Quebec's Student Protests Deserve a Closer Look

By Melissa Como


Anarchopanda has a protest related headache.

Like Al Murray-Lawson stated in his article last week, things are laughably out of control in Quebec. Students want free burgers, free taxi rides and free La Ronde passes. Oh no, wait, only I want that. Students were and are largely fighting for a tuition freeze. How dare they?

If I were to maintain a tone as reductive and dismissive as Al’s, I’d end my argument there. Maybe I’d throw in some irrelevant personal history outlining how I’m a lifelong Montrealer, identify as a Quebecer and have attended both French and English schools here. And why wouldn’t I? It seems everyone against the student movement has appropriated the whole thing and made it about themselves. “I had to pay for school!” “I’ve seen those kids, they all have iPhones!” “That damn protest made me late for my meeting with Mister McMoolah!“ Le nombrilisme à son meilleur.

It’s easy to take an over-simplistic approach whether you’re for or against the movement. However, the protests have snowballed into something so multifaceted, delicate and complicated that it’s impossible to form a legitimate opinion without fully understanding it. I’m admittedly not even sure that I do, given that media outlets often report on it in a confusing or biased manner, provide selective information and numbers, and utilize terminology that the average reader or viewer isn’t entirely familiar with.

Student groups had originally demonstrated against Liberal ex-premier Jean Charest’s $325 per year tuition hike but were very soon joined by alumni, professors, artists, feminists, the Occupy Montreal camp, anti-police brutality advocates, separatists, anarchists, vandals and people who were just generally fed up in one way or another, each making the cause their own. That last faction is particularly noteworthy as there’s long been a sense of frustration and mistrust of the government within Quebec, and the movement probably wouldn’t have been sparked without it. The discontent culminated on May 22, 2012 when a giant crowd estimated at 500,000 marched on the 100th day of the student strike.

Current Parti Quebecois premier Pauline Marois took advantage of the situation, schmoozing the students, wearing the red square and essentially fueling the conflict. She was elected in part due to her student-friendly platform that included a tuition freeze. Loud applause and sighs of relief roared through the Plateau bar I watched the election results at. And then, at last week’s curiously short two-day summit on higher education, Marois reneged on her promise. Tuition is now indexed to inflation, totalling an additional $70 per year.

Saying that the student movement is continuing what was a six month-long series of protests over $70 is wrong. It’s meant to shame and ridicule the people involved. Some of those taking to the streets are incensed that they’ve once again been betrayed by their government. Others are still pushing for free post-secondary education, hoping to join countries like Argentina, Finland and Scotland, to name a few. That agenda isn’t impossible. In 2007, the government granted $950 million in household tax relief that favored rich peeps; by contrast, free higher education would cost the government $700 million. If instilled, this would redistribute the wealth, blur socioeconomic lines and promote a more educated, arguably smarter people but let’s face it - rich white, male fucks don’t want anyone else’s grimy hands touching their rubies or their Grey Poupons.

The education summit proved to be a joke even without taking its length or the slight tuition hike into account. Marois announced that university funding would be cut by $250 million over the next two fiscal years. She also boasted the creation of a council, the Conseil national des universités, and of committees whose jobs it will be to discuss university efficiency and finances. A noble idea, only Quebec already has a minister and a ministry of education, who are presumably already tasked with those duties.

Government officials and university rectors have frequently called for tuition hikes based on the supposed underfunding of these learning institutions. However, it’s been affirmed that they aren’t actually underfunded; rather, they mismanage their dough. Of the $850 million universities were to receive by 2016-2017, they planned to allocate between 20 and 40 per cent to research which prioritizes the private sector and to top dog salaries. Let us remember that Heather Munroe-Bloom, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University, received $587,000 in salary and perks in 2008-2009. Former Concordia University presidents Judith Woodsworth and Claude Lajeunesse both left before their contracted terms ended with severance packages totalling $703,500 and $1 million, respectively. Must be nice.

Student movement participants have every right to be disappointed in not only the government but also in the police force. Cops’ well-documented, reprehensible behavior has often caused sheer panic among protesters. Whether it be hitting people with their cars and motorcycles, pepper spraying non-violent crowds (this officer, widely known as Agent 728, was recently arrested on unrelated but equally scary charges) or shoving or otherwise abusing journalists, people have lost what little faith they had in those mandated to keep the peace. In a somewhat ironic move, the Montreal police Brotherhood held its own protest last Thursday. That’s our thing, guys.

Quebec has the highest taxes in the country so it’s only logical that it also has the cheapest education. Post-secondary enrollment is 9 per cent higher in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. Full-time students here work more than their Canadian counterparts. The student movement therefore isn’t reflective of a lazy, cheap, privileged society like certain people blindly believe; it’s a fight for everyone’s inherent right to education regardless of class, gender or race. It’s a disillusioned youth refusing to live up to antiquated expectations. It’s hundred of thousands of individuals who aren’t just going to accept whatever their corrupt, self-serving government shoves down their throats.

But yeah, I guess it’s easier to laugh at Quebec.


Photos by Kelsey Pudloski.

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