our drums must have drowned out the sound of the thunder. When someone from the crowd announced that we were the thunder, I had no choice but to agree. And through the pouring rain, we marched and we smiled and we showed our love. Coming home completely drenched and exhausted, I was overwhelmed with a thought. They were marching for students like me. I cried.
The Casseroles created a sense of community, connecting families, children, seniors, workers, activists and students. Eye contact lasted a little longer, the conversations went a little deeper, the relationship between our minds and our emotions grew a little stronger. Upon meeting a newly immigrated family from India at one of the marches, my heart completely melted. There was a feeling of togetherness as the list of cities having Casseroles quickly grew. First it was communities all across Quebec, then all across Canada. Then the world. From New York, to Berlin, to Paris. Wednesday nights were Casserole nights worldwide, and I always felt like I could hear the entire world marching at my feet.
The Casseroles were about coming together to dream about a better future. It would always stir emotion for me when I read articles about doctors’ appointment schedules filling up because of students experiencing muscle pains from protesting every night. In Montreal, every single night was spent in the streets. Walking for hours. Beating the pots so passionately it was like they were trying to wake up our hearts.
And still do this day, protesting, marching, caring so much. Most of these students would be graduating before the tuition fee hike would even affect them. They are not fighting for themselves. If they were, they would not have gave up their semesters, delayed graduation. There is not and never was anything selfish about this movement. When there are people across the entire world banging a pots and pans, there is something else going on here. And it is not only about compassion, it is about the ideals of social justice.
It would start here, we thought. We could fight for education, and our successes would spread. It was about never losing hope. When I see all my beautiful people still fighting in the streets, I am not as angry as I am grateful for the people who are still fighting for our rights.
When you see that we are no longer in the streets, there is a reason for fear. When people have given up on fighting for our freedoms, there is a reason for fear. Not the other way around.
My purpose of this entry was not to explain why our system is broken, or about explaining the tuition fee issue. It was not about giving my fellow activists encouragement, surely they must know I love them, support them. But they are stronger than I. They will not stop fighting. They will be beaten, ridiculed, and ignored. But I have witnessed the strength of their hearts. They are my soldiers.
As I write, there are tears streaming down my face, and I feel an aching in my heart. Last Friday was the unofficial one year anniversary of the Quebec Student Movement, and when protesters met once again in the streets last week to continue to struggle for our public education, they were met with intense police brutality. With every word I write, the image of the kettling and arresting of peaceful protestors cannot escape the back of my mind. It hurts to think about the violence and hate that has been inflicted upon the most beautiful, loving, and passionate movement I have ever been a part of. Violence on the part of government and police. Hate on the part of the people, communities, and my family.
When I ask my dad why people stay quiet, he always responds with the same answer: At the heart of silence, is fear. But I don’t understand the reason for why people are so hateful and judgemental against a group of people who care so deeply about tomorrow’s children. A group of people who will endure cold nights in the streets, prejudice and police brutality. I know the idea of public education is a value that my movement is fighting for. But at the heart of this value is its people’s deep feeling of care and love for you and your family. We want everyone to be healthy, educated, free of the shackles of debt. Free to aim for their dreams.
So then what, I ask, is at the heart of the violence and hate that continues today against my fellow students?
The thought of what the answer could be is terrifying.