Red Squares Everywhere: Will Quebec’s maple spring come south?
A simple red square of fabric, pinned to a T-shirt or jacket, is the symbol of a movement that has taken over a Canadian province. It comes from the French—“carrément dans le rouge,” or “squarely in the red”—an emblem of the debt that students in Quebec carry as the cost of higher education rises. But that red square has inspired activists from Brooklyn to Brazil—and like the movement it represents, it has come to signify more than just a tuition fight.
“All over the world we see a need for democracy and legitimate student power. We need free education, and we need student debt forgiveness,” says Biola Jeje, an activist from CUNY Brooklyn College, who visited Quebec and brought red squares—and inspiration—back with her to New York.
Young people are being asked to bear a double burden for mistakes they didn’t make, paying more in tuition to go to school—and then facing dismal job prospects when they get out. Paul Mason, author of the book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, calls them “the graduates with no future.” No wonder their generation is in revolt.
Things kicked off in Quebec in February, after Premier Jean Charest’s government announced tuition hikes of 75 percent over the next five years. Department by department, student unions voted in general assemblies not only to stop going to class, but to picket outside university buildings, shutting down classes entirely. At the height of the strikes, some 180,000 students took part.
But the students’ fight was about more than tuition.
“Students have become well aware that [the tuition hike] is a symptom of larger social issues, namely neoliberal, austerity policies,” says Jérémie Bédard-Wien, finance secretary for the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), which he describes as “the latest organization representing the combative side of the movement.” From ASSÉ, the student unions built a strike-time coalition, CLASSE, that represents many of the most radical activists.