This afternoon, an enthusiastic group of BA, MA and PhD students from Concordia University’s Department of Communications Studies held a picket line at the southeast door of the CJ Building at the Loyola campus. Many of the department’s faculty lent their support to the action. The purpose of the picket line was to maintain a strike presence on the Loyola Campus, to create placards and banners for the mass tomorrow’s mass demonstration, to feed our camaraderie and strengthen our solidarity. It was also a space to meet with passersby from different departments and other faculties by offering them red felt squares, information flyers and an affable opportunity for conversation. Strikes do not only foment divisions, they also provide opportunities for dialogue where dialogue would not otherwise present itself.
“Would you like a red square?” received mixed responses. Some students and professors responded sharply to my proposal with a “No thanks!” Others wouldn’t look me in the eye maybe from fear of a confrontation. One student turned to me as she rushed past my outstretched offering of red felt and a safety pin, and snapped, “I have the right to my education too!!” Maybe she blamed me for missing a class tomorrow after the university administration’s decision to lock down both campuses for the entire day of the mass demonstration. Dialogue did not come easy with everyone. These are representations of the divisiveness that strikes are known for.
One student seemed unaware of the strike, whose intensity had not really reached the Loyola Campus. How is this possible I thought to myself, wondering if it was plausible that a student from UQAM or Université de Montréal could be unaware of the student strike. I doubt it. The difference in media coverage of the student strike between anglophone and francophone media has manifest differences, which could explain the cluelessness.
Two students from Exercise Science responded to my offer with a “yes, why not”, to which I replied do you know what this red square is a symbol of?” They didn’t. I explained that in 2005, when the Québec government decided to take $103 million from the student bursary purse and transfer it to loans, students were incensed! Actually they were mad as hell because without bursaries, they would end up “squarely in the red” (a translation of carrément dans le rouge). Indebted to the hilt. Red square… debt… get it?! These two guys were interested in the history of the Québec student movement that has fought periodically for decades to maintain low tuition in support of accessible education. I continued.
The most common argument in support of tuition increases is that Québec tuition rates are the lowest in Canada. That’s exactly the point because Québec society made that decision decades ago to keep education accessible. The Charest government drones on about students paying their fair share. Québecois pay among the highest income and sales tax in North America because we want accessible education as a collective social project. Before stating that universities are underfunded because of the low tuition fees, critics should look at where the current government is allocating public funds. Consider one example from yesterday’s provincial budget: a $332 million grant in public funds is made available to extend route 167 so that the mining corporation, Stornoway Diamonds, can access its future mine. Stornoway is only paying a franctional $44 million for the construction of a permanent road that leads nowhere else than its future mine. Why are Québécois residents subsidizing this corporation to extract a non-essential mineral from public land?! Would this money not be better spent on education or healthcare or anywhere else with longterm benefits for Québec citizens?
In the end, neither of the two students accepted a red felt square. They weren’t yet ready to show support for the student strike. But that’s OK because the strike gave us an opportunity to chat with one another, across picket lines, borders, faculties, ideologies, divisions. We were both enriched by the exchange. As we parted, I turned and crossed the “soft” picket line drawn on the pavement with coloured chalk. The hive of activity had continued without me. Discussion ebbed and flowed. I was reminded as I glanced toward the tam tam player who was enthusiastically sustaining the heartbeat of the picket. At the beginning of the strike, he recited to our Media Studies cohort a quote by Mark Twain: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”
I realized that that is what I’d been doing all afternoon.