Small Town GGI

The Carré Rouge Where There is No University

Protesters gather at Église St. Dominique for a weekly demonstration through downtown Jonquière. Photos Colin Harris
Police tell the protest organizers to keep things moving after the group occupies an intersection. Photos Colin Harris
A man shows his disapproval from a downtown terrace. Photos Colin Harris

It’s a familiar scene for anyone who has witnessed a student protest in the past month.

The numbers grow as the sun sets in a habitual meeting spot, the sound of pots, pans and chants building in intensity. A police officer asks for a route, and when denied, the officer addresses the crowd:

“This protest is illegal, but will be tolerated as long as no criminal acts are committed.”

And while this picture is one seen nightly in Montreal, it also describes weekly demonstrations in the little northern Quebec city of Jonquière, where the population is about 60,000 and there is no university.

Students at the CEGEP de Jonquière, however, have been speaking out against the Charest government’s planned hikes all year. As the next crop of university students they’ll be hit harder by the increases than those currently enrolled.

“We held a general assembly the week before the March 22 Day of Action, where we had about 600 students attend,” said Antoine Rail, President of L’Association Générale des Étudiantes et Étudiants du Cégep de Jonquière.

“We voted to go on a general strike for four days. We filled up four buses very early in the morning, and drove to Montreal to join the Day of Action.”

Now that the semester is done, organizing anti-hike actions have proven a challenge in Jonquière.

“Many people have gone away, either back home or to work for the summer,” said Rail. “But we are still participating, and there are the militants that organize actions; this is a citizen’s movement, not one of student associations.”

It was the Charest goverment’s passing of emergency legislation against student protests at the end of the CEGEP spring session that spurred the regular marches through the city. Since the passing of Bill 78, there have been weekly protests—Thursdays in Jonquière and Tuesdays in neighbouring city Chicoutimi.

8:30 at the Church

In the last hour of daylight a man with a bullhorn waits with a handful of others, pots and pans at their sides and a warm cheer for each new protester. The air is jovial as they sit on the steps of Église St. Dominique, one of the few buildings in Jonquière taller than two storeys.

“We are here to disobey the special law, perhaps not with the same force as Montreal, but we’re still doing it,” says Université du Québec à Chicoutimi literature and sociology student Paul Bégin Duchesne.

His megaphone rests at his side, in anticipation of the crowd. It’s the second week he’s been an “animateur” for the protests, leading chants and acting as spokesperson for the protesters when approached by local police.

“I started doing it because some others find it a little intimidating talking with the police, and they’re always looking to speak with ‘the organizer,’” he says.

The first march against the emergency law saw over 200 in the streets of Jonquière, but the following demos have seen only about half that number. Many students have left the city since the end of the semester, but the marches continue—receiving high-fives or middle fingers, depending on which bar they pass.

They chant the same slogans that echo through the province, and despite the smaller scale, it closely resembles the action in Montreal. A couple of masked protesters are removed by police along the way for running in different directions than the greater demonstration, but are released without being charged.

Despite the fact that the entire demonstration is technically illegal, it is tolerated barring any criminal acts. Depending on the night, the protesters walk with a motorcade of eight to 12 police vehicles.

The group reaches the church again hours later, and a man climbs the steps to wish everyone a good night with a mock blessing of the protest. The sign of the cross takes a new significance among the building social unrest in the province, visible even in an isolated city in northern Quebec.

“From the beginning I think the carré rouge had a larger significance than tuition hikes. It’s a stance against the hike but also against the kind of neoliberal politics we’re seeing in Quebec,” says Rail. “It’s been more profound than tuition from the beginning, and now the special law has given more and more people reason to rally around the carré rouge.

“It’s indignation against the treatment by the government, both provincial and federal, towards the people of Quebec.”