Dawson shooting

The Violence in Montreal

I’ll admit it: politically, I’m confused. 

I’m setting my thoughts down so I can understand just where I land on the left/right political spectrum. So far, my head’s spinning with the effort.

I saw this photo pop up on my Facebook page this morning. I was instantly irritated. The caption, “Courage is contagious,” seems at odds with the fact that the model is wearing a mask. Doesn’t courage mean taking an open stand? Of putting your face and your ideas together? It seems to me that hiding behind a mask is anything but courageous.

Saying that, there’s a lot about this photo to like. The model’s cleavage for one. Then her long hair and the heroin chic of the hypodermic needle posed like a cigarette. It’s film noir meets Anonymous.

Then of course there’s her slender build and tight blouse, topped off with that iconic symbol: the Guy Fawkes’ mask. What’s not to like if you are a young man whose hormones and deep-as-a-well feelings of alienation are snagged and amplified by this very sexy montage of ideas?

And that’s where I have a problem. Apparently, it’s not only slick advertising agencies that use sex to sell.

My city has been under siege by students’ groups that are demanding that the government not raise tuition fees. The link to the photo is that many of these students are showing up wearing Guy Fawkes’ masks.

The raise the government is seeking is very modest: most estimates put the per diem increase at under a dollar, something which seems reasonable to those of us who watch students pour by us on downtown streets, cups of various Starbuck’s products in their hands. It seems reasonable to most of us that if students are willing to pay two to five dollars for a fix of caffeine, 99 cents a day to get ahead in the world surely isn’t too much to ask.

There’s also the fact, quite rightly noted by many observers, that the increase in revenue to post-secondary institutions should be borne by the people using them, and not culled from the wider pool of tax-payers, many of whom are not going to pass through those exalted doors into the world of higher education. In short, why should your hairdresser subsidize your or your child’s B.A.?

And this is where my problem deepens.

I come from a long line of politically minded people and I was raised with the idea that strong communities grow strong people. My father was a partisan in Yugoslavia in the second world war and my grandmother, on my mother’s side, stood up to Russian troops occupying her home around the same time. She did this to save the daughter of her neighbour, who was in the process of being carried away, presumably to be gang-raped and then killed.

It was this same woman who later, while I was a 10 year old visiting Europe for the first time, regaled me with stories of my grandmother’s bravery.

I remember the feelings that story roused in me: I learned that it was important for me to have backbone and courage, even in situations where I might be sorely outnumbered. It was also important to know how to use words to persuade and mollify and yes, manipulate. My grandmother spoke to the head of the regiment, pointing out how cooperative she and her neighbours had been in accommodating the Russians while they camped out in my family’s small villa. What she said specifically has never been explained, but apparently she moved the man in charge enough to cause him to fire off three shots, a signal that all men under him were expected to report to duty immediately. The men heading to the woods with this young woman were interrupted and her life was saved.

I haven’t been faced with the same dilemma; however, I did seek out excitement and adventure as a young woman. And occasionally, I found it. And this brings me to my next point.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly simple-minded, I have to say the following: violence is scary. And it is particularly scary to innocent by-standers who have no stake in whatever political agenda is being enacted.

I know because I have spent long periods of time in countries where life is a lot cheaper than it is in Canada. I know because I have walked down a street in a foreign country, only to see a menacing mob come toward me. I have felt the jolt of a fight or flight response reverberate through my body at a cellular level and known that my response was a justified response to a real threat. I have the memory of a brick coming through the window of a cafe, off Picadilly Square in London, and remember the collective sigh of relief that ran through everyone in that cafe when we realized it was just a brick and not a bomb. That was back in the 80s when the IRA were in the habit of placing bombs here and there in London, just to let the British know they weren’t welcome in Ireland.

The mob mentality of the student strike is bringing back those memories and, while I understand that these are young people who wish to be heard, it’s the force with which they are making their statements that has me digging in my heels and saying “no” to their actions.

It’s just not right to scare the citizens of this city because you are pissed off about a rise in tuition. It’s not fair to block major arteries and metro lines—especially those that service major hospitals—and expect the rest of us to feel sympathy. It’s not okay to break the windows of small businesses, especially at this crucial point in the world’s economic history. In short, it is not okay to use violence in a situation that really does not call for it.

This kind of hostility, as I see it, can only be coming from those who have not experienced hostility firsthand. Those who have not held their breath while a brick lies stolidly on the floor in front of them, holding a terrifying power over them the first few seconds after it’s landed there. Those who have not had to stand up to an occupying foreign regiment while they take shelter in your home, plundering your resources and trying to rape your neighbours’ daughters. Those who have not suffered the pangs and anxieties of not knowing what the next day will bring and if they will be alive to see it.

A lot has been made of the “peacefulness” of many of the protesters. Pundits in the students’ corner are quick to point out that it is only a handful who are causing the trouble and that the majority of students only want to be heard. But if this majority are so peaceful, why aren’t they reasoning with the minority who aren’t? Why are they are acting by omission and allowing our city to be held hostage by their less peaceful peers? Why are they wearing masks? And when they are not, why do they appear to be amused and smirking? It’s there in the photographs I’m seeing posted every day on the net. It’s there on the mask of Guy Fawkes. It’s in the photo placed at the start of this text.

And more to the point, why are these students letting the rest of us suffer while they demand to be heard? When they take off their masks and put their pots and pans away, will they be willing to listen to us?

These demonstrations are being heralded as harbingers of change with regard to the way Quebec sees its obligations to its people. I hope changes do come, but I’m also hoping that the idea of personal responsibility emerges as a guiding force in the debate. More specifically, I hope the idea emerges that if you want an education, it may not be fair to expect everyone else to foot the bill, especially, and most especially, if you respond with violence when you don’t get your way.

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