Avec nous, dans la rue
Yesterday was a day of enormous mass demonstrations in Montreal. It was a marvellous day, under auspicious circumstances: the imposition of Bill 78 in the province of Québec, which curtails the right to public assembly and protest, threatens anyone who supports the student-strike actions (never clearly defined) with massive fines, and finally in an unjust precedent-setting-manner makes one subject to the law if someone violates the law and you do nothing to stop them. You are liable for a crime of omission. With the laws so vague (i.e. wearing a red square could be classified as an incitement to riot!), there is much room for abuse. It is a clear contravention of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (federal and provincial).
The media are under-reporting the participation of the citizenry. Yesterday there were 250,000 (at least) on the streets on a Tuesday afternoon, when rain and thunderstorms threatened. They are all ages and from all walks of life, although the students are leading the charge.
The English-language press across the country has been concentrating on the “violence” of the protests and protestors. However, having been to several demonstrations now, I can tell you now that are largely non-violent. There are a handful of violent protestors (mostly from the anarchist group the Black Block who sees violence as a legitimate response to sanctioned state repression- we disagree) in the midsts of thousands of peaceful protestors, every night, who are taking the streets. Missing as well, is the formation of a “White Block” trying to prevent any violence from happening.
There are many creative attempts to get media attention: nude protests, underwear protests, and people dressed in costumes of all ilks. New on the scene were les “super-heros” contra la hausse: skinny young men in homemade batman and superman-style costumes, posing and shaking hands with children and other passersby. Not sure this has made it not on your news channel, but these are attempts to get the media, obsessed with banal sex and violence to at least look elsewhere.
The media have misrepresented the goals of the initial strike: this isn’t only about “cheap tuition”. It never has been. The students are protesting the changes to education buried in our recent provincial budget. The policy decreases the proportion of education funded publicly and increases private contributions. The funding plan projects a decrease in Quebec’s contribution to university revenues from 54% in 2008-9 to 51.4% in 2016-17, while the federal share is to decrease from 14% to 12%; over the same period. In the meantime, private funding is to increase by 50%, and there is no obvious reason to think these trends will stop in 2017. This will change the very nature of the research, and teaching, that we do by forcing closer links with industry.
I engage in many partnerships with small, local businesses, and community organizations, but this unstated, undiscussed policy towards University education, enshrined in the budget, is about lowering the investment in education through taxation, increasing tuition fees, and rewarding those institutions and individuals who engage in research-for-hire with the private sector- in much the same way that the present federal government has turned the NRC (National Research Council) into arm of industry and gutted programs that are about “pure” (i.e. non-applied research). It is a bill that will hit the humanities, social sciences and “non-applied” sectors of education hard.
This strike is about fundamental social and economic issues, and the students are leading the way.
The students are often depicted as selfish louts who want a free-for all: the movement has tied its mandate, repeatedly if you go on their websites or read their literature, to the decline in public funding to other social services and is asking where government money is going: to the Québec construction ‘industry’? We know it is, as the recent scandals and soon to be released public inquiry shows. To the asbestos industry?: Oh yes, they think that it is a good idea, and investment, environmental reports be damned. To the new “Plan North”? This will be our Alberta Tar Sands. In terms of education, students are also asking for reviews of the rise in university hirings in upper levels of administration who are often payed very large salaries, and as we have seen, can be given golden handshakes in an instant if a Board of Governors (increasingly tied to industry and less to our academic mandate) deems this desirable.
Student debt is also on the rise, even with the so-called low tuitions, even with the system of loans and bursaries. Student debt, in the States is threatening to create another economic crisis. Do we want to go down that road? You might also need to know that In Québec, students leave high school to enter the CEGEP system to do their last year of high school plus one other year that is often pre-University or a terminal degree in a vocational or applied area. Many of these programs cost. While many CEGEPs are public, an increasing number are private. Student debt can start accumulating early, which is why you are seeing high school and CEGEP students at these protests.
The students have not just been wanting to negotiate with the government. They are asking, on our behalf, that our elected members discuss their entire educational policy, and the provincial budget, with those who are, and will be, most effected. They asked that this happen before the bill was passed. The Liberals (now there is a misnomer!) have not taken these requests seriously. They passed the first bill amidst much controversy and now this most recent bill, Bill 78. This is a bill that replaces dialogue and democracy with rules of law that the Quebec Bar Association quickly has recognized as a dangerous precedent.
Below you will find a wonderful open letter, by Daniel Weinstock, that was passed on to us, and that I now pass on to you. Please cut, paste and circulate. I append a few choice photos which offer a few snaps (not of us!) from yesterday. Feel free to circulate our letter to you.
Avec nous dans la rue,
Kim Sawchuk and Robert Prenovault
An Open Letter to English-Canadians, who might be feeling that Quebeckers have taken leave of their senses.
by Daniel Weinstock on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 3:09am ·
An open letter to my English-Canadian friends. Please circulate in your networks as you see fit.
You may have heard that there has been some turmoil in Quebec in recent weeks. There have been demonstrations in the streets of Montreal every night for almost a month now, and a massive demonstration will be happening tomorrow, which I will be attending, along with my wife, Elizabeth Elbourne, and my eldest daughter Emma.
Reading the Anglo-Canadian press, it strikes me that you have been getting a very fragmented and biased picture of what is going on. Given the gulf that has already emerged between Quebec and the rest of Canada in the wake of the 2011 election, it is important that the issues under discussion here at least be represented clearly. You may decide at the end of the day that we are crazy, but at least you should reach that decision on the basis of the facts, rather than of the distortions that have been served up by the G&M and other outlets.
First, the matter of the tuition hikes, which touched off this mess. The rest of the country seems to have reached the conclusion that the students are spoiled, selfish brats, who would still be paying the lowest tuition fees even if the whole of the proposed increase went through.
The first thing to say is that this is an odd conception of selfishness. Students have been sticking with the strikes even knowing that they may suffer deleterious consequences, both financial and academic. They have been marching every night despite the threat of beatings, tear-gas, rubber bullets, and arrests. It is, of course, easier for the right-wing media to dismiss them if they can be portrayed as selfish kids to whom no -one has ever said “no”. But there is clearly an issue of principle here.
OK, then. But maybe the principle is the wrong one. Free tuition may just be a pie-in-the sky idea that mature people give up on when they put away childish things. And besides, why should other people pay for the students’ “free” tuition? There is no such thing as “free” education. Someone, somewhere, has to pay. And the students, the criticism continues, are simply refusing to pay their “fair share”.
Why is that criticism simplistic? Because the students’ claim has never been that they should not pay for education. The question is whether they should do so up front, before they have income, or later, as taxpayers in a progressive taxation scheme. Another question has to do with the degree to which Universities should be funded by everyone, or primarily by those who attend them. So the issue of how to fund Universities justly is complicated. We have to figure out at what point in people’s lives they should be paying for their education, and we also have to figure out how much of the bill should be footed by those who do not attend, but who benefit from a University-educated work force of doctors, lawyers, etc. The students’ answer to this question may not be the best, but then it does not strike me that the government’s is all that thought out either.
And at least the students have been trying to make ARGUMENTS and to engage the government and the rest of society in debate, whereas the government’s attitude, other than to invoke the in-this-context-meaningless “everyone pays their faire share” argument like a mantra, has been to say “Shut up, and obey”.
What strikes the balance in the students’ favour in the Quebec context is that the ideal of no up-front financial hurdles to University access is enshrined in some of the most foundational documents of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, in particular the Parent Commission Report, which wrested control of schools from the Church and created the modern Quebec education system, a cornerstone of the kind of society that many Quebeckers see themselves as aspiring to. Now, it could be that that ideal is no longer viable, or that we may no longer want to subscribe to it. But moving away from it, as Charest’s measures have done, at least requires a debate, analogous to the debate that would have to be had if the Feds proposed to scrap the Canada Health Act. It is clearly not just an administrative measure. It is political through and through. Indeed it strikes at fundamental questions about the kind of society we want to live in. If this isn’t the sort of thing that requires democratic debate, I don’t know what is.
The government has met the very reasonable request that this issue, and broader issues of University governance, be at least addressed in some suitably open and democratic manner with silence, then derision, then injunctions, and now, with the most odious “law” that I have seen voted by the Quebec National Assembly in my adult memory. It places the right of all Quebec citizens to assemble, but also to talk and discuss about these issues, under severe limitations. It includes that most odious of categories: crimes of omission, as in, you can get fined for omitting to attempt to prevent someone from taking part in an act judged illegal by the law. In principle, the simple wearing of the by-now iconic red square can be subject to a fine. The government has also made the student leaders absurdly and ruinously responsible for any action that is ostensibly carried out under the banners of their organizations. The students groups can be fined $125000 whenever someone claiming to be “part” of the movement throws a rock through a window. And so on. It is truly a thing to behold.
The government is clearly aware that this “law” would not withstand a millisecond of Charter scrutiny. It actually expires in July 2013, well before challenges could actually wind their way through the Courts. The intention is thus clearly just to bring down the hammer on this particular movement by using methods that the government knows to be contrary to basic liberal-democratic rule-of-law principles. The cynicism is jaw-dropping. It is beneath contempt for the government to play fast and loose with our civil rights and liberties in order to deal with the results of its own abject failure to govern.
So that is why tomorrow I will be taking a walk in downtown Montreal with (hopefully!) hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens. Again, you are all free to disagree, but at least don’t let it be because of the completely distorted picture of what is going on here that you have been getting from media outlets, including some from which we might have expected more.