On June 7, 1960, the Quebec Liberal Party made this election promise in a Le Devoir newspaper ad: Free education, from kindergarten through university, along with subsidies for room, board, and clothing, for students with the required ability and desire.
The promise was part of the package of fundamental changes that were to catapult Quebec from the period known as the Great Darkness, the era of Union Nationale strongman Maurice Duplessis, into the heady 1960s of vast social, economic and political progress that was the Quiet Revolution.
The promise of free education was repeated by the Parent Commission in its 1964 report as a goal, and it was partially fulfilled with the virtual freezing of low tuition fees. The creation of CEGEPs meant that what previously had been the first year of a four-year university course was now the second year of CEGEP, which is free.
This powerful legacy, and the demand that this promise be fulfilled at a time when a first university degree is a pre-requisite for many jobs in the knowledge-based economy, is what kicked off the student boycotts of classes in March. It affected mainly French-language post-secondary institutions and has become the most striking political development in this province in some time.
It has mushroomed into something else, the exact impact of which remains to be seen. While some call for taking back the streets from the dozens of protests that have affected traffic and some businesses, others are affirming that the streets belong to no one group. Seniors, professors, teachers, union activists, members of marginal political groups, and many middle-class adults with beefs against governments and authority have joined in to turn these protests into a multifaceted expression of dissent.
The fact that this has percolated from below is a sign of disaffection from the existing political parties and structures and is a form of participatory democracy that rejects the limitations of parliamentary democracy.
The Liberal government of Jean Charest was sluggish in its initial response, banking on the polls showing support for the tuition hikes first proposed over five years, then stretched out to seven years to bring fees here in line with the average in Canada. Part of the blame can be attributed to former education minister, Line Beauchamp, who under-estimated the resolve of the renascent student movement. The revelation in La Presse that one of the contributors to her campaign was a Mafia associate almost as much as her failure to resolve the student boycotts led to her decision to resign from politics. That episode did not enhance the government’s credibility.
Charest deserves credit, however, for finally entering the fray and using his strong rhetorical skills to argue that the government has made many changes in response to student demands to ensure that anybody from the middle and lower income classes, whose family income is up to $100,000, will be eligible for bursaries and loans to cushion the tuition hikes. He and his government have belatedly made some strong arguments in support of its policies, which have broad support. Under present conditions, the Liberals will be able to profit from their attitude, the polls indicate.
Another problem is that the student movement is presenting some retrograde ideas that deserve to be rejected. They had asked to redirect certain funds so there is at least a freeze, if not a rollback of tuition fees. Several ideas make no sense, such as shifting funds from research grants to augment university income. Research in the physical and social sciences is at the heart of university culture and must be increased, not diminished. Ending the tax savings for parents would eliminate a fiscal instrument that helps make it easier for families who contribute to their children’s higher education.
Some protests have been marred by violence. The problem is at least in part due to anarchists who show up at many demonstrations and, as the demonstrators proceed peacefully, toss projectiles at windows, giving the police a pretext to declare the march illegal and to potentially stop to it. Why the police cannot track the perpetrators of violent acts and arrest them leads some to suggest they allow it to happen to put an end to admittedly difficult crowd-control challenges.
The Internet—in the form of uploaded photos and YouTube videos—offers several examples of police excesses in using plastic bullets and arresting corralled bystanders.
Finally, the protests have evolved. The push to hike tuition fees comes at a time when industries are closing down in Quebec and moving to where labour is cheap. Cutbacks, which have begun in Ottawa, are in the offing provincially. Our per-capita provincial debt—almost $20,000 this year—is the highest in Canada.
As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times this month, the push for austerity in America and Britain—and coming here—is ostensibly about debt and deficits. But in reality, it’s about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs. The students and their allies are saying, “We believe in social democracy and we are taking to the streets to protect our social programs, including the tuition freeze.”
And in that respect, they deserve support and sympathy.