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Squarely in the red

The history behind that felt on your lapel

If you type “red square” into Wikipedia’s search bar, the disambiguation page will lead you to results like “an English band from the 1970s,” “a Soviet-themed restaurant/bar in Las Vegas,” and “a painting by Kazimir Malevich.”

For Quebec, the little red felt square fastened to so many winter coats is a symbol of the student movement and the fight against poverty in Quebec. As many explain it now, the  safety-pin clad symbol is inspired by the French phrase “carrément dans le rouge” (meaning “squarely in the red”)– it’s a wordplay on students trapped in debt caused by tuition hikes and cuts in bursaries.

The website for the Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté (Collective for a Poverty Free Quebec) states, in French, that October 5, 2004 was the first time a red square was used for this purpose. At a presentation to the Committee on Social Affairs in the National Assembly of Quebec, the Collective opposed Bill 57, regarding social welfare and assistance. It was here that they first used the rhetoric that would become the wordplay we know now.

According to Joël Pedneault, current SSMU VP External, the square was popularized in 2005 when the Quebec student movement used it to protest financial reform. “The 2005 student strike was successful in many ways,” and, as a result, “many started wearing the red square even if they didn’t identify with the left wing of the student movement.” Pedneault points out that – because of this success – “you have people who are more moderate still wearing the red square.”

Myriam Zaidi, former SSMU VP External, was in CEGEP during the 2005 strike. “In 2005, we didn’t go on strike against tuition hikes, we went on strike against a change in the loans and bursaries systems in Quebec.”

Members of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) and of other independent student unions decided to form the Coalition de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante élargie (CASSÉÉ). This was the organization that would coordinate the upcoming strike campaign.

“In 2005, the red square was a sign of CASSÉÉ, at that time it meant a grassroots strike movement. What you need to understand about [this time] is that…going on strike was portrayed as the [most] radical move.”

“The red square was associated with those wanting to do a radical action. I know that people from FEUQ specifically did not wear the red square for a few years. Until very recently, they wouldn’t wear the red square because they were in opposition to CASSÉÉ.”

“It’s interesting how the red square became more widespread.” Zaidi is adamant that this change is significant. “In 2005, ASSÉ was much more radical, so a lot of the people…They were against neoliberalism and capitalism, et cetera.”

Zaidi and Pedneault both contrasted this radical symbolism with the way the red square is worn now. Pednault explains that many don the red felt, especially at McGill, because they “just see it as a symbol of the student movement. Not just of a particular part of it, not just as a symbol of free education.” However, he admits that there are too many students to generalize about all of their reasons for wearing the symbol. “I haven’t spoken to every student on campus wearing the red square,” he admits, laughing. “There are a lot of them.”

Zaidi echoes this point, explaining that “today, you have many more people wearing the red square than [in 2005]. The red square is losing more and more of its significance. A lot of people see it as a symbol of being just against tuition hikes, but back then I would never have thought it would become the symbol of student protest.”

“I think most students don’t know the history,” Zaidi continues, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the red square this year. We chose a sign, a symbol for [the many] students in the chain. The chain of student debt. It’s a very strong and powerful statement.”

But because of this, she has some qualms about the way the symbol is appropriated by the variety of students wearing it. According to Zaidi, the symbol traditionally has much stronger ties to the concept of debt than to hope, a fact that was reflected in 2005, when most of the students wearing it were deeply in debt. But things have changed: “I have a lot of student debt, and [it’s hard to see] people wearing the red square [now] who have a really privileged background.”

And this is inevitable with the popularity of the symbol because, as Zaidi explains, “not everyone in the student movement is in the red.” Because the symbol has been transformed and popularized in the past seven years, many don’t know that it’s so explicitly tied to student debt. “Maybe if people knew more about it, it might change the amount of people wearing it.” But even Zaidi isn’t sure if she feels that this would be better or worse for the student movement. “I think [the symbol] could have been something else that really meant that we’re against tuition hikes and that we’re in the student movement.”

And even with the red square’s popularity, there are still so many students ignorant of its meaning or history. There’s no Wikipedia page about the red squares all over campus and throughout Quebec. At McGill, it’s not uncommon to hear inquiries like: Is that a cancer awareness badge? Cool – are you wearing a pro-choice symbol? Whoa, cheap substitute for a poppy? No, nope, none of the above.

With all of the nuance of the meaning, history, and symbolism of the red square, it’s strange to imagine that so many would be uninformed about its origin. Even Pedneault concedes that there are still some who don’t understand the symbol at all. “Someone asked me once whether it was anything to do with communism. I said ‘No.’”