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By Karen Herland
It's been four decades since the pivotal era of the late ’60s. It's been forty years since 1968 – a year that saw thunderous student protests, stormy social unrest, the deafening Vietnam war and the silencing assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
It's been a long time since that noise rung out. But the reverberations of that time are still being felt — and debated.
"Obama could not have won without the civil rights movement, and in France, Sarkozy campaigned on an anti-1968-era return to authority," says Sociology post-doc Ivan Carel. Carel organized 1968 - Societies in Crisis: A Global Perspective under the Concordia Chair in Quebec Studies, Jean-Philippe Warren of the Sociology and Anthropology department. The two-day conference attracted researchers from North America and Europe with widely diverse interests.
Most people focus on 1968 through the lens of Vietnam protests, Quebec's Quiet Revolution, or France's union of students with labour to create a movement 10 million strong. But 1968's transformative echoes were heard from Prague to Senegal to Germany to Mexico to Japan and beyond.
"We wanted to bring an international perspective and consider Quebec in the global context," explains Carel. The discussion reflected Quebec’s experience on the international stage and back again.
Carel pointed out student protest was prominent in Quebec during that time. The nascent CEGEP system was months away from producing its first graduates and students were facing the prospect of a university system that was almost closed to them. Université of Montreal was not accepting new students, and McGill offered little for Francophones.
The situation came to a head when the Union générale des étudiants du Québec (UGEQ) led a rally to demand McGill Français, a moment that UGEQ VP Louise Harel explained was necessary to ensure that higher education remained focused on “Quebec’s needs, and not U.S., or Canadian corporate interests.” Her argument, captured in footage from an episode of Radio-Canada’s Tirez au Clair, was countered by newly elected McGill student president Julius Grey, who insisted “economic exploiters are our focus, not the language or those individuals who speak it.”
The audience gathered in the Hall Building laughed appreciatively at the earnest debate and then settled down to hear Harel and Grey, now 40 years older, wiser and greyer, reflect on the times and their role in it. Harel, who recently announced she will not be seeking re-election in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve riding she has held on behalf of the Parti Quebecois for nearly 20 years, offered cultural context, reminding the audience that 1968 was also the year of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs and Michèle Lalonde’s Speak White.
Grey, who has addressed numerous human rights issues through his law practice, acknowledged how little he understood of Quebec at that time and stressed, "the need to understand how to see ourselves outside of our own group, class or profession," and regretted having not done so earlier.
“I was not nearly aware enough of the situation of Quebec, and Louise was maybe a little too much.” Grey also felt more hopeful of the current potential for change given the global economic crisis. “Our fundamental beliefs are crumbling before our eyes," he added.
Their recollections were tempered by those of Leon Debien, then-administrator at the newly formed CEGEP Lionel-Groulx. He remarked on the shift from seminary to public education that the CEGEP system represented, and how the existing network of Catholic student programs provided a base for organizing.
Ultimately, Debien, along with Harel and Grey, ushered in a new era when the multiple University of Quebec campuses opened across the province the next year in answer to student frustrations. These reconciliations and responses across the globe were analyzed during the conference.