Back in early March, I saw a girl on the corner of my street with thousands of red felt squares and safety pins stuffed in her shoulder bag and a messy hand-written sign saying “GRATUIT!” This was my first encounter with the carré rouge, the simple swatch of fabric that has come to symbolize the Quebec student strike.
It’s rare that a protest movement affects the way thousands of people get dressed, but the strike has done just that, turning the red square into both a symbol of solidarity and, for some, a conscious fashion statement.
If you’re unfamiliar with the politics behind the carré rouge, let me give you a brief rundown: In mid-February the provincial government announced a plan to increase tuition by 75% over the next five years. Student unions decided to strike, and, since mid-February, marches have taken place regularly throughout the city. What started as a student movement quickly morphed into a mass social protest after the provincial government passed the controversial Bill 78, which states (among other things) that a group of over 50 people is an illegal protest. Suddenly, it became less about tuition and more about the government’s dismissive (and borderline unconstitutional) behaviour.
The symbol came out of a 2005 student strike against funding cuts to grants and loans, and comes from the expression “carrément dans le rouge” or “squarely in the red,” which refers to the amount of debt students are facing.