Racism and Access to Education – the Ongoing Québec Student Strike

[A draft of this piece was originally posted on You Must Start Somewhere.]

Québec students are currently in the midst of the longest student strike in North American history, in resistance to the proposed raising of university tuition from about $3,000 per year to about $4,600 per year, over a period of five years.  Even if Québec tuition remains the lowest in North America, the tuition hikes will exclude thousands of low-income people per year from achieving higher education.  A disproportionate number of those excluded will be single mothers and women of colour.

We all know that poverty and education are feminist issues.  Poverty is disproportionately experienced by women and people of colour, and post-secondary education is one of the most critical tools for young people from poor backgrounds to break the cycle of poverty.  As a first-generation university graduate, I grew up watching my single mother – who is smart as fuck – struggle to take night classes for years while working multiple jobs and raising two kids.  Despite relatively “low” tuition and straight-A’s, she never got her degree.  Despite being an avid reader of academic texts and a prolific writer, she cannot return to school due to a few hundred dollars of unpaid tuition from over a decade ago – a luxury that the welfare check simply cannot cover.

So when 300,000 people marched in the streets of downtown Montréal for “accessible education,” I wanted to be a part of this student movement.  I wanted poor people, single mothers and people of colour to be at the center of this movement.

Problem is, the movement has been carrying on some fucking racist and oppressive bullshit.

Back in March, a group of white students protested in full-on blackface, referencing Pierre Vallières 1968 characterization of French-Canadians as the oppressed “white niggers of America.”  Catherine Côté-Ostiguy’s widely-circulated “Speak Red” video features white person after white person talking about protecting “nos valeurs” (“our values”) and proclaiming, “Nous sommes le Québec” (“We are Québec.”) Students of Colour Montreal recently held a teach-in, where I and other poor/racialized members and allies of the movement talked about how it’s really fucking hard to taking part in a movement for “accessible education” that doesn’t recognize any forms of inaccessibility other than tuition – for example, institutional racism, or the fact that the fracturing of families caused by racist and sexist immigration policies, poverty, and so many other forms of social exclusion are contributing to disproportionately high drop-out rates in many communities of colour.

Céline Cooper recently wrote an important piece on some of this aforementioned bullshit.  Cooper talks about how Québec nationalist symbolism has been imported into the student movement with virtually no critical reflection or debate.  Referring to the students’ use of protest signs bearing the slogan  “Maîtres chez nous” (“Masters of our own house”) she rightfully asks:

Who gets to lay claim to that slogan in 2012? Who are the “maîtres”? Who are the “nous”? [...]

If you are drawing on such a loaded piece of nationalist history to create your own political statement about social equity, you must be prepared to justify on what grounds it is acceptable to align the fight for accessible education with Lalonde’s highly charged incantation – one rife with connotations of race, class, language, colonialism and revolution. [...]

The fact that there has been no outrage over these happenings is astonishing, in part because this movement is being spearheaded by university students who should – presumably – be the ones with the analytic tools to recognize and think critically about these things.

Word.  When a crowd of white guys starting holding up signs proclaiming themselves “masters in their own house,” someone damn well better start asking how they got to be living in that house in the first place and who they’re claiming mastery over.

Beyond what Cooper has pointed out, the ultra-white Québec-nationalist rhetoric reflects the ugly reality that post-secondary education is still by-and-for the white middle-class.   I have written in the past about how universities are complex institutional mechanisms for maintaining/producing middle- and upper-class privilege, and how the function of the university in perpetuating class inequality is concealed under a rhetoric of meritocracy.   As a white-looking poor person, I was pressured to erase my lower-class identity and assimilate; however, for visibly racialized people, the erasure can be even more all-encompassing, more intimately destructive, and more subject to constant monitoring by those students and authority figures whose status within the institution is more secure.

While admissions requirements are facially neutral, the disproportionate effects of poverty and racism on people of colour means that a disproportionate number do not even make it to the point where they can apply to university, let alone contemplate attending.  (E.g., The proportion of Black families living below the poverty line is double that of the general population, and Black youth experience significantly higher drop-out rates.)  At the recent teach-in organized by Students of Colour Montreal, a Filipino community organizer pointed out that for his community, where many families have been broken apart due to staggered migration through live-in-caregiver programs, the drop-out rate among youth is disproportionately high.  In the struggle for access to education in his community, tuition was simply not the top priority.

So when white student protesters declare themselves “masters in their own house” – a house where I happen to live too, and where my family and I have had some pretty oppressive experiences?  When they purport to fight for accessible education while refusing to acknowledge the many ways in which they perpetuate inaccessibility?  It hurts.

This silencing and appropriation of the rhetoric of accessibility hurts.  It makes it harder for some – and impossible for me – to wear the carré rouge (the red square representing solidarity with the strike.)  It hurts for the same reason that everything else hurts: the narrow focus on frozen tuition, the refusal to seriously consider other strategies or goals, the refusal to talk about how poor folk and mothers and people of colour might be better served by some targeted financial aid bursaries and some decent work-study.  It hurts because it reminds me that the movement as a fight to maintain the status quo and nothing more.

The status quo has brutalized me – but I say that as one of the lucky, the privileged, the ones who has succeeded, due to some chance and some privilege, in clawing my way into a certain status.  More importantly, the status quo has brutalized and excluded people that I love, my communities, my kin.  People who could not afford to go to university, even with tuition rates frozen at $3K per year.  People who are struggling to make it through their secondary and CEGEP degrees in the face of profound, systemic instability.

And when a movement that is fighting for the status quo appropriates the language of “accessible education” and speaks about protecting low-income students’ ability to go to university in the same breath as it utters racist Québecois nationalist rhetoric, I am suspicious.

University education, under the status quo, is not accessible to all – it is an institution that is accessible to certain people who already have a certain degree of privilege.  The university system then functions to re-construct and perpetuate that privilege by bestowing the status of “educated” and “professional” and “respectable” upon those who successfully claim membership.  And many of those who are fighting only to keep tuition frozen are not fighting for poor and racialized people’s ability to access education – they are fighting to maintain their own right to that existing privilege.  To remain the masters of their own house.


Disclaimer Although I am critical of the student movement on many issues, I am against the tuition hikes, and I support the strike.  I do not believe that frozen tuition is enough to make post-secondary education accessible, nor do I believe that it’s necessarily the best way to make it accessible – but I do believe that if the tuition freeze is lifted, it will hurt low-income people and communities of colour, and I oppose it for that reason.

Ed Lee and I had a really valuable exchange regarding this piece after it was posted, and I think it’s necessary to add a few words in light of his insightful comments.

First, this piece was a preliminary exercise for me, and one that I wish to build upon.  One issue that I acknowledge as critically important, and that promise to address as best I can, is strategies for anti-racist students within the movement.  Another issue that I will address in the future is the role and effectiveness of groups like ASSE and Free Education Montreal who identify their mandate as fighting for accessible education in a broad sense, beyond resisting the present tuition hike.

Second, as an anglophone québecoise and an irredeemably mixed person, I’m seriously under-informed about how racialized francophone Québecois people experience their membership within that social group.  I acknowledge that my discussion of Québec nationalism and racialized communities may have been dichotomizing and/or silencing, and I apologize.  I would be grateful to hear/learn from other perspectives.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation