There is certainly much to this. This is by no means Quebec’s first student strike. In an article in La Presse in January, political scientist Benedict Lacoursière counted eight of them since 1968 (this is the ninth), and noted their excellent record of success in avoiding tuition hikes. 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.”
It is worth remembering, however, that similar scenes unfolded in Britain, whence the other founding people came, just 18 months ago. Prime Minister David Cameron proposed to raise tuition caps dramatically, and superficially the result was the same: London repeatedly ground to a halt as students protested and clashed with police. Conservative party headquarters was smashed, occupied and vandalized, as were other symbols of state power. Someone spray-painted “revolution” on Nelson’s Column – though it would have been fitting, he probably wasn’t French. After MPs voted through the hikes, protesters attacked Prince Charles’ and the Duchess of Cornwall’s motorcade on Regent Street. In the unthinkable event that the royal couple had visited Montreal this week, protesters there might well have staged a re-enactment.
In Britain, it all died down. It still might in Quebec. But in light of concessions already offered by Premier Jean Charest’s reeling government, the failure so far of his controversial emergency law to make a dent in the protests, and reports of further negotiations to come – negotiations, that is, between an elected government and an incoherent mob – people are raising legitimate questions about the state of democracy and the rule of law.
In Thursday’s National Post, Andrew Coyne deplored the idea that “a democratically elected government may be prevented by force and intimidation from enacting laws in the public interest.” Public protest is an entirely traditional means of attempting to force governments into certain actions. And anarchy didn’t result from Quebec City’s past capitulations – though those capitulations presumably encouraged the approximation of anarchy we’re seeing now. But violence ought to embolden a provincial premier to dig in his heels, not open talks. It is not unreasonable to worry that student successes might embolden other minority groups to pursue similar tactics.
Ultimately, any effort to normalize what we’re seeing falls short. The sheer longevity of the Quebec protests is unprecedented and bizarre, especially considering the modesty of the proposed fee increase. (Admittedly, a well-developed sense of proportion is rare among the youthful activist set.) Where student leaders in Britain forcefully condemned violence, in Quebec they have been alarmingly sanguine – certainly towards the shameless intimidation, in violation of court orders, of the majority of students who still want to go to class.
When striking workers demand and receive concessions from government, they are at least holding their own labour for ransom. The Quebec “strike” is being staged by consumers of a heavily subsidized commodity, i.e., education. Yet, absurdly, the strikers use the “scab” terminology and philosophy of the moribund labour movement, blocking access to CEGEPs and universities, disrupting classes, in one case trying to physically remove two female students from a classroom at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
The protesters haven’t just turned against the government, or another class or demographic group, but against their own kind. Quebec’s students have created a situation in which a minority is imposing its will, violently, against the clear majority who support the tuition hikes and oppose the protests – and the government isn’t doing, or cannot do, anything to stop it.
Indeed, while clamping down on violent and excessive protests can quickly go awry – Charest already seems to be losing popularity over a not-very-draconian “emergency law” that Quebecers broadly seemed to want – it seems conceivable that the situation has only deteriorated this far because no one in authority has given the students the slightest incentive to stop doing what they’re doing. The government proposes; the students protest; the government blinks. However irrational their demands, maintaining and intensifying their tactics is a rational choice.
It is all quite reminiscent of an Upper Canadian situation: the occupation of Caledonia, Ont., by native protesters, in flagrant defiance of court orders and with fulsome assistance from a provincial police force that, by rights, should have been protecting homeowners and their property and livelihoods. On and on it dragged until, eventually, at taxpayer expense, the government bought the whole place, effectively ceded it to the natives, and settled with the residents on the condition of their silence. During last year’s Ontario election campaign, Premier Dalton McGuinty told the National Post‘s editorial board that he was “proud” of the way the conflict was handled.
That brings us to another leading theory: That the situation in Quebec might be as much about a pre-existing collapse in government authority, trust and credibility as it is about the students or the piddling tuition hike. They have just accepted an invitation to fill the void. There is much to this as well.
It is often said that if young people want to make a difference, they ought to vote. The hackneyed nature of the observation belies the gobsmacking truth of it – assuming, that is, that governments are actually capable and willing to give voters what they want. In the May 2011 federal election, for example, just 39% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 cast a ballot. That likely represents something like two million unused votes. Add in 25-to-34-year-olds, who voted at a 45% clip, and you’re up to about four million votes, or roughly a quarter of the total ballots cast. Young people would not have to vote monolithically to increase their clout hugely. But if they voted predominantly left-wing, they might change the political and policy landscape at a stroke. Presumably tuition fees would then increase at a slower rate, if at all – again, assuming political parties actually respond to their supporters.
So, what are young Quebecers’ options in this regard? Well, Mr. Charest and his Liberals are the enemy, tired and perhaps more than a bit corrupt – we shall see what Justice France Charbonneau’s inquiry finds. There is the separatist Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois, which backs the protesters. But then, 15 years ago, as education minister in Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government, she was the one proposing tuition hikes. You don’t have to be very cynical to suspect she’s being a bit cynical. François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, urges the students to compromise. Why not just spit in their faces?
Some would argue, correctly, that true political engagement isn’t about voting in one’s self-interest, but joining a party and working to ensure that it advocates the vision of society that one supports – one in which tuition is frozen at 2011 levels in perpetuity, for example. But these students are mighty close to achieving that as it stands, and they’re having a whale of a time doing it. Who could possibly make this case to them?
Even if the student strike is just the biggest one in Quebec’s history, and not the immediate harbinger of more widespread social or political upheaval, the anti-democratic actions and rhetoric from Quebec’s student leaders should alarm Canada’s other politicians, whose collective reputation is not in the ascendancy. And it should equally alarm the people who do actually bother to vote for those politicians.
When Elections Canada surveyed young Canadians to find out why they didn’t vote in 2011, only 9% had negative things to say about the process: “My vote wouldn’t make any difference,” or “I don’t trust government/politicians.” Fully half just couldn’t be bothered to make the slightest effort: “I was at school”; “I was travelling”; “I forgot.” The protesters have no democratic legitimacy – but Mr. Charest’s own seems to be in awfully short supply. The voter turnout federally in 2011 was 61%; in Quebec’s 2008 provincial election it was 56%; in Ontario’s last year it was below 50%. How much legitimacy does any government have if 40%-50% of the population can’t even be bothered to hate it? Outside of Quebec, discontent might not lead to mass demonstrations and riots. But it has to be an awfully tempting invitation.
Source: national post
Author: Chris Selley