A protester throws a tear gas canister back towards police during a demonstration against tuition fee hikes in Victoriaville, Quebec, May 4, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
Three weeks ago, some of the student protesters in Montreal thought they needed to ratchet up their antics.
They had been complaining that Quebec's university students were hard done by, so they went "on strike." But it wasn't convincing.
The majority of students know a student strike is just code for skipping class. For most kids, who actually are trying to get a degree to get a job in this uncertain economy, a student strike could jeopardize their exams. And a student strike doesn't make sense to taxpayers. It's tough to be sympathetic to university students who pay the lowest tuition in the country - and who still will pay the lowest in the country, even after the modest increases will be enacted, many years from now.
So what do you do if your protest is fizzling? If it's not winning big media coverage, and if the coverage it is receiving isn't positive? Well, normal students would probably go back to school.
But these protests weren't being led by normal students. They were being orchestrated by radicals and professional activists.
Time to try out a new tactic.
And so on Wednesday, April 25, protesters threw homemade incendiary devices. No one was killed - they were smoke bombs, really. But they were terrifying for the people who were caught in them.
That day, the protest was no longer a protest. Because its central characteristic was no longer an exchange of ideas, a debate, a counter-argument to the government's tuition proposals. It ceased being a protest and became a riot. Because it was no longer about persuasion. It was about terrifying and threatening any doubters.
These weren't random acts. They were co-ordinated. Smoke bombs were thrown in two Montreal subway stations.
Just to state the obvious: A bomb is not an argument. A bomb signals the end of an argument - the transition from peace to violence, from democracy to terrorism.
Yes, terrorism. What else does the word mean? Promoting political change by instilling fear in your opponent's mind. Terrorism does not have to kill anyone to be terrifying.
So, faced with organized, planned, co-ordinated political violence, what did Jean Charest do? He gave the rioters what they wanted. He agreed to water down his already modest tuition increases, and to delay them.
He rewarded the violence.
But as Rudyard Kipling would say, once you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane.
The students saw a simple cause and effect - ramp up the extremism and get results. Go violent, get concessions.
If a few smoke bombs that shut down the subway for half an hour could do that, imagine what a large, concerted bombing effort could do?
And so it came to pass. Last week, student rioters set off bombs in the subway, billowing smoke through the system, shutting down the whole thing. More than 100,000 passengers were affected. The Montreal Board of Trade estimated that for every hour the subway was down, the city lost $11 million in business.
After the bombs went off last week, Charest told reporters, "It's inexplicable. There's no reason to commit acts of intimidation and violence."
Really? Inexplicable means it can't be explained.
No reason to commit acts of intimidation? Why, there is every reason indeed. This can be explained. There is a reason. And the reason is that Jean Charest has rewarded this violence with concessions.
And so he should expect more of it.