Another Québec Crisis
Once again in Québec we see frightened politicians resorting to the use of draconian laws to curtail citizens' rights. The Québec government has just passed a law after a 24 hour debate that will for all intent and purpose is against the guarantees of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I am sure they know this but they are counting on the slowness of any challenge as their opportunity to quash the protest of Québec students which have been going on for 15 weeks. The last time we saw this kind of panicked action was Québec politicians convincing the Federal government (or was it the other way around) to invoke the War Measures Act suspending our rights and turning the military loose on citizens.
What started out as students protesting the rise in University tuition has become a crisis in our democracy.
Early days to optimistic demonstration that Education was a Right in Québec and should not be made a privilege with higher tuition fees.
The protests have now begun a period of civil disobedience over a law that denies students rights, of freedom of speech and assembly.
Fifteen weeks ago the Québec government decided that there should be a dramatic increase in the level of tuition for University students. The initial response to the 80% increase in tuition was; No! this is too much and unfair. But from the beginning it was more than just the money.
It was an attempt at a cultural change for Québec. Those of us in the rest of Canada do not appreciate the culture of Québec that involved a greater involvement of government in the lives of people. Québec has a difference ethos that the rest of Canada. It has won this battle. Even the Conservatives recognized Québec as a Nation within our Nation. Québec has it own pension plan, more Unions than other parts of Canada, restrictions on workers coming from other provinces, extensive support of the arts, protections of the French language, etc. With regard to education , education is seen as a right and not a privilege. These means that education is free, or at least that was the ideal. Education is paid for by the government through taxes (Quebec willingly pays the highest taxes in Canada to support their cultural goals, particularly free public education.) It is free through the community college level and it has the lowest tuition for University in Canada (there are those who believe that even University education should be free) For Québecois education is a social and not just a personal good. Society as a collective benefits greatly by making it available to all. In the rest of Canada, higher education is seen as more of an individual good, a privilege for those who can afford it (or go in debt for it) so that they may attain a better job and a higher standard of living, economically and socially.
So with the dramatic increase in University tuition proposed, it was seen as an assault on the very nature of Québec's social project. The ideal of free ( or very low cost) University education was being abandoned. Increasing tuition would make Quebec University funding just like the rest of Canada. The 80% increase over 5 to 7 years would still leave Quebec tuition below the rest of Canada, and in contrast to the cost of American Universities it would be only about 10 to 20 percent less.
Criticisms from outside of Quebec focused on the money amount and saw the pampered Québec students as being unreasonable. If the protests has last only a week or so, I might have agreed but for daily demonstrations over 15 weeks with 10's of thousands of students in the streets daily, it is obvious that this is not just over money.
Québec University students have risen up to defend the uniqueness of Québec in the face of the rise in tuition which treats education just like in the rest of Canada. Their protest is: we are not just like the rest of Canada and will not be treated as such. In fact, some of the Québec students, don't understand why more students in the rest of Canada do not support them and try to be more like them and fight tuition increases and struggle for the day when University education will be easily available to all those who qualify academically alone.
There has been a year long student struggle for equality in education and lower tuition in Chile. The comparisons are interesting for they are both a struggle for the culture of the respective societies.
The last Québec government to maintain this system was that of the Union Nationale of Duplessis. It was defeated by the Liberal government of Jean Lesage. In a few short years, great changes came to Quebec. As a result of the Parent Commission five volume Report Québec's education system was radically changed. A Province wide system was set up with control being taken away from many small local boards (no doubt dominated by the clergy). The classical colleges were closed. Community Colleges were developed and education was free up to this level with an expectation that eventually it would be free to university as well. Education was to be the institution to transform Québec; and it did. Quebec is in many was the most progressive region of Canada. Once it has the highest birthrate and now it has the lowest. It has the most common law "marriage" arrangement in Canada, it has very inexpensive, $7 a day, public child care. Montreal is the most accepting of the homosexual community in Canada. The language law has protected the French language and made French the language of business in Quebec. The Arts in Québec flourish is spite of the relative small population, isolated by language and culture, (more likely because of it. Education was the key to the transformation of Québec.
I am not sure what will be the result of the Québec governments draconian legislation. In the end, they may suppress dissent by students, and be able to impose tuition increases. I do know that there will be court cases testing aspects of this law and they will be found unconstitutional.
I would like to think that Canadians, all over Canada would travel to Québec and join the student challenges to this law. Tuesday there is to be a large protest in the streets. I can only dream that millions of Canadians from all across the country will be there the stand up for the rights of Québec students at the same time standing up for the rights of us all under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.