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Generation Rising: The Time of the Québec Student Spring

by Shawn Katz

In Defiance

by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois; Lazer Lederhendler (trans.)

According to the authors of two new books about Quebec’s Maple Spring – the headline-generating student mobilization of 2012 – mainstream media was generally unsympathetic, if not outright hostile, to the movement, leaving citizens poorly informed about the students’ perspective and the various issues motivating their strike. If this was true within the province, it was doubly so beyond its borders, where distance and a different language reduced the protests, in the eyes of many Canadians, to anarchy in the streets of Montreal.

Generation Rising Shawn KatzFor this reason, these books are a welcome contribution to the debate about what the dramatic events meant at the time, and for the future. Both are overtly on the side of the students, so to some extent the authors are preaching to the choir, but their generally measured arguments, supported by facts, are nevertheless convincing.

With their shared subject matter and ideology, there’s little to differentiate In Defiance, the English translation (by Lazer Lederhendler) of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award winner Tenir tête, by prominent student activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, and Generation Rising, by Montreal writer, editor, and cultural journalist Shawn Katz. The books offer thorough and intelligent insights about the Maple Spring, and why it was more than just a fight between students and Jean Charest’s government over proposed fee hikes to universities.

Key among the points made by both Nadeau-Dubois and Katz: accessible education was a cornerstone of the Quiet Revolution’s aspirations for an egalitarian Quebec society; since the 1980s, provincial governments have reversed progress toward free education by raising tuition fees while also corporatizing universities; this is symptomatic of a broader shift to a user-pays model for public services, as governments worldwide promote the interests of the rich and powerful; the Printemps érable is part of a global, horizontally structured movement opposed to the neo-liberal agenda that is creating social, financial, and ecological debt for the next generation.

Among the author’s many salient points is the notion that democracy is not limited to the electoral process. While some described the students’ activities as an assault on democracy, Nadeau-Dubois argues that social movements are an important check on power, representing significant segments of society, whereas lobbyists serve only narrowly proscribed interests.

In Defiance Gabriel Nadeau-DuboisEven more stirring is the personal aspect of In Defiance, which is partly autobiographical. Nadeau-Dubois occasionally inserts himself into his ideological arguments, noting, for example, that he was born after the Berlin Wall fell, into a world where capitalist democracy is considered the only option. The author, who acted as the main student association spokesperson, also reveals the emotional impact of this period. This included criticism from within the intentionally leaderless student collective if Nadeau-Dubois showed too much initiative, and from without if he showed too little. His personal recollections of events, such as the critical first assembly to vote on strike action, are among the book’s most powerful and illustrative passages.

Although Shawn Katz also claims membership in the Printemps érable generation with the occasional use of the pronoun “we,” the author of Generation Rising describes the movement’s events and context largely from the standpoint of an observer – albeit a very keen one. Surprisingly, for a book that is in other respects academic, Katz slips into occasional emotive language – sometimes with such heightened passion that metaphors become mixed: “The force and fire with which others took up the baton spoke to the pulsing vein that the students had ruptured.”

Such language is unfortunate, as it undermines the persuasive power of what is otherwise an articulate encapsulation of the protesters’ perspective. Extensively researched and footnoted (references, textual notes, and other supporting material comprise nearly a quarter of the book), Generation Rising is a solid primer.

Among the most important contributions Katz makes to the conversation is an analysis of his generation’s disenchantment with hierarchies, including democratic institutions they feel do not represent them, and their shift toward “horizontal, decentralized, and networked structures.” Critical to this, and likely a catalyst for it, is the embracing of social media, which enables the mobilization of essentially leaderless movements, from Quebec’s carrés rouges to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

Those of the neo-liberal mindset that Katz and Nadeau-Dubois attack are about as likely to read these books as Das Kapital. For others, who seek a better understanding or fresh perspective on the Maple Spring, Generation Rising and In Defiance will be welcomed. They make valuable contributions to discussions about the price, cost, and value of education, the nature of democracy, and the meaning of prosperity.