Debate

Quebec students: Legitimate strikers or self-absorbed brats?

The Globe and Mail

Students protesting the rise in tuition fees demonstrate in Montreal Saturday, April 14, 2012. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As Quebec's months-long student strike drags on, two Canadian columnists argue the strikers' legitimacy. Scroll down to read both of their arguments.

Patrick Lagacé's case for the students: If you seek to understand the activists' ferocity, look back at the historic struggles of Quebec's education system

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When my English Canadian friends talk about the Quebec student strike, I can feel they are at a loss to understand. After all, they say, Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in the country, $2,500 per year.

So, they reason, why is it that youngsters in other provinces, such as Nova Scotia ($5,731 per year) or Ontario ($6,640) haven’t taken to the streets, blockading bridges and roads, like their red square-wearing Quebec counterparts ?

Dear Anglo friends, I feel your dizziness. From the outside looking in, this seems a strange fight. Take my hand while I give you a guided tour of the issue. Watch out, rocks are being thrown!

While the Quebec media commentariat are quite critical of the student strikers, I understand why the students feel so angry.

First, no organized group in society would accept a 75-per-cent government-imposed fee hike without blinking, and those facing such a hike would at least get the courtesy of direct talks with said government. Said courtesy was not extended to the students until the eleventh hour.

Second, I cannot overstate the reality that progressive forces have always been strong in Quebec. Nowadays, these forces are stronger than ever and have flexed their muscles on a number of contentious issues. The student movement of 2012 is the rightful heir of a decade of activism in the province, especially in the spirit of alienation that afflicts the “99 per cent” of Occupy fame.

Third, education has always been a sensitive issue in this province. If tuition fees are low, it is in part for a very simple reason: 50 years ago, Quebec was closer to a third-world country than a developed nation in terms of education markers.

To wit: in 1962, 54 per cent of those age 25 had not completed Grade 6. Among Catholics (mostly French Quebeckers), only 15 per cent had completed Grade 11, compared to 35 per cent for Protestants (Anglophones). A dismal 7 per cent of Quebeckers, at the time, attended university.

Quebec created its ministère de l'Éducation in ’64. That is, 1964. Ontario transformed its Department of Public Instruction in 1876 into the Department of Education after decades of groundwork by Egerton Ryerson. In the late 19th century, when Ontario's public education system was gaining praise internationally, Quebec was still counting on the Catholic Church to educate (a minority of) its pupils.

A few years ago, the French radio service of the CBC produced an epic 10-part documentary on the Quiet Revolution that shook Quebec in the early 1960s. In it, two legendary political figures, Jacques Parizeau and René Lévesque, who would both go on to become premier, describe the sorry state of affairs of Quebec's education system.

Mr. Parizeau reflected: “In 1962, we had the world's lowest secondary-schooling rate in the so-called civilized world, with Portugal.”

Mr. Lévesque, at the time a Jean Lesage cabinet minister, said: “We are manufacturing people who are handicapped for life. And we accept it.”

Quebec's low tuition fees are a direct consequence of the Quiet Revolution. When Quebec overhauled its education system in the 1960s, college and university education had to be affordable, it was almost a matter of survival. Successive freezes kept tuition fees low.

Lastly, an additional factor must also be weighed as we analyze the ferocity of our student activists: Quebec's closeness, culturally, to France and Europe. Societies with nearly free higher education are this movement's Shangri-La, not English Canada or the United States.

So, whereas Ontario or Nova Scotia students might say, when paying their tuition fees: “I'd be much worse off in the U.S.,” Quebec students are probably saying: “I'd be better off in France.”

Patrick Lagacé is a columnist with Montreal’s La Presse.

Gary Mason's case against the students: The only thing you need to understand about the uprising is that there is a larger political agenda at play

I’m not sure I can pinpoint when my empathy for Quebec’s striking students turned to enmity, but it was certainly before the end of the first week of the now more than three-month-old campaign. That’s when it became apparent that this was about more than rising tuitions: a grander war was being waged.

It has mostly been articulated by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the 21-year-old head of the hard-line student group known as CLASSE. Telegenic and charismatic, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois has become the face and voice of the protests.

In his speeches and many media appearances, the young student has brandished an ideal for the protests that suggests something much broader, a starting point for a far-reaching challenge to the direction in which Quebec is heading. Two years ago, in fact, he portended today’s actions when he wrote that he envisioned a movement “that comes with it the hope of a calling into question our economic system.”

Given such, it’s little surprise the protesters have refused to move off a long list of demands, which include a say over government tax policy. Yes, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois and his group are insisting the government introduce a capital levy on banks and other financial institutions.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

The fact is, the striking students give entitlement a bad name. They don’t know how lucky they have it. They have the lowest tuition fees in the country. Even with the proposed $1,625 tuition increase – which the government has now agreed to spread over seven years instead of five – Quebec students would still enjoy costs their counterparts in the rest of the country would kill for.

The Quebec government has promised increases to loan amounts and bursaries that would benefit poor and middle-class students. The rich would pay more of the cost of education. Still, it’s not good enough. The students need to declare complete victory. And you get the sense that the student leaders won’t be content until they overthrow the government of Jean Charest.

They want total capitulation.

Students in the rest of the country must look at what’s happening in Quebec in bewilderment. No doubt they can relate to concerns and even anger about rising tuitions and increased debt loads, but I doubt they can muster much sympathy for some of the more deplorable actions of the protesters.

That would include:

- smashing store windows and setting cars on fire;

- paralyzing the subway system and delaying the commute of thousands of working-class Montrealers who pay for the students’ education with their taxes; and

- taunting a former Canadian soldier who risked his life in Afghanistan for seeking an injunction to permit him to attend a class at Laval.

The militants have been ordered by a judge to refrain from “intimidating and threatening” students who are trying to attend classes at schools behind protester “picket lines.”

For many, the last straw in terms of any support they might have had for the radicals was their decision to allow former FLQ terrorist Paul Rose – convicted in the 1970 murder of Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte – to give a rousing speech at one of their rallies.

Public support for the striking students is sinking inside Quebec. People have had enough. The government has made concessions and the students have made none. Instead, they talk about a “Quebec Spring” and liken their protests to uprisings in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, where people died fighting for freedom.

The Quebec uprising is a farce, led a group of self-absorbed brats, basking in the glow of often fawning media attention. They are nothing more than spoiled kids demanding to have their way. It is time they are ignored until they stop their whining and grow up.

Gary Mason is a Globe and Mail national columnist.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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