Jan 1 2013

Lost in Translation

The Quebec student strike in Anglo-American corporate media

When Quebec students went on strike last spring in protest over an announced 75 percent tuition hike—part of a package of austerity measures by Quebec’s provincial government—U.S. media paid scant attention. The six-month-long strike was the largest and longest student strike in North American history; hundreds of thousands of Québécois repeatedly took to the streets, with thousands arrested. Yet the strike elicited not a single story from any of the three major U.S. broadcast networks, PBS NewsHour or the Washington Post.

"It's a Student Strike, It's a People's Struggle," reads the banner. (Photo cred.: legrandecart.net)

“It’s a Student Strike, It’s a People’s Struggle,” reads the banner.
(Photo cred.: legrandecart.net)

In Morning Edition’s sole story on the Quebec student movement (5/15/12), NPR’s David Greene characterized the protests against the tuition hike, which had for the most part proceeded peacefully, as “weeks of violent street rallies.” NPR reporter Brian Mann told listeners, “Hoping to convince the government to change course, student groups have blocked access to Montreal’s massive seaport, blockaded bank entrances, vandalized businesses and clashed with police.” The word “strike”—the primary, nonviolent form of protest over the six months—was never uttered in the NPR report, which focused instead on direct action tactics employed by a minority of protesters.

Morning Edition’s primary source was then-Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay, commenting on an incident in which smoke bombs had been set off in Montreal’s subway—which was widely condemned by the striking student associations (Montreal Metro News, 5/11/12). No representatives of those associations was interviewed, however; instead, Mann paraphrased a French-speaking protester: “This student, who will only give his name as Adam, says the smoke bomb attack was an efficient way to disrupt Montreal’s economy, blocking the Metro and causing big traffic jams.” NPR counterposed “Adam’s” views with those of an English-speaking student who, in Mann’s words, “thinks the protests have gone too far.”

“There are signs that a lot of Montrealers are already fed up,” said Mann. “The Montreal Gazette published an editorial this week, warning of anarchy in the city.” Yet the editorial page of this conservative English-language newspaper (circulation: 116,000) would seem a very limited barometer of Montrealers’ opinion on the strike.

Similarly, the New York Times’ description of events ignored the largely peaceful character of the majority of the protests. “The lengthy student strike has led to violence on the streets of Montreal,” wrote reporter Ian Austen, in the paper of record’s first report on the strike (5/17/12)—which was filed from Ottawa, in the province of Ontario.

Actually, as an op-ed by two Université de Montréal professors that was later published by the Times (5/24/12) would point out: “Since the beginning of the student strike, leaders have told protesters to avoid violence. Protesters even condemned the small minority of troublemakers who had infiltrated the demonstrations.” Yet this nuance was left out of the six news reports the Times published on the Quebec protests.

In these articles, when the tuition increase was mentioned, it was always qualified. “Quebec residents pay the lowest rates in Canada,” Austen (5/17/12) stated, forcing readers to do a word problem to understand the government proposal: “The government wants to increase the annual university tuition of $2,144 by $321 a year for five years.”

A 228-word Associated Press newswire piece published in the Times (5/25/12) similarly contextualized the strike, writing, “Quebec has the lowest tuition rate in Canada, about $2,150, and even after the increases, the rate would remain among the lowest in the country.”

But the elected student groups leading the strike consistently emphasized that their movement was about a broader set of issues, revolving around the defense of Quebec’s public services, in which accessible post-secondary education is a crucial plank (Montreal Media Co-op, 3/22/12; Democracy Now!, 5/7/12). To many Québécois, the tuition hike represented a move toward a model of education that treats college as an individual student’s “investment” (often paid for through debt). Supporters of the student strike saw this as a betrayal of the social democratic reforms enacted through Quebec’s historic Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when secular post-secondary education, seen as an essential social good benefiting society at large, was first made accessible to the French-speaking majority (Montreal Gazette, 3/28/12; La Presse, 5/28/12).

Pinning small squares of red cloth to their clothes, the striking students denounced their government’s push for a model of education that would leave Quebec’s younger generations “carrément dans le rouge” (“squarely in the red”). But the Times never included students’ view on the reasons for the strike.

A couple of AP pieces (5/26/12; 5/28/12) did mention the broader significance of accessible post-secondary education within Quebec society. On May 26, the AP wire carried a piece that explained that Quebec’s low tuition originated as part of the Quiet Revolution’s package of progressive social programs, adding that many European countries make similar commitments to accessible education.

Yet these more historically grounded AP pieces were never published in the New York Times. And even the AP’s later reporting on the strike omitted this historical context, replacing it with geographic comparisons: “Quebec’s average undergraduate tuition $2,519 a year is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike $254 per year over seven years is tiny by U.S. standards,” stated AP’s final article on the strike (8/1/12). “But many Quebecois are more likely to compare themselves to European countries where higher education is mostly free, rather than the U.S.”

It did not seem to be Québécois, but rather corporate journalists, who were most likely to explain the strike through comparisons to other jurisdictions more familiar to English-speaking North American news consumers.

U.S. media coverage of the strike in many ways reflected the silences and biases of Canada’s own corporate press when it came to the striking Quebec students. As Canadian media critic Judy Rebick (Conseil de Presse du Québec, 4/24/12) has observed, for months there was very little coverage of the strike at all outside of Quebec in the English Canadian media.

And the tuition hike was explained in Canada’s corporate press in almost exclusively monetary terms, comparing Quebec tuition to prevailing rates in Canada’s Anglophone provinces. “It’s a little hard for the rest of us to muster sympathy for Quebec’s downtrodden students, who pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America,” wrote Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail (5/1/12), Canada’s leading national newspaper. (The implication that Anglophone norms should be followed in Quebec, given its status as a distinct French-speaking society with control over its own educational policy, is far from a neutral proposition.)

Expressing a disdain for the strike that journalism professor Ellen Russell (rabble.ca, 5/29/12) argues was widely echoed amongst the Canadian corporate media punditry, Wente added, “The total increase would amount to the cost of a daily grande cappuccino.” The protesters, Wente declared, were the “Greeks of Canada.”

Meanwhile, powerful Canadian media corporations uncritically accepted the Quebec government’s delegitimizing terminology. While both the provincial government and news media referred to similar standoffs as “student strikes”—reflecting a long-standing recognition of the right of students to strike—in 2012 the Quebec government refused to use the term. Much of the corporate media followed suit; the Montreal Gazette referred to the strike as a “boycott of classes,” while the executive producer of CTV Montreal declared, “I refuse to call it a ‘strike.’” (CTV instead referred to the strike as a “protest”—4/13/12.)

What little U.S. reporting there was on the Quebec student strike drew, either explicitly or implicitly, on this deeply problematic Anglo-Canadian corporate media coverage. NPR’s strange omission of the fact that the whole conflict centered around a student strike may reflect Morning Edition’s reliance on sources like CTV and the Gazette. The United Press International newswire, which also drew extensively on the Gazette’s reporting, consistently reported on the student strike as a “boycott.”

U.S. journalists’ uncritical reliance on the Gazette for strike coverage is particularly problematic, given that researchers at the Université de Quebec à Montréal found that this Anglophone newspaper, owned by the right-win conglomerate Postmedia Network, had taken a decidedly hostile stance on the student-movement (Fédération Professionnelle des Journalistes Québecois, 6/17/12).

The Gazette editorial NPR’s Mann drew on for his assessment of Montreal public opinion typified what some francophone scholars and journalists (Le Monde Diplomatique, 7/12; La Presse, 5/28/12; Le Devoir, 5/25/12) have criticized as the Anglo-Canadian press’s inflammatory, stereotypical coverage. That Gazette editorial (5/11/12), published under the headline “Democracy or Anarchy: It’s Time to Take a Stand,” blamed “the folly of the student rebels” on “Quebec society” at large, which, according to Gazette editors, is “defined by a culture of collective entitlement at others’ expense.”

“An assertion of the lawful and legitimate order of things would be in the long-term interest of all Quebecers,” the editors proclaimed. “It would take some concentration of the Québécois mind, to be sure.” This editorial illustrates what 11 Quebec professors (Le Monde Diplomatique, 7/12) meant when they said that “for the vast majority of the Anglo-Canadian press, this movement is about the ‘spoiled children’ of a parasitical province.” For many Quebecois, by contrast, it is a struggle over a vision of society anchored in history and culture.

This discrepancy raises at once the issue of corporate media bias towards social movements—well-documented by FAIR in the case of Occupy Wall Street (FAIR, 9/23/11, 10/4/11), and the long-observed pattern of “two solitudes” between English- and French-speaking Canadians. Much U.S. reporting approached the Québécois student movement squarely from the other side of this contentious cultural, political and linguistic gulf.

Reflecting news budget cuts that have closed many foreign news bureaus in recent years, several major news organizations, including the New York Times and the AP, which formerly had small news bureaus in Montreal, have pulled out of Quebec altogether. Both the first report by the Times, and some of the AP reporting, were thus filed from outside of Quebec, in Canada’s capital of Ottawa.

Responding to the lack of coverage of the Quebec student strike in the U.S. press, Harper’s publisher John MacArthur wrote that he was “ashamed” of his colleagues at other magazines and newspapers. He pointed out that the protests should have resonance with many Americans, given the number of U.S. students and parents suffering from the “obscenely high cost of four years of U.S. college education” today.

Yet, seeming to confirm the lack of interest in the strike in the Anglo-American corporate press, MacArthur’s plea for his colleagues to pay attention to the significant events unfurling north of the border was published in a French-language Montreal newspaper, Le Devoir (6/4/12).

In spite of the media, the Quebec students’ strike did ultimately find resonance with many Americans. Widely popularized through independent media initiatives like Montreal Media Coop and Democracy Now!, social networking sites, and two volunteer-run translation initiatives (QuebecProtest.com and RougeSquad.org), the red square that was the symbol of the student strike was soon taken up by activists across the U.S.


Isabel Macdonald is the former Communications Director at FAIR.