Like many Montrealers of a certain age, the massive student demonstration of last March 22 through the streets of the city centre triggered within me a great deal of reflection.
From the Sherbrooke Street viaduct intersecting above the Berri underpass in the city’s east end, I patiently observed what had to have been the largest assembly of the latest iPhones, iPods, and other electronic gadgetry ever before seen in any protest march. Today’s youth paraded below me – peacefully, amiably, joyfully, all the while chatting and texting.
At all levels of possible analysis, the rally can only be considered to have been an unmitigated success. The scholars of Quebec are to be congratulated on having conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion and on displaying top-notch organizational skills.
Quite naturally, I cannot help but compare it to the demos in which I have participated in the course of my lifetime. The most important of these was almost certainly the ‘McGill Français’ demonstration that took place almost 43 years ago to the day of last month’s gathering.
Obviously, from its very name, the late 1960’s march was not about a proposed tuition fee hike, far from it. It was a noisy get-together of individuals determined to convert McGill University into a French-language institution, and, as such, was part and parcel of an international movement of radicalized students making their demands known around the globe. Compared to last week’s protest parade, the 1969 turnout was small – 6,000 to 8,000 participants, all of whom were profoundly nationalist. Most simply clad in jean jackets and Levi’s, their relatively low numbers were compensated for by their youthful energy. Incidentally, no one wore masks.
Having just turned 22 myself, I attended that Friday, March 28 evening because of deep curiosity. As an aspiring photographer, I also thought the event would provide a wide-range of opportunities for my newly-acquired 35mm SLR. Indeed, my camera and I journeyed with the crowd along Sherbrooke Street from St. Louis Square (where the rally started) directly to the McGill campus. The understanding was, as I remember, that after a few speeches in front of the Roddick Gates, the manifestation would terminate swiftly. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Just as is so often the case today, there is seemingly always a faction within the throng who do not really want the happening to end peacefully. That was certainly the situation in March of 1969.
After much patience and faced with considerable provocation, the forces of order directed the demonstrators to disperse. When they failed to do so, police on horseback charged into the now-illegal assembly, forcing it to move in two opposite directions along Sherbrooke Street while the riot squad and other law enforcement agencies prevented the campus itself from being penetrated. Needless to say, with all the ferocity that I witnessed that evening, several people were injured and at least 30 arrested. Emboldened by my youth, I too was very nearly struck by a policeman’s baton in my determination to get the photographs I so wanted.
Well that was then, this is now.
How do the two events compare? Obviously, a hostility-free affair involving perhaps as many as a couple of hundred thousand people, parading over much the same territory as those in the ‘McGill Français’ demonstration of 1969, is an amazing achievement. This is all the more so when one notes the encouraging fact that both anglophone and francophone students were, for once, marching side by side in a common québécois cause. Sadly, much of the violence in the episode 43 years earlier was actually between French-speaking and English speaking students, with both groups taunting one another incessantly.
On the other hand, having participated in the earlier proceeding and having surveyed at considerable length the recent one, some other comparisons are inescapable. Let’s consider just one of them – personal acquisitions.
Not to be seen in the demonstration of that early spring evening all those years ago were the following – bottled water, expensive coffees, designer clothes, classy sports shoes, piercings, tattoos, artificially whitened teeth, iPhones, iPods, iPads; all of which I saw last March from my privileged position on that Sherbrooke Street viaduct. Furthermore, students from the ‘McGill Français’ period were not in the habit of flying south virtually every winter to party with their peers in some far off exotic land.
The point is, as any objective analysis will show, today’s young people are the ultimate consumer generation. Financial credit is made easily available to them and, as a consequence, many seem incapable of managing their money and controlling their appetite to spend it. Otherwise, one might ask, why is it that so many seem incapable of coming up with the additional .89 cents a day that the proposed tuition increase would imply.