Quebec’s Student Protests: A Microcosm of a Global Movement

28 May

Protesters gathered in Montreal to denounce proposed tuition hikes. The demonstrations have continued for 105 consecutive days, and show no signs of desisting. Image c/o Tina Mailhot-Roberge/flickr

In some of Canada’s English-language media outlets, recriminations aimed at the Quebec student protesters have abounded since the tuition-hikes crisis began – and intensified in response to the students’ apparently indefatigable persistence.

“Brats,” they’ve been called. “Not team players.” “Fools.” “Marxists.” “Selfish.” “Thugs.”

And of course, they’ve been ascribed an adjective utterly repulsive to members of my generation, a vestige of an inveterate and baseless narrative that we’re all sick of hearing, especially from the mouths of those who enjoy among the most substantial privileges our society has to offer.

“Entitled.”

As a journalist, it’s my job to remain impartial in professional settings. But usually, the difference between right and wrong is clear to me, and I’m able to formulate an opinion. For a long time, however, I’ve struggled to crystallize a cogent personal view of the student strikes. With which side do I best identify? The side that argues in favour of an increase in tuition, a move which would bring Quebec more in line with the rest of Canada? On the surface, that would appear to make logical sense. After all, I come from a province, British Columbia, where tuition is much higher than in Quebec. In fact, earlier this year UBC brass decreed that a hike in dues was in order, with the student body offering hardly a peep of criticism.

Or should I align myself in sympathy with the indignant students, a group largely touting the notion that free tuition, in a democratic society, is a legitimate demand? Can I really sympathize with a group seeking free education while I continue to pay through the nose for my own? Especially in the knowledge that, compared to an education of similar quality in the United States, mine has been an absolute bargain? How could I ever defend those few who burst into classrooms at UQAM, demeaning and intimidating fellow students who just wanted to learn, harrassing professors who just wanted to teach?

This moral conundrum has left me perplexed. But upon profound reflection, I feel I’m finally starting to see the Quebec student movement for what it is: one small cog in the global engine of resistance to the neoliberal economic ideology.

Neoliberalism has run amok

At its core, this neoliberal framework, popularized by the authoritarian rightist politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, is not without redeeming features, even altruistic notions. The eradication of poverty is high on its list of ambitions, as is employment for the jobless, a world of opportunity for personal betterment, and prosperity for all members of society. (Provided, of course, Thatcher and Reagan were sincere in these pursuits, an assertion which many people would dispute. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The problem is, neoliberalism has failed to deliver on many of its ambitious promises. Even worse, the past 30 years have seen the wealth gap between rich and poor greatly increase rather than diminish in many industrialized countries; the gulf of income inequality has become a canyon, and many tax cuts have disproportionately favoured moneyed individuals and corporations over working-class citizens.

But that isn’t the only problem. Aside from the straightforward failure of income distribution, the financial sector has become increasingly gargantuan, its instruments of profiteering ever more complex. And since the 1970s, when the Canadian government abandoned its policy of borrowing exclusively from the Bank of Canada at minimal interest, the interest on our national debt has surged. According to the Ministry of Finance, for the 2010-11 fiscal year, this figure exceeded $30 billion – or roughly 11 cents for every tax dollar spent. And that excludes repayment of the principal! At the moment, Canada’s federal debt is marching steadily toward the $600 billion mark. And private creditors are going to cash in hugely when all that dough (presumably) gets repaid.

Meanwhile, Canada’s big banks received a “secret” bailout, carefully and surreptitiously orchestrated through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and underwritten by taxpayers, to the tune of nearly $70 billion in the middle of the financial crisis.

So, who exactly is “entitled”? (Did I already mention how much I detest that word? Yeah? Ok.)

As a consequence of mounting federal debt, to which Canadian rightists tend to attribute the “bloated, nanny-like” spectre of the “massive welfare state,” the goal of a balanced budget requires “sacrifice”. Thus, changes to E.I. deleterious to the unemployed and potentially the future labour market, layoffs of thousands of government employees, cuts to science, environmental and youth organizations, and further despoiling of our nation’s public broadcaster have been presented as exemplary acts of fiscal probity, and “staying the course”. Conspicuously absent from the right’s rhetoric are the topics of debt-related interest and kleptocracy, which, if left unaddressed, will only see the same scenario repeat itself next time there’s a financial crisis – which may not be too far off, given that regulators seem reluctant to meaningfully restrict the financial sector’s haphazard activities.

In other parts of the world, aversion to neoliberalism’s many pitfalls has prompted armed rebellion by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, warlike conditions in Cochabamba, Bolivia, similar consequences during the Occupy protests in Oakland, California, and violent, deadly riots in Jakarta, Indonesia. With this in mind, we should perhaps consider ourselves fortunate to be experiencing so comparatively cordial an upheaval in La Belle Province.

Quebec’s unique situation

In the case of Quebec, debt owed to private creditors is a serious concern, as it is in most municipalities and jurisdictions in the industrialized nations of the world. But Jean Charest’s beleaguered Liberals are afflicted by more than just a few unpaid loans.

Quebec’s institutions are riven with corruption, particularly in the oft-maligned construction sector. And despite his insistence on cleaning up his province’s problems, Charest has failed, much to the chagrin of Quebeckers, who pay high taxes only to be disappointed by mounting debt, serious doubts around gubernatorial competence, and venality. Now, Quebeckers of all walks of life are being asked to pay extra, and tighten their belts. For the students, this will mean tuition increases of $1,625 over five years – adding 75% to the rates they presently pay. Given this, there is nothing terribly remarkable about the fact that the students aren’t keen to oblige the government’s TINA stance on tuition.

In the meantime, according to La Presse, Charest’s government has spent $50,000 purchasing Google search terms like “greve etudiante” and the names of the student unions involved in the demonstrations. It’s a covert PR campaign. Whether you consider it propaganda or not is up to you.

The “Democratic Mandate” Fallacy

On Saturday, National Post Columnist Chris Selley published an article, asseverating that voting Quebeckers, and indeed all members of the Canadian electorate, should be alarmed by the tactics of the student protesters – tactics which have involved, far more often than not, peaceful acts of civil disobedience. Selley, however, begins his article by denigrating all Quebeckers – peaceful or not, disputatious or not – as entitled, and uniquely un-Canadian.

Furthermore, Selley credits (or in this case, blames) 8 previous student protests for the lack of tuition hikes in Quebec since 1968.

“William Johnson, the political commentator and former president of Alliance Quebec, argued recently that the province’s low tuition has never been ‘a choice made deliberately by a socially conscious government,’ but rather the result of ‘blackmail on Union Nationale, Liberal and Parti Québécois governments by student action in the streets,’” writes Selley, who goes on to juxtapose the “democratically elected government” of Jean Charest with the “incoherent mob” of the protesters.

No one is arguing that Charest’s government failed to achieve its mandate through an equitable electoral process. At least, I’m not. But Selley’s conception of democracy is not consistent with the tenets of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which documents the prerogatives of peaceful assembly, public dissent and freedom of expression are guaranteed. Selley appears to make the case that, once elected, governments should be permitted to do whatever they deem necessary, provided those governments are, in their own estimation, doing what’s best for their constituents.

In short, Selley’s argument has fallen prey to what I term the Fallacy of the Democratic Mandate. It’s the same fundamental misconception of the democratic process that has emboldened Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government to eliminate the Canadian Wheat Board (despite majority opposition from farmers), streamline environmental assessments, grant tax breaks to multinational oil firms, generally disparage most political and philosophical opponents, and overwhelm Parliament with a specious monstrosity of a “budget”. Over and over again, federal Conservatives justify their actions by contending that they’re merely fulfilling their democratic mandate.

Just because you vote for a party because you admire its handling of, say, a subprime-mortgage-triggered recession, doesn’t mean you support every decision that government makes, or will make while in power. A democratic victory is not a blank cheque, and elected politicians must be accountable to citizens at all times – not only when it suits them to be.

Selley also argues that Canadians below the age of 34, who represent the majority of the protesters, tend to vote in lower numbers than their elders. While it may be true that voter turnout is lower among the younger set, Selley overlooks two important considerations in the case of Quebec: 1) that young Quebeckers, offered a choice between a leftist (but separatist) Parti Quebecois and a centrist (but federalist) Liberal Party may feel that neither organization truly represents their unique interests, and abstain from casting a ballot on this ground; and 2) that some of the university and Cegep students, unavoidably, were below the age of 18 at the time of Quebec’s last provincial election in 2008.

Civil disobedience, in Canada, is every bit as legitimate an avenue to express one’s democratic voice as casting a ballot, and Quebec students, many of whom likely feel disenfranchised from the electoral process, have simply exercised option B.

Bill 78

By now, most of us are conversant with the Quebec government’s controversial Bill 78 (loi 78) which effectively prohibits protests involving more than 50 members that have not a) contacted the police to request permission to assemble or b) submitted to police a map outlining the intended route of the march.

Most of us should also be conversant, at this point, with the recent response to these conditions that Bill 78 elicited from protesters. Just in case you haven’t seen it yet:

The route protesters shared with police.

Now, before you denounce this image for its apparent uncouthness, remember that mistrust between demonstrators in Quebec and the police is not without foundation.

In 2007, in the wake of labour-led protests in Montebello, Qc., three members of the Surete du Quebec (SQ) confessed to going undercover, dressed as masked protesters. At least one of the three undercover policemen was holding a rock in his hand during the protest. All three were behaving aggressively amid a peaceful demonstration. SQ officials later stated that the officers were merely employing a covert strategy, trying to ensure order, security and peace. I know what I believe their intentions were, but I’ll let you watch the video and decide for yourself.

While there’s no indication yet of the degree to which undercover police may be involved in the 2012 student demonstrations, police clearly violated Quebeckers’ trust in 2007. And in so doing, they lost the unalloyed confidence of the public, a precious asset they can never earn back, no matter how admirably they execute their duties henceforth. At the Toronto G20 Summit in 2010, allegations once again emerged that undercover police were engaged in acts of violent provocation, masquerading as members of the infamous Black Bloc. True or not, fair or not, this is the type of suspicion that will dog riot police from now on. That’s just the way it is.

As Andrew Coyne, another National Post columnist and member of CBC’s At Issue panel, pointed out in his recent column, it’s not uncommon in other democratic jurisdictions, including Australia, for protesters to contact police before arranging a demonstration. However, there is a significant difference between voluntarily notifying police and being legally mandated to do so, where failure to notify could result in crippling fines to individuals and unions. In any case, police will frequently demand that the protesters adhere to a strict set of rules, or will not grant the demonstrators permission to proceed. In the case of Bill 78, the police, whom many Quebeckers already distrust, theoretically have discretion over all protests exceeding 50 participants, and can outlaw peaceful assemblies at their choosing. The fact that Quebec students and their supporters find this intolerable, and an affront to their legitimate democratic voice, is not surprising.

The $100,000 rule

Coyne also states that no families with income totalling less than $100,000 would be affected by the increase. This is only partially true, since students with family incomes between $45,000 and $100,000 would be eligible for low-interest Quebec student loans – so for these students, their debt burden/work requirements will increase regardless. In any event, a 75% rise in the cost of tuition -  even to some families earning $100,000 or more – can represent an unforeseen financial hurdle. After all, Quebec is already the most highly taxed jurisdiction in North America. What if the money parents set aside for their chidren’s education is not enough to cover this unanticipated jump? What if the students aren’t subsidized by their parents, or their parents are separated and one refuses to contribute financially to the student’s education? And what if the proposed tutition hikes of 2012 are just the first step in the process of progressively dowloading social costs onto private citizens, in keeping with a progression we’ve witnessed markedly in tution increases that have affected U.S. students over the last 20 years? On average, U.S. tuition has increased by 439% since 1990 – a trend Quebec students would not like to see their government emulate. That’s why they’re resisting now, before it’s too late, and long before the $100,000 threshold has a chance to find its way onto the negotiating table.

The role of education

One issue that has not received ample coverage throughout this ongoing tuition crisis, is the fundamental discord between members of the left and right on the political spectrum, with respect to the role of education in society – a topic eloquently discussed in the context of the United States by AlterNet contributor Sara Robinson (although be forewarned; her piece, like AlterNet in general, is uninhibitedly partial to the liberal point of view). Robinson argues that education is, in fact, a partisan issue; between liberals or social democrats, and conservatives or republicans, there are significant differences in the perception of the role of education in society.

If you’re a conservative, you’re more likely to favour the notion that schooling is an investment in human capital, and the purpose of an education system should be to generate productive citizens of the global economic system, workers who can advance the wealth and prosperity of their country by out-competing workers in other countries, by possessing higher skill sets and superior technical knowledge. By the same token, you are also more likely to favour the principle of personal, financial investment in education, where money set aside for a university degree begets future prosperity, and the debt one accrues during this process is, therefore, both necessary and likely to be nullified by enhanced future employment prospects. Higher education, for you, is an economic issue.

On the other hand, if you’re a liberal, or social democrat, your view of erudition will involve a separate set of ambitions. Sure, you’d like to get a job and see your employment prospects improve, but it’s much more important that you cultivate an ability to think critically and independently, and question the world order. While you prefer a financially prosperous society to an impoverished one, you’re concerned that the rising cost of a university education introduces accessibility constraints to some students. In your view, every one of us should be empowered to think critically, to question authority, to explore diverse ways of knowing the world and far-ranging perspectives on the universe. Economic productivity, as far as you’re concerned, is beneficial. But equally important are the care and attention you put into the work that you do, and your ability to remain open to new ideas.

Likewise, if you’re a social democrat or liberal, you’re also more likely to head out onto the streets of Montreal, armed with a pot and wooden spoon, to dispute a vision of the world incongruent with your own, which you may feel is being thrust upon you, little by little, by authorities and corporate interests who may have been hoping you’d just grin and bear it.

Both the liberal/social democratic perspective and the conservative point of view are legitimate, and both have their place in the public discourse of our country. Silencing the protesters, denigrating them, adopting an illusory position of moral high ground over them, is the wrong approach, particularly in a country like Canada which claims to embrace diversity and debate. Which brings me to my last point.

Time to listen

To sum up this prolongued diatribe of a blog post, in which I’ve covered many issues but not nearly all of the pertinent ones, I would say the time has come for dialogue. The time has come for all of us to have a legitimate discussion over the role of education in this country, and to search for the best way forward, together. The media have a role to play in this, by seeking to report fair, balanced information, by presenting both sides of the issue, and by accurately depicting the Quebec protests for what they are. The protesters, by and large, are not rioters, anarchists or contemptuous toward all forms of government and authority. They’re not holding Jean Charest’s government hostage – rather, you could equally argue that it is Charest’s government which has repeatedly sought to impose a set of conditions on the students that many find unacceptable.

The manifestations are not composed merely of young, entitled, Marxist buffoons – rather, people of all ages and diverse political backgrounds have expressed solidarity with the students. And their goal is not merely to avoid a rise in tuition; it’s to speak out for all those who have suffered at the hands of neoliberalism and capitalistic excesses, including women, First Nations, ethnic minorities, and low-income Canadians, many of whom have experienced intersectionalities of discrimination and poverty. The students are aligned with the 99%, inextricably linked with the Occupy movement, and have a legitimate point of view which, for the most part, they’ve chosen to express in a peaceful and democratically valid way.

It’s time we in Anglophone Canada stopped portraying the Quebec students as enemies, as recalcitrant, entitled brats, or even worse, as outsiders who don’t belong. If we’re to truly consider ourselves one nation, where various perspectives are respected, rather than two distinct nations crudely sutured into the unnatural confederation of Canada, perhaps it’s time for us to pursue reconciliation with, rather than outright rejection of, the student protesters’ societal vision. Whether you support the demonstrations or not, whether you agree with the student union leaders or not, now is the time for a truly Canadian conversation.

Note: Negotiations between government officials and Quebec’s four largest student associations have resumed today (Monday May 28, 2012). Stay tuned.

Also, please visit Translating the Printemps Erable for coverage of the protests by French-language media outlets, translated to English.

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