Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Katie Nelson Fights on the Front Lines of Education

Many twenty-year-old women might spend their days dressed in sweatpants and hoodies, typing away at seven-page papers while sipping lattes from Starbucks. They might spend their nights at bars on Whyte Ave, sipping Rum and Cokes through tiny straws and laughing with their friends. They might worry about grades, tuition fees, prerequisites and paying their bills. Or they might be like Katie Nelson, fighting on the opposite end to give those who can't afford university a brighter academic future.

Nelson has been living in Montreal to support the Student Strike since early May. Like many women, she's terrified of spiders, loves melted cheese and her favourite colour is purple. She writes, paints and plays piano. She is seemingly the typical young woman who might be walking past you on the street in a jacket and a toque – however, she is also a political activist, an Anarchist-Syndicalist and part of thousands of young people who constantly suffer batons, rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray while protesting the hike of tuition fees in Canada's lowest paying province. For Nelson, the strike is more than just about being able to afford university – it's about living in a society where individuals come before corporations. It's about living in a society where police are not used to control the State. It's about taking charge of your future and believing in people, not politicians.

It was when Nelson started entertaining the idea of applying to Yale in the United States that she began researching tuition costs and calculating student debt. A year and a half before what would become the Student Movement, she sent an enquiry for applications at four in the morning. During the chaos of the application process she realized how many of her friends wouldn't be able to also attend school. “As fast as I sent the enquiry, I revoked it,” she says. “I boycotted my attendance to post-secondary with the idea that as long as another could not access education I would not either.”

After plans to travel to Montreal fell through time and time again, Nelson and a friend finally purchased tickets on impulse. Footage of the Victoriaville riots came out, where children as young as six or seven were being tear gassed at a Liberal meeting outside of Montreal. It was apparent that solidarity was needed more than ever. Upon arrival “people were unbelievably and extremely open,” says Nelson. Staying at a hostel off of Sherbrooke in the Plateau, she began to learn just how much her solidarity was appreciated when she was soon referred to as “the Anglo” by fellow protesters and “bastard from Alberta” by the police. Her life quickly became routine with days starting as early as 5am and ending as late as 3am – followed by a day here and there to lie in her bunk bed with ice wrapped around her calves. “It was the most structured and routine schedule that I had ever truly adopted and appreciated,” she says.

The Student Strike was just the first stage of the protest. Students in Quebec voted on a strike after the announcement of a tuition hike by Jean Charest, leader of the Liberal Party in Quebec. “For some students this was the first time that they have ever been exposed to political action, never mind the tactic of repression,” says Nelson. “The government would use repression tactics, like police brutality, arrests and interrogation as a way to scare the strike out of students. It was like adding gasoline to the fire and ignited the Student Movement.”

“I used to be opposed to violence against police, but then I realized they were never opposed to violence against me,” she says. “A comrade almost lost his eye from a police grenade; another was in coma after being shot in the face by a rubber bullet; another lost a piece of her jaw. The strike is important because it goes in solidarity with the hundreds of strikes currently happening across the world, but it is so much more important for [North America] simply because we [live in a society where we] still believe the police are here to protect [us]. [It] offered the civilized world an opportunity to see their reality through the looking glass.”

The second stage of the strike – the Student Movement – was the difference between protesting education and protesting the State. “We had thousands of students learning Anarchism, Communism, Marxism, adapting tactics and fully participating in events that would almost always guarantee injury and brutality. Almost overnight we saw what began as a normal pacifist student strike turn into a massive student boycott, not only from their education but as well as their state,” says Nelson. Then came the introduction of Loi 12, a law that attracted the attention of the international community including the UN. The law was not only intended to target students but an entire province. It criminalized anyone who participated in a protest or demonstration and enabled the police to operate without regulation.

“What I witnessed [has] traumatized myself and many others irrevocably. I have never seen more blood thirsty and testosterone driven men in my life; at the same time I have never seen more weak and frightened men in my life,” she says. “I have witnessed cops laughing after running down students in police vans. I have at the same time seen cops breaking down emotionally when asked to stand guard at mass arrests. What is worse is that people still believe that the police are here for our safety and to fight crime – this is simply not true. The purpose of the police is to protect property and to help control the population. Until we accept that the police are only tools of the State then we will never be able to comprehend the experiences of police brutality or the purpose of even sharing those stories.”

But the strike wasn't all battle wounds from the front lines and mental scars due to hiding from the police. There were always events to attend, shows to watch, benefit concerts and activities. From pillow fights in the park to knitting and painting, these events worked as the base of community building for protesters such as Nelson. With little time to party like 20-year-old students do, she spent many late nights sharing a poutine with friends – close and trustworthy friends that were gained while being treated for pepper spray burns or by pulling someone into a stairwell. “I myself don't drink, but these poutines were often accompanied with depanneur beer and a few good laughs,” she says.

On September 4th 2012 the Charest Government called an election. Pauline Marois suspended the tuition hike and revoked aspects of Law 12. “A lot of people believe we won, but the battle has only just begun,” says Nelson. On December 5th four-hundred-million-dollar budget cuts were released and many politicians were forced to resign after the unravelling of the Corruption Scandal – laundering of money and money paid to the Mafia. A one-hundred-and-fourteen-million-dollar portion of the cut was scheduled towards universities. “It is not the amount that should worry people, but the time in which it is to be cut,” she says. “By April 1st 2013 we are expected to have fully withdrawn [this cut]. [The strike] is now preparing [for] the Education Summit.”

Thus, the third stage – the Quebec Spring – has begun. According to Nelson, this phase is any revolutionary's dream. “The province of Quebec has essentially become lawless. We've seen a huge movement across all demographics – no longer is it only students, but also workers. Demonstrations are no longer targeting education, but capitalism, corruption, police state and police brutality, commodification, sexism and democracy. We are no longer protesting for tuition costs, but organizing for the fall of the liberal government.”

Now that the strike is temporarily over, Nelson has recently began her application to Concordia University in Montreal. “It is not that I have let down my initial boycott, but I realize the value one can be to a class struggle with a law degree, political science degree, etc,” she says. “I want the future to look much different; we changed our reality for a very long time and we survived. Now my goal is to change it permanently.”

What will the future look like for twenty-year-old Katie Nelson? She might spend her days dressed in sweatpants and hoodies, typing away at seven-page papers and drinking non-corporate coffee. She might spend her nights sipping Coke – sans the Rum – while sharing a poutine and a few laughs. She might worry about grades, tuition fees, prerequisites and paying her bills. But one thing is certain – she will continue to fight on the front lines of education to give those who can't afford university a brighter academic future. Whether or not she is in a classroom, Katie, like thousands of young people, is a student of the strike and the affect it has on society today.

“I don't have hope for the future,” says Nelson. “I have will.”

Article published in Jan/Feb 2013 Issue of Edmonton Woman Magazine.

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