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Toronto's Maple Spring?
Carmelle Wolfson examines how Quebec's student movement might take root in Ontario

All images by Carmelle Wolfson

By Carmelle Wolfson

For Torontonians watching events unfold in Quebec over Twitter, Facebook or live video feeds, our neighbouring province has never felt so near. The Printemps Erable is proving to be a force stronger than any social movement we’ve seen in Canada over the last 50 years, captivating people around the world. 

That’s something that hasn’t been lost on people in Toronto. “This is a movement that is showing incredible resilience and creativity,” says Ryerson University Sociology Professor Alan Sears. Sears has been involved with social movements since the ’60s and addressed the crowd of students and activists at Tuesday’s rally. “It’s forcing people to pay attention to Quebec in a way that they haven’t before.” He believes that the after effect of the Quebec Awakening is that in this moment in time things are possible that weren’t possible before.

Xavier Lafrance agrees. “There comes a time when you can feel change is in the air. I feel that it’s in Toronto and in Ontario too,” said Lafrance to a crowd of about 300 gathered outside Ryerson University on Tuesday, June 6. A York University student and former spokesperson for ASSÉ (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante) during the 2005 Quebec student strike, Lafrance has played an integral role in the recently formed Student Solidarity Network, a loose group of student activists and student union leaders across Ontario.

Tuesday’s protest, organized by another newly formed group called Ontario Students Mobilization Committee, was held in solidarity with the Quebec student strike. It brought a mixed bag of college and university students from George Brown, Sheridan, University of Toronto, Ryerson and non-student activists.

“What do we want? Student strike! When do we want it? Now!” chanted some protesters as they left George Brown College. Coming now, at a time when most students have finished classes for the semester, the call seems misguided. But it displays perfectly the urgency and fearless defiance I felt among the crowd as they marched towards Ryerson stopping traffic along King and then Church Street.

This spirit and excitement is not just limited to students. When Liisa Schofield and her friend decided to put up a Facebook page for Toronto’s first “casseroles” over 1,000 people showed up with children, dogs, pots and pans on May 30. “It’s pretty awesome what two women on social media can do,” says Schofield. “My friend and I were literally just watching day after day what’s happening in Quebec and have been so awestruck and inspired.” After working for many years as an anti-poverty activist she says she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support last week. “Something is shifting, not just in Toronto, and certainly not just in Quebec, but globally,” she says.

While in Quebec the casseroles were a way to express anger at what people felt was an attack on rights and freedoms, in Toronto it has become a call to action and way to support the Quebec movement while protesting austerity measures in this city. After the success of the first Casseroles Toronto (which sparked simultaneous actions across Canada), a second took place this Wednesday, June 6. With just a pot and a pan and no specific message, the action has broad appeal. Schofield notes that people feel empowered when the action is rooted in their own neighborhood and they feel engaged. “You can come out of your home with your pot and everybody is participating in it,” she says.

I fear, however, that the greatest strength of this strategy could also become its biggest downfall, if participants can’t move beyond the clanging to sort out a vision or get bogged down in internal disputes like the Occupy movement.

To state what should already be obvious, there is no 10-step procedure to replicate Quebec’s successes. While Quebec is just next door to us, our situations are far apart. Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada, while Ontario has the highest. “The Quebec government can suggest all that they are suggesting now with a straight face because Ontario did it first,” says Sandy Hudson, former Ontario Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. What she says about Ontario students becoming increasingly frustrated about student debt is also true, however minimal political activity on campus points to something else.

According to Lafrance students have a split mind on tuition increases here. Since students in Ontario have to work more to pay off their debt, “some of them have internalized more so than in Quebec, that education is a commodity that you have to pay for to increase your value in the labour market,” explains the Political Science major.

He says in order to counter this type of thinking on campus, students need to grow the movement and develop a culture of democracy and mass mobilizations through creating departmental and then campus-wide general assembly meetings where members can discuss and vote on issues.

Lafrance is hopeful that this can be done over the next half year, but admits that it’s probably premature to call for a student strike in the Fall, as some students have been discussing. “We cannot simply make a call for a general strike right away. We’re going to need to go through a campaign first,” he says. “So that’s a long term process.”

To keep this momentum going with students over the summer while most are off campus will require ingenuity. But the real test will come in the fall, when classes start up again.

“I don’t know that we’re at a boiling point yet,” says Schofield. “Whether it boils over in the immediate future or a couple years down the road after we’ve done some real hard work to put the heat on and participate in getting people active, I do think it’s possible.”

OSMC is planning a rally for June 22 to coincide with the Quebec student group CLASSE day of action.

____

Carmelle Wolfson is a journalist based in Toronto. Read more of her work here.

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