Home » Canada » Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessions of a Non-Neutral Observer

Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessions of a Non-Neutral Observer


Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”!

Confessions of a Non-Neutral Observer

By: Andrew Gavin Marshall

For the past month, I have been writing almost exclusively on the Québec student strike and social movement, which erupted in February and has resulted in the provincial government of Québec recently passing a law (Bill 78) which severely limits the rights of students to freedom of assembly and expression, imposing harsh financial penalties for practicing our basic rights and freedoms as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (as if we even need a document to tell us we have these rights!).

I have been writing professionally for roughly four years, and on a wide range of topics, many of them far more controversial than a student strike. However, never before have I experienced such an enormous reaction – both positive and negative – to any issue I have ever written about. My articles are reaching more people – and more varied audiences – than ever before, but they are also inciting more reactions and responses than I have ever been faced with. I always try to respond to comments and emails, but if I were to do so on this issue, I would never get around to writing anything new. So instead, I would like to address the main critique and complaint of my writing on this issue: that I am – and my writing is – extremely “biased” in how I report on this issue.

First off, I would like to thank all who have sent me words of encouragement and support, and who have been sharing and re-posting my articles, it is very important that this information spreads elsewhere, as the English-speaking media in Canada have been almost exclusively terrible in their coverage of the student protests here in Québec. Secondly, I would like to thank all those who have sent me critiques, who have pointed out flaws and problems in various points and arguments I have made, and in doing so, have provided further avenues for research. Without critique, no researcher can make progress. There are a number of issues related to the student movement that I know I will need to do more research on, and it is entirely due to these critiques that I will do so. So keep on keeping me on my toes!

I would, however, like to address the most common ‘critique’ and complaint about my writing and my point of view: that it is “biased.” My simple response to this is: you’re god damned right it is!

We all have bias by the very simple fact that we are all biased to our own opinions, so long as we are capable of developing our own individual opinions and beliefs. We are all biased for the simple fact that we view ourselves and the world from our own individual perspective. When anyone or any information source claims to be “unbiased,” that is when my internal alarm begins to ring. There are, arguably, unbiased ‘facts’ (as Einstein once said, “facts are stubborn things”), but there are not unbiased ‘views.’ Facts can help inform our views, and what facts we gather, how we gather them, from where we gather them, largely determine the ‘view’ we take in constructing them together.

So yes, I have a bias, but let me explain what it is. I am biased in favour of people over power, in favour of the oppressed over the oppressors, and in favour of freedom over domination. I am, however, a researcher. I don’t have many talents: I can barely cook, I don’t speak more than one language, I don’t play sports, I don’t play an instrument, I can’t even whistle; but one thing I am good at, is research. I know where to look, how to look, to draw from a multitude of sources, and to put together a massive array of information into something that is at least a half-coherent composition of information. Like all talents, it’s practice that makes it better, and I am still learning and improving (as I should be). My writing is almost always heavily cited and sourced, so that people may track my research and where I got my information from, instead of just “taking my word” for it. The only reason I progressed as a researcher is because I would try to find the original sources of others, to see the information for myself and to see how and if I would interpret it differently from them. I have even spent hours tracking down original sources in government archives which were cited by Noam Chomsky, not because I think he is lying or misrepresenting the facts, but because it is simply important for me to see the original source for myself. I encourage others to do the same, so I always try to make my writing accessible to this approach. Despite this, I have received many critiques that I have not “supported my arguments” in my recent articles on Quebec. This, I simply cannot understand, save for the possibility that those making the critique do not know what hyperlinks are or how they work (I don’t just highlight the words for fun!).

But back to the bias!

My research in history, on a number of different social, political, economic and cultural issues, has not been defined by my bias, but has rather defined my bias. It is precisely the research and reading and studying I have done that has established, informed, and strengthened my own personal bias. That is not to say it is unchanging: with each new subject studied, with new information gathered, I must adjust, evolve, and alter my views according to the knowledge I come across. And yet still, I find this central bias remains: that of favouring the oppressed over the oppressor. It is this view that shapes my own understanding of history and the present, and for that reason, this has become my own ‘Truth’: how I see and understand the world.

I do not pretend to be unbiased, or balanced, or neutral in my writing, simply because I do not see the value in doing so. I see no value or honour in presenting oneself as ‘balanced’ in reporting on circumstances which are so imbalanced. I see no value in being ‘neutral’ in writing about circumstances of injustice, oppression, and domination. I see no justice in presenting an ‘unbiased’ view of injustice. Why should the oppressor get “equality” in how situations are interpreted and presented when the oppressed never have equality of power with the oppressor? How is this “balanced”? Situations which are inherently imbalanced do not require black and white interpretations, do not require an equal presentation for the oppressed view as well as the oppressor’s view. One does not give “both sides of the argument” on the issue of war and mass murder, on the issue of slavery, on the issue of domination and oppression. The simple reason for this is that it is morally reprehensible to put the perspective of injustice and oppression on the same moral grounding as that of the dominated and oppressed. A more “logical” reason, perhaps, is that because of the simple social position of the oppressor – always in positions of power – is that they already have a larger share of control over the discourse: they speak for the state, providing the “official” line; they control the media, they have a monopoly of interpretation and control over dissemination.

This creates an automatic imbalance in how things are interpreted and presented. Rarely are there cries against this information-Casino system (where the house always wins), proclaiming it to be “biased” or “imbalanced.” Instead, publications like the National Post and the Globe and Mail may say anything they like, any way they like, and they are simply “reporting the facts.” Across Canada, newspapers may refer to the students in Québec as “violent,” “thugs,” “spoiled brats,” wannabe terrorists,” and “idiots,” and yet, where is the outcry against their “bias” and lack of “balance.” The media, almost without fail, make reference to official statements from the police regarding protests and “riots”, without providing any other perspective or statements. You read this in the media as, “a police spokesperson said…”, etc. How often do you read, “participants in the protest stated…” etc.? Is that not a lack of balance?

Gary Lamphier writing for the Edmonton Journal referred to the students, in the span of one article alone, as the following: “gangs of kids, buffoons, wannabe terrorists, idiots, miscreants, sanctimonious jerks, selfish, loutish, moronic,” and lastly, “rock-throwing idiots in Quebec.” This is, of course, compared to the “hard-working students and citizens” whose lives are being disrupted by “a cancer.” Perhaps the most common term used to describe the students in Quebec is “entitled.” Of course, this type of elevated intellectual discourse is perfectly acceptable in the mainstream media. When some protesters entered UQAM school and disrupted classes, with one report of even attempting to pull two students out of the class, the media reaction was swift, furious, and international. These are not tactics I particularly favour or condone; it certainly doesn’t help the image of the student movement and I think there are more effective avenues for engagement and action. However, the reporting on this incident was almost exclusively in a chorus of condemnation. The students who occupied and disrupted the school were called: “protest gangs“, “hard-core protesters,” and “thugs.”

Now, the tactics may not have been good or helpful, but perhaps a little context would be important: for three months of striking, the government spent two months ignoring and dismissing and refusing to talk to the students, then it attempted to divide the students against each other. The state has intervened to provide legal injunctions to even small groups of students in an effort to use them as “strike breakers” by legally enforcing their return to the schools (as the state does not recognize the legal right of students to strike), and it has been enforcing that with the blunt force of the baton, the sting of pepper spray, and the taste of tear gas. The state has repeatedly used violence against protesters: pepper spray, beatings with batons, tear gas, smoke bombs, concussion grenades, driving police trucks and cars into groups of students, shooting them in the face with rubber bullets, and undertaking mass arrests. One student lost his vision in one eye after being shot in the face with a concussion grenade, another lost his eye after being shot in the face with a rubber bullet, and another ended up in the hospital with a skull fracture and brain contusion, also after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet. When a few students threw smoke bombs in the Montreal Metro, they were charged on “anti-terrorism” charges, and the national media loudly condemned them. Again, the tactics were not helpful, but this also followed the Victoriaville violence against students, where several were almost killed (which did not get anywhere near the same national and international media coverage). Violent actions create increasingly violent reactions. While throwing smoke bombs in the metro is a bad tactic, police shoot smoke bombs at students on a regular basis, but the students are “terrorists” and the police are “restoring order.” All this context does not exist in the media discourse.

And now, with the passage of Bill 78, which is “unconstitutional,” as it puts severe limits on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and imposes immense financial penalties for exercising our rights as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter and Rights and Freedoms, the situation has become more intense, the risks are greater, and the state is all the more oppressive.

In short, the situation which exists between the students and the state in Québec is inherently imbalanced. I see no value in presenting a “balanced” argument about a circumstance in which no balance exists. I see no value in presenting oneself as “neutral” in situations of oppression, exploitation, and domination. The perspective of the state is given by the state and its spokespeople, is repeated in the media, and backed up with the economic power of the corporations and banks (who own the media). It’s always easy for power to speak in support of power. Nothing is demanded of them, except for allegiance. They are held up to low standards, require little to no proof, and can even openly call for violence to be used against students, and it all goes unquestioned, their views are “facts” and their “bias” is overlooked.

I may use harsh rhetoric, but I back it up with hard facts. I may write that the National Post knows nothing of democracy, but that is because I have never seen that publication support any grassroots, indigenous, or social movement for democratic progress: I have seen that publication support war, justify empire, encourage violence, condone oppression and demonize progression. Respect must be earned, and I have never read anything worthy of respect out of that publication, worthy of the values and ideals I hold dear. So yes, I do not restrain my rhetoric in describing it. Is it inflammatory? Perhaps. But I believe it to be the truth, at least as I see it.

What we, here in Québec, see and experience in the streets is a world away from what we read in the English media across the country. The disparity is so vast, the misrepresentation is so consistent, the rhetoric is entirely dismissive, insulting, and even hateful, the discourse is vitriolic and ill-informed, the lies are expansive, and the presentation is perverted. So am I biased? Absolutely! I will always stand with the people against the violence of the state, against the lies and misrepresentations of the media, and the abuses of authority. What others call neutrality, I call cowardice. I do not pretend to be or present myself as an unbiased or “dispassionate” observer. I have marched in the streets, I have friends far more involved at every level of the protests than I have been, I know people who have been arrested, attacked, and gassed; I marched in peace with peaceful friends, and we were charged by riot cops. I watched as the police threw students face first into the pavement and ran out of the way as the riot police drove their van through a crowd of students. I listen to more intense and infuriating stories from friends and others. We see the images and hear the stories and watch the videos of those who have been seriously injured. We are pepper sprayed, gassed, beaten and bruised, and then to add… we are insulted and degraded by the national media. We are referred to as “spoiled brats” and “entitled” fools.

Am I biased? You’re damn right I am!

Solidarity, brothers and sisters!

For a “biased” view of the student movement, here is list of my articles on the subject:

The Québec Student Strike: From ‘Maple Spring’ to Summer Rebellion?

What Really Happened at the Montréal May Day Protest? From Peaceful Protest to Police Brutality

Ten Points Everyone Should Know About the Quebec Student Movement

From the Chilean Winter to the Maple Spring: Solidarity and the Student Movements in Chile and Quebec

Quebec Steps Closer to Martial Law to Repress Students: Bill 78 is a “Declaration of War on the Student Movement”

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.

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18 Comments

  1. Artsfols says:

    Regarding your first point about student debt. I think it’s inherently wrong that students cannot discharge student loans in bankruptcy for the first 7 years after they have left school. Obviously if you’re declaring bankruptcy you’re in quite dire straits, probably in a low income position, so preventing the discharge of student loans means that low income graduates have effectively been assigned to slave labour at the local poorhouse, usually Starbucks in order to repay the State. Someone who finds themself in that position has little or no incentive to advance themselves for a seven year period, and only then can declare bankruptcy and begin to build a financial base. I’ve noted that around the time that this rule was passed into law in 1998 (the period then was 10 years since reduced to 7 years) the banks also become more active in soliciting student business through VISA cards and lines of credit. Why not? Since students are inhibited from declaring bankruptcy such loans appear to have very low failure rates. I think you’ll see the debt problem clear up quite quickly if the period is lowered from 7 years back to 1 or 2 years.

  2. D'Arcy Jenish says:

    Andrew: You belong to a generation of Quebecois Marie Antoinette’s, a pampered, spoiled and privileged generation which figures that $7 a day daycare should be followed by $6 a day post-secondary education. Grow up.

    • Artsfols says:

      D’arcy, do you have anything intelligent to say about the subject; personally, I’m not all that interested in Andrew.

    • Dr Goldstein says:

      You whiners and cry-babys should be glad that Andrew allows free expression in his comments, unlike the jack-booted police thugs who beat-down peaceful Quebec students.

      If it was my blog I would delete childish boo-hooing and unintelligent whimpering like the infantile crap posted by “artsfols” and “D’arcy J”. You two are probably undercover donut-junkies trying to undermine a brilliant analyst who gets interviewed on international news networks. Get a life.

      • Artsfols says:

        Huh? I thought I was being supportive. Interesting how most commenters here have nothing to had except ‘ad hominem’ comments.

    • Decarie Blvd says:

      For every $1 spent in the daycare program, $4-$5 is brought back into the Quebec tax base. (see janet bagnal’s piece in the Gazette) Next Mr. Macleans’ writer. I’m wondering why your cover didn’t say something like
      -Jean Charest — the dumbest premier in the Country.. can’t even figure out how to talk to a bunch of kids.
      Or maybe it should have said:
      - Quebec kids — taking up where Occupy left off. This isn’t really about Tuition.
      Or maybe your cover should have said
      -How fucking incompetent a leader do you have to be to let students protesting over tuition hikes escalate into 200 000 people in the streets talking about fracking, the Plan Nord, banks and the environment.
      There are SO MANY NARRATIVES to be told from this story. Why is Maclean’s and everyone else in the English media across Canada on such a narrow-minded one?
      Why didn’t your cover say:
      -What’s it going to take for students across the country to realize they should be protesting too?

      As for spoiled Mr Jenish… when you came out of university, I’m betting you had no debt, got a job right away, will retire with full benefits and pension, will have great and free health care and an environment you can breath in. Your generation is so effin greedy, you’re destroying the earth for us, and not even leaving us a heritage fund to clean the shit up! Your generation has consolidated the wealth in fewer people than ever before in this country. So who the hell is the Marie Antoinette. You were and ARE the privileged spoiled class. We will never earn what your generation did or have your opportunities.

  3. Lech Lesiak says:

    Perhaps you could explain to us why the Anglo students at Concordia, McGill, and the English language CEGEP’s are not participating in this to any large extent.

    I graduated from university in Montreal in 1965, and had no student debt.

    Why? Because it was very difficult to get student loans. I wasn’t eligible because I lived at home with my parents.

    • Artsfols says:

      It was very difficult for graduating students to find a job in the late 60s also. If I remember under Trudeau the govt launched a number of programs such as the CYC to provide employment to young people. What similar kinds of programs exist today? Katimavik, but I believe it has just been cancelled.

    • I AM an anglo student at Concordia. As for why they are not participating to the same extent, it’s answered by how the student associations function. At the Anglo schools in Quebec and across Canada, students elect “representatives” who then do whatever they want and make all the decisions for the duration of their terms (just like our political leaders!). At the French schools, they elect representatives, but then all the decisions are taken before general assemblies and require debate, discussion, and votes throughout the constituency they represent. This is more direct democracy than representative democracy. The student associations at Concordia that went on strike did so largely because for the first time ever they began holding general assemblies and changing the way the associations function, which is, to say, they became more representative of their constituents.

  4. [...] Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessio… [...]

  5. [...] Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessio… [...]

  6. [...] Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessio… [...]

  7. Thomas de La Marnierre says:

    I have read many articles saying the same thing in French, but you pinpointed it much better than anyone else.

    You know, those students who got terrorism law charges ? There had smoke bombs Aprils 24th in the Complexe Desjardins (shopping center). There had others April 25th in the metro, another April 27th at the Vendôme station. Since the beginning of the strike, May 10th was the third time there had smoke bombs in the metro. Nobody cared that much before, despite people being late. Then, it became a horrible terrorist crime… ?

    A 2007 article from TVA explained that there is 84 ventilation systems in the Montréal metro. They blow at 40-50 km/h. It explained that in September 2001, a tear gas bomb attack occurred, and the gas has been blown in only 80 seconds. One could ask why the same thing didn’t happen in 2012. A retired employee from the STM said the same thing, and thought nothing was done on purpose.

    http://tvanouvelles.ca/lcn/infos/regional/archives/2007/11/20071116-214141.html

    -> It mush be hard to get quickly information about the student strike if you don’t know French !

  8. lf says:

    Thank you. As a student who was on strike for 4.5 weeks at McGill. As an activist who has been in the streets and witnessed exactly what you describe, your words of validation bring affirmation and support in a media frenzy that has done all it can to disparage and oppress. Thank you for holding the mainstream media accountable for its bias. Thank you for presenting an alternative and important view of the situation that breaks the dangerous narrative that has sought to undermine the solidarity and strength of this amazing movement. I have felt broken reading english media and your words make me whole again. Thank you.

  9. Everyday I read incredibly biased articles in the mainstream media – ones that upon reading them, moderate liberals like my parents would deem as “neutral”. But I live in Montreal so I know that these articles about “student violence erupting” that they are leaving out a big

  10. [...] Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessio… [...]

  11. [...] Writing About the Student Movement in Québec: You’re Damn Right I’m “Biased”! … Confessio… [...]

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