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  • Creating Possibility: The Time of the Quebec Student Movement
  • Alia Al-Saji (bio)

Walking, illegally, down main Montreal thoroughfares with students in nightly demonstrations, with neighbors whom I barely knew before, banging pots and pans, and with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people on every 22nd of the month since March—this was unimaginable a year ago.1 Unimaginable that the collective and heterogeneous body, which is the “manif [demonstration]”, could feel so much like home, despite its internal differences. Unimaginable that this mutual dependence on one another could enable not only collective protection from traffic and police but the affective strength and audacity to take back the street—a mutual dependence that includes the masked demonstrators ready to help when gassed by police. Unimaginable too that we would be breaking the law daily,2 that blocking traffic and seeing the city from the center of the street would become habit, and that as the “printemps érable” becomes summer, we would be investing our time in neighborhood assemblies, in weaving social bonds, and in sustaining and deepening the mobilization.

I say these actions were unimaginable not merely because the context that motivated the enlargement of the student movement into a popular struggle combines a number of unique features (a neoliberal government whose stubbornness seems policy, a resilient and surprisingly unified student movement, and a special law, bill 78, which goes well beyond what most would define as reason). Nor were they simply unimaginable because the Quebec I previously knew was marred by the Islamophobia and cultural racism made visible during the reasonable accommodation debates, a society whose mapping excluded me and for whose sake it would have been difficult to protest.3 Rather, I say these actions were unimaginable because the possibility of this popular and inclusive mobilization had not yet been created. It is this possibility that the Quebec student movement has created, I argue, not only in quantitative terms by engaging so many, but at the level of lived subjectivities and intercorporeal solidarity. The evolution of the movement should be understood, then, both as a swelling of its popular base and as an intensification and qualitative transformation of ways of life.

The Illusion of Possibilities Mapped in Advance

Attempts to explain the current Quebec student movement in the media and by politicians have, with few exceptions, imposed on the movement predefined parameters and positioned it within an already mapped field of meaning. Even those sympathetic to the movement often cannot resist appealing to familiar narratives and preconceived schemas to render intelligible and to tame the dynamic complexity and multiplicity that characterize how this movement unfolds. While historical narratives can provide a context for understanding from whence the current movement came, the attempt to use such narratives to predict the outcome of the present “crisis” misconstrues the nature and temporality of this movement. Thus the common comparison with May 68 in France, though imaginatively fecund and not without resonance, is used to predict failure for the Quebec student movement in electoral terms (de Gaulle having been re-elected after May 68). Likewise, when the student movement is viewed simply through the lens of electoral politics, and our current system of representative democracy, a paternalistic and instrumentalist picture is drawn of its future: a certain quietism and electoral calculus is advised, since picket lines and daily demonstrations could provide a pretext for the current government to run on a “law and order” platform.4 Underlying these predictions is a quantitative treatment of the student movement that measures actions and events according to a single dimension or predetermined scale. Hence, the transformative effects of the student strike are measured by poll results and electoral outcomes, and its mobilizing power is filtered through the single variable of total number of protestors. That the sense, style and composition of protests change, that there might be multiple forms of resistance at work, and that the participation in the movement is itself diversified (linguistically, ethnically, racially and inter-generationally, in terms of gender and sexuality)—this qualitative differentiation and nuance are overlooked.5

Such interpretations of the student movement are not only reductive, flattening the heterogeneity of voices and diversity of tactics...