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5 truths about the tuition protest that nobody has the courage to say (out loud)

The student tuition protests have dragged on for 14 weeks now and show no sign of ending anytime soon. With the city under siege and anger rising, the media has been flooded with analysis and op-ed pieces of all stripes. But there are some things that nobody’s saying, probably because they’re afraid to rock the boat. That doesn’t make them any less true, though.

1. It’s about ideology, not money.

Have you had conversations with the red-square folks lately? I have. I live in the Plateau; a good many of my neighbours, acquaintances or even friends are wearing red badges these days. They’re not all violent anarchists throwing bricks on the metro; many of them are educated professionals with considered reasons for supporting this movement. But if you talk to them, you’ll quickly understand that those reasons have little to do with dollars and cents, and everything to do with ideological bent.

In fact, if you should point out that this move will still keep Quebec’s tuition the lowest in the country, that bursary extensions for students with family incomes of under $65,000 will mean that only the upper middle-class and upward will be affected by the hikes, or that even after the hike, the inflation-adjusted tuition will still be lower than what their parents paid in the 60s, the red square folks will shut down all those points. Instead, they’ll come back with allegations of “systematic corruption”, “social injustice” and “large-scale societal change”. They’ll talk about their hatred of Charest, they’ll bring up large corporations and their profit motives, and they’ll wax poetic about quasi-socialist ideals that don’t exist in practice in any country on earth.

It’s become a zero-sum game because the government doesn’t understand the playing field that they’re on. This isn’t about a few hundred dollars over five or even seven years. It’s about the way the government represents “power” to a movement who believes that all power is inherently corrupt. Perhaps the irony is that they fail to look in a mirror. Which brings us to…

2. The protest leaders aren’t really students.

Quebec’s system has very strong legal protections for unions to protect members from management. But who protects members from their unions? The irony is that the student union leadership is just as corrupt as the governments that they decry.

Oh, some of them may register for a token class per semester to maintain their student status, but the union leaders and organizers aren’t really students — not in any way that counts. The actual students — the ones who want to earn their degrees — are the biggest victims of all. They’re the ones being blockaded from their classes, being forced to lose a semester and the associated fees, and being prevented from getting the education they’ve worked hard for. They are being held hostage by a handful of aspiring politicians using student government as a stepping stone for their own goals, and by a large group of pseudo-anarchists.

I’m not suggesting that the majority of protesters are non-students. I’m saying that the ones leading the negotiations (or lack thereof) and taking a hard line against any kind of solution have the luxury of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. They’re aspiring to careers as union leaders, negotiators or maybe PQ or Quebec Solidaire politicians. They don’t really believe that they’ll graduate and join the corporate workforce at any point. And in a classic case of “if I can’t have her, no-one can”, they’re prepared to throw out the hopes and dreams of all the students they supposedly represent in the process.

3. It’s a language issue.

Quick: What do McGill University, Westmount, the West Island and the Montreal Gazette have in common? It’s no secret that the support for the student protests has been overwhelmingly low in the English-speaking community, and is much higher among francophones. And it’s no coincidence, either.

I’ve already said that this is about ideology, not money. And anglophone Quebecers have long been shut out (or have distanced ourselves, depending on who you ask) from the national Quebecois identity. The idea that students should shut up, go to class, and work to earn their success, dammit… well, that’s an English-Canada take on the subject. Just read the editorials in the French press and compare them to the ones in the English media, if you don’t believe me.

As Mike Spry translated for RoCers in his widely-circulated column, Quebec is the Canada we should want:

The student protest is just one element of the Canada I see in Quebec. The Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote Tuesday morning that Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s compromise with the students was “sending a message that Quebec’s social entitlements will not last forever.” They went on to describe these entitlements: $7-a-day daycare, lowest tuition in Canada, subsidized hydro-electricity, and reasonably priced pharmaceuticals. The use of the word “entitlements” was a poor choice, but one the Globe obviously chose as a slight of those who believe that such “entitlements” are an essential part of the fabric of this nation. Here, it has a negative connotation that suggests that Quebec is Canada’s petulant child. Instead, I see these as the social necessities that are fundamental to not only the human condition, but also the success of a social democracy.

It would be unfair and simplistic to say that francophones have more of sense of entitlement than anglophones. But we don’t exist in a vacuum here. The popular narrative of Quebec — the one that paints all anglos as rich, corrupt Westmounters living in their ivory towers and making money off the backs of the poor, francophone workers — has persisted, even despite copious evidence that the economic facts of the province no longer reflect this reality, and haven’t for decades.

In short, “Anglo” is shorthand for everything the protest movement is fighting against. It’s no wonder so few of us feel like this is our fight.

4. It’s an election year.

When Pauline Marois and the PQ MNAs donned the red square at the Assemble Nationale, they did more than just take up the cause of the student movement; they became its ideological sponsors. And sure, some in the anglo media argued that this would cost them support. That’s living in a bubble, though. It’s been surprisingly easy for Marois and company to distance themselves from the more violent extremists while embracing the cause of the “average protesting student” in the name of accessible education for all. (Francois Legault and his CAQ party have tried to get in on the action, too, but they’ve done a much less effective job, since they’ve mostly been fence-sitting.)

Ever since the PQ promised, in a fit of idealism, a world with “free tuition for all” back in ’76 — along with a rosy future of a utopian separate Quebec, of course — it’s the dream that refuses to die. Even though subsequent governments, even PQ governments, have admitted that this is an impractical and unrealistic idea, the seeds of it have remained, and today’s student protesters believe that it forms an inalienable part of their rights as Quebec citizens. If you have trouble grasping this one, just substitute “higher education” with “healthcare” and “Quebec” with “Canadian”. For most Canadians, medicare is something we assume is our basic, natural-born right, a part of our national identity and something we’ll fight to keep — even despite the practical problems with spiralling healthcare costs.

Well, this is part of the national identity of the Quebecois psyche when it comes to education. True, the sovereignty movement has evolved and changed since 1976. But as I noted after the last federal election when the media in the ROC was talking about the trouncing that the Bloc Quebecois took at the polls, believing that sovereignty is dead is simplistic and naive.

The PQ was in freefall just a year ago, bleeding members and support and fading into obscurity. Luckily for them, Quebecers are notoriously fickle and trend-influenced when it comes to politics (just witness the aforementioned “orange crush” that swept the province in the last federal election). The PQ has two standby issues: language and “social justice”, and didn’t hesitate to stir both up. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the student protests were orchestrated by the PQ — Charest did that all on his own when he put the tuition freeze — long known as the “third rail” of Quebec politics — back on the table. But they haven’t hesitated to fund, support and exploit the protests for their own political gains.

And it’s working. By positioning the fight of the students as part of the plight of the common man against power and corruption, the PQ stands to make big gains. True, young people don’t vote, but union workers do. Most of the unions are supporting the student protest on grounds of ideological “solidarity”, and this is the PQ’s sweet spot.

Jean Charest and the Liberals have been in power for 10 years. In all likelihood, when Quebecers go to the polls in 2013, it will be someone else’s turn. Marois, by supporting the student movement, has done a lot to ensure that someone will be her and the PQ. Of course, then, she’ll have to grapple with the same budget deficit as Charest is facing. And she won’t be able to propose this as a solution. But no worries, the PQ’s long-standing solution always exists:  Neglect infrastructure, wave flags, and tax the rich to the point where they pick up and move themselves and their tax dollars to Ontario. But hey, at least the students will be happy.

5. The Charest government has already lost.

Many in the student movement painted Line Beauchamp’s resignation as a victory — the first domino to fall in their ultimate goal of toppling the Charest government. Of course, the Liberals hastened to put a replacement in place and to reassure Quebecers that this move doesn’t mean that they’ve caved.

The truth is, the government caved the minute it started negotiating. Just as they caved in 2005. The student movement isn’t interested in 7 years instead of 5, in expanded bursaries or oversight committees or in any of the increasingly desperate offers of the government. They want nothing more or less than Charest’s head on a platter. And if they should waver, their PQ backers will be there to ensure that they don’t back down.

Charest’s only way to win this fight would have been to take the democratic high ground early on and to state his position, and not back down from it. Polls show that between 55 and 65 percent of Quebecers support the tuition hikes. Charest needed to declare that he has the backing of the silent majority, and that this needs to happen. And he needed to clearly state that he would not negotiate on the basis of violence or fear, and would not allow Quebec to become what Josh Freed refers to as a “mobocracy”. You don’t get to be right simply by being loud, and Charest could have taken up the cause of ordinary people (particularly those most affected and inconvenienced by the students’ me-first attitude) to showcase his leadership qualities.

Unfortunately, that ship sailed the minute the government put their first counter-offer on the table. Since then, the PLQ has been negotiating with itself, offering more and more in exchange for nothing. And as a result it’s unlikely that the PLQ will survive this crisis, regardless of the outcome.

ETA 5/19: Both Lysiane Gagnon in La Presse and Josh Freed in the Montreal Gazette have written columns in the past two days about two or maybe three of the above points. Hmmm, maybe they’ve been reading my blog?

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • MrSnuggles 05.16.12, 3:32 PM

    Spot on.

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