By Dan Horner
The face that glares down from the cover of the June 4th issue of Maclean’s is meant to be unsettling: A protestor scowls at us, his menace heightened by some digital tweaks that bathe the whole scene in a blood red glow. The accompanying headline plays to the dystopian gloom of the image, suggesting that the mob personified by the masked thug on the cover has overthrown the elected government of Quebec.
This is how English Canada’s mainstream news weekly chose to frame the Printemps érable– the wave of protests that began as a response to the Liberal government’s decision to impose a dramatic hike on university tuition rates in the province: As an attack on Quebec’s legitimate political institutions by a gang of masked thugs on the street. This sort of coverage points to the central role that the task of policing urban space plays in this discussion: As with so many past outbreaks of popular protest, the government’s ability to impose its own version of order on the street has become a political battleground. These tensions between crowds, protest and the state are not new. They reflect a tangle of anxieties about the limits of democracy that have persisted for centuries.
The cover of Maclean’s conveys what has long been an underlying fear amongst elites in democratic societies: That a wild-eyed mob, unable to reason beyond their own explosive tempers, selfish interests and debased instincts could, due to the sheer power of numbers and the strength of their own fury, usurp the power of democratically elected governments. By the end of the eighteenth century, elites increasingly had to seek legitimacy for their political power by proving that they governed with public consent. The thought of an inclusive democracy where people from every social and cultural background participated as equals- a system where the votes of a small elite could be drowned out by those of the majority- was a terrifying prospect to them. So they sought ways to impose counterweights to balance the potential might of the popular classes.
They approached this lurking challenge to their authority through a number of channels. Well into the twentieth century, elites restricted access to who could participate in the electoral process on the basis of race, class and gender. These acts of exclusion were continuously justified by arguing that the disenfranchised (be they too poor, too young, or not sufficiently white, Christian, and male) simply lacked the mental capacity necessary to properly engage in public life. Fears about mob rule always lurked in the shadow of these debates. A series of hard-fought civil rights struggles led to most of these restrictions being lifted over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and now only children and immigrants who have yet to obtain citizenship are still barred from voting in Canada. In exchange for this more inclusive electoral process, though, we have been left with a political culture where elites continue to wield enormous and disproportionate clout. They assert this power by carefully setting the framework for debates around important policy issues. As we have seen in Quebec and elsewhere, this has resulted in an increasing sense of informal disenfranchisement, as growing numbers of citizens, especially the young, have ceased participating in electoral politics.
The political elite also addressed this potential challenge to their authority by placing restrictions on public assembly. Legislation has been used in an attempt to limit the ability of everyone from anti-war protestors to striking workers to use the streets as a site of protest and political engagement. Being able to control how people used public space as a theatre of protest played a fundamental role in demonstrating that a government was capable of governing effectively. The failure of Bill 78 to put a stop to boisterous protests across the province revealed the depth of the crisis that the Liberal government had backed themselves into.
The ongoing protests in Quebec, then, are an altogether rare occasion when popular dissent threatens to disrupt the governing project of the political elite. In response, right-wing commentators have once again begun to stoke these fears of mob rule. They have pointed repeatedly to the way in which the protestors use the street- too violently and too raucously, they argue- as a means of raising doubts about the character of their foes. The only legitimate means of engaging in public life, they maintain, is through the institutions that elites have produced, like electoral politics and the mainstream press. So, alongside debates about the merits of raising university tuitions, a second layer of debate has opened up around people’s use of the streets as a space of political engagement. While students and their allies defend public protest as an inalienable right in a democratic society, their conservative foes have argued that such demonstrations are the antithesis of democratic activity because they challenge the actions of the elected government. When rightwing elites and commentators argue that their critics ought to curtail their public protests, they are in effect attempting to narrow access to political power to a small group of likeminded people.
The politics of the Printemps érable also reminds us of just how complex and contested the use of the urban street is. The street is a public space with many functions: It is used to move people and their stuff from point a to point b, but it is also a space that plays a pivotal role in shaping many people’s relationship to their community. Most of the time these multiple understandings of the street can coincide without sparking any serious rifts. But when the streets are made into a theatre of boisterous and seemingly unpredictable political engagement, as they have in Montreal in recent months, these tensions begin to bubble to the surface.
This tension is particularly interesting in Montreal, a city known, and even characterized, by its dynamic public culture. In a commercial sense, the bustling quality of the city’s streets are a commodity that is packaged and sold to tourists and other investors. This was made evident when William Brown, the executive vice-president of the Hotel Association of Greater Montreal, warned last week that the protests were threatening to derail the city’s lucrative summer festival season. Montreal is pedaled to tourists as a city best experienced outdoors, where a convivial atmosphere distinguishes it from its stodgier Anglo-American counterparts. Car racing enthusiasts, conventioneers and jazz aficionados are lured in by a knot of attributes that lend the city what its boosters proclaim to be a European radiance. Tourist pamphlets present Montreal’s streets as a place where one can linger over a bottle of red wine on a softly-lit terrasse and where nattily-attired couples can stroll arm-in-arm under a sparkling night sky, safely ensconced in the rush of a mildly exotic French joie de vivre. Yet when these same cultural tendencies towards pleasure seeking, tolerance and solidarity result in the city becoming home to the most sustained and powerful wave of protests to hit North America in a generation, the chamber of commerce crowd recoils in horror, issuing dark warning of impending economic collapse. This sort of conflict is another that dates back centuries. When cities began to grow exponentially during the transition towards industrial capitalism that occurred in the nineteenth century, many urban elites who felt threatened by the popular culture of the popular classes became engaged with political and cultural projects that aimed to make the public culture of the city’s streets as genteel as possible. Amongst other things, they lobbied for greater investment in policing and demanded that restrictions be placed on the sale and consumption of alcohol. This sort of bourgeois activism was an effort to nudge the streets of their city that, in reality, were bustling, chaotic and filthy, closer to their idealized vision of an orderly public space. It was a project that, then just as now, was met with both subtle and overt forms of resistance from the population they sought to reform.
It now appears that, as is the case in a number of other jurisdictions across the world, the politics of austerity- in this case the Liberal government’s decision to shift the economic burden of post-secondary education more squarely onto the shoulders of young people- have proven to be intensely vulnerable to the forces of popular dissent. By demonstrating the influence that collective action can wield on the state, protestors have sparked a re-imagining of Quebec’s political culture that people from across the political spectrum will be grappling with for years to come. Recent events have demonstrated that debates about democracy and public space that date back to the end of the eighteenth century remain fiercely contested. In an age where conservative politics and carefully nurtured cynicism have persistently chipped away at notions of engaged citizenship, the protests in Quebec have shed light on democratic possibilities that only a few months ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Dan Horner is a post-doctoral fellow at the Wilson Centre for Canadian History at McMaster University and a member of the Montreal History Group. He has published a number of articles on public life and popular politics in mid-nineteenth-century Montreal.