Written by Evhenia Viatchaninova, a master’s candidate in the Public Diplomacy Program at Syracuse University.
In line with my fellow PD colleagues, I’d like to update the world on my summer 2012 and a fine example of citizen activism I had a chance to observe in Quebec, Canada.
While these days, in the rest of Canada, La Belle Province may not enjoy the best reputation ever sustained by a notorious budget deficit and newly-inflamed calls for Independence, Quebec seems to project a favorable image abroad as its people fight for freedom of speech and expression to preserve their recent past and ensure a thriving future.
Since early 2012, proliferation of news unfolding in Quebec has been hardly paid-for content in the world’s major media. Nascent student protest movement fighting against provincial government policy imposing 5-year tuition hikes, at first, failed to generate global buzz. Yet, in March-May, when mass protests peaked and only in the city of Montreal started to attract hundreds of thousands, the Quebec student activism ceased to go unnoticed in traditional media. In result, intergovernmental bodies (The UN) and human rights organizations (Amnesty International) issued several reports condemning police brutality and adoption of the provincial Law 78 severely restricting the right for peaceful assembly; people in other countries, including the U.S., began to express their solidarity with the student movement by protesting for defense of their issues (Occupy New York); finally, foreign opinion leaders cited Quebec issue while amending their legislation (President Putin while pushing for a new law imposing severe fines on demonstration organizers has referred to recent Quebec legislature as a precedent).
While arguments of both sides and the chronology of the conflict are essential to understanding the issue, I’d rather leave this task to Google and instead will focus here on the messages which I believe the student movement may have conveyed to the foreign publics. These messages seem to go beyond conventional “5W” news story and may evolve in full-fledged mediated public diplomacy.
The key message lies in extraordinarily enduring and creative nature of Quebec activism. In spite of having their demonstrations announced illegal under the new law, student protestors continued their demarche, sometimes facing over 700 arrests a night. Conventional street gatherings in the city center of Montreal soon evolved in everyday pot-and-pan clanging a-la Chilean cacerolazo dispersed throughout the island, which effectively replaced chanting and mass rallies prohibited by the legislature.
Student issue also helped reveal how different Quebec is from the rest of Canada, aside from the language and culture. Unlike residents of other provinces, Quebecois seem to adhere to a much more left vision of social order exemplified, for example, by the lowest higher education tuition fees (which are, for the most part, sustained through analogous though lower scale student protests since 1970s, a decade after the reformist education policy had been enacted in QC). The leftist attitudes in the province most clearly manifest themselves in the fact that in 2011, during the most recent federal parliamentary election it was the socialist-oriented national-democratic party (NDP) that won majority of Quebec seats, whereas the ruling Conservative party enjoying the highest ratings in the West has ensured only five.
Certainly, there may have been other messages perceived by foreign audiences, based on their media exposure, philosophy, and knowledge of Canadian politics and culture. I realize that this account is, by no means, exhaustive, and it is possible to deliberate in negative terms on the impact of Quebec citizen activism on tourism or perceptions of Canadian human rights record (in which Canadian “niche diplomacy” is supposedly rooted). Yet, my point is that potentially events transpiring in QC can be used by Canadian state or non-state actors to further people-to-people mutually beneficial relationship-building. Whether Quebec City or Ottawa will take advantage of the messages dispersed for the sake of enhancing general country’s image and reputation remains to be seen and, in my view, is more unlikely to happen than otherwise. Meanwhile, it should be understood that Quebecois citizen activism has the potency of strengthening distinct Quebec image and educational brand through frequent media exposure, international advocacy in human rights organizations, and international student inflow.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any other agency, organization, or department.