Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Student Strike In Québec

This morning I am turning over the blog to the elder Frenchling.  She is studying at Mcgill in Montreal, was at the heart of the action when the strikes started, and has been following the situation closely from the Flophouse here in Versailles.  She has some very strong opinions about the strikers and the rightness of their cause.  So I told her to get her thoughts in order and write it up and I would publish it here.  She did and here it is.  To say that she is not amused would be an understatement....

Students in Quebec on Strike!

It all started in march 2011, when Jean Charest, the Prime Minister, decided to not be a wuss and give universities in Québec what they really need: more money. Instead of taxing the entire population, he said that students should pay their fair share. Québec students pay the lowest tuition in North America, about 3000 dollars for a year. He proposed an increase in 1675 dollars in 5 years. It would bring tuition to maximum 4975 Canadian dollars a year, an increase of  75 %. Still much lower than the national average. And yet, students all around Québec had a meltdown. Understandable.  No one wants to pay more. 

The three leaders of the main associations étudiantes, CLASSE, FEUQ and FEQC immediately called for an unlimited general strike this year. The universities voted in their own general assemblies. The vote was hands up or down.  Does this remind you of anything? ("cough" communist regime "cough"). Any student voting against the strike was intimidated: people took pictures, shouted insults and shamed them. Thankfully, at McGill University (where I'm at), the strike was voted down. This was attributed to the large population of foreign students who simply do not care about local Québec politics. I like to think of the vote as common sense and a commitment to working and being productive as opposed to running down the streets with a red flag. 

Protests started to take place all around Quebec. They led to confrontations between the police and students. Students crying out, blaming police violence. Policemen complaining about students throwing projectiles and screaming "fuck the police". (I want to join the police later so I can't help but be sympathetic. If someday someone throws rocks at me, I'm going to arrest them.)

However, this did little to stop Charest. The students got angrier. You know how children get when you refuse them something?   They get nasty and throw food at you. After this, acts of vandalism started to become more common. Red squares were painted everywhere. Shops windows were shattered. The protesters started to wear masks. Charest called on the leaders of CLASSE, FEUQ and FEQC to condemn these acts of violence. They wouldn't. (What does that say about them?) Students started asking for free education. They turned it into a social conflict against capitalism and a "corrupt government". 

I might add that the minute the "strike vote" was passed in universities (reminder: the vote was not anonymous and anyone who tried to vote against it was shamed) people couldn't go to class anymore. Anyone who tried was thrown out and humiliated. Here is an example
On Wednesday, a masked enforcement squad swept through the campus at the Université du Québec à Montréal, hunting for students who had dared to show up for class. Wherever they found a class in session, they broke in and shouted “Scab!” in the students’ faces. The enforcement squad was defying a court injunction that ordered the university to open. They jumped on desks and tables and spray-painted slogans on the classroom walls. They grabbed two female students by the arm and told them to get out. The intimidated professors fled. Later, as law student Christina Macedo tried to explain to reporters what had happened, they drowned her out. “Scab! Scab! Scab!” they shrieked.
All the while they blocked exams, classes etc, they screamed "we're going this for YOU! So YOU can go to school!" Dichotomy between actions and words here - You just stopped hundreds of students from going to classes they wanted to attend and already paid for. They LOST time and money.  Proud now?

The strikers' reasoning?  "The strike was voted! It must be respected!" they whined. NO. You can't stop people from going to class. And I'm guessing the majority of students want to go back to class.  When asked why they don't have an anonymous vote, the strikers suddenly fall silent. What are they afraid of? 

A few brave students went to court and some universities were forced to open their doors, but the protestors always got their way through pure intimidation. As a result, the semester is now suspended due to Charest's "special law".   Essentially, protestors now need to make their itinerary known 8 hours in advance. They aren't allowed to wear masks. They aren't allowed to stop students from going to class. The semester is suspended until August. 

They had another meltdown. Claiming this new law gives too much power to the police, the leaders of the associations étudiantes just said they would not comply with this law, and they are asking students to do the same. And here is where I just lost it. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (leader of CLASSE) just told students to disobey the law. He says he doesn't care about fines. He says the government added fuel to the fire. And what would he call what he just did? Now Quebec is the scene of a huge riot. 300 protestors were arrested the other night. Fires were burning. Monuments were vandalized:  trash cans overturned, beer cans, condoms?! Sounds more like they're having a party than protesting for freedom and civil rights... 

I grew up in France. France, the land of strikes. French people love striking. It is kind of adorable sometimes, hugely annoying at other times. When I came to Quebec I thought I came to a place were people accepted that sometimes life can be tough and sometimes you have to pay for stuff. 

There are civilised ways to let the government know you're pissed off:  peaceful protests, petitions and elections. It's called democracy and the Québec student strikers really should give it a try.

(Here is a timeline of what's been happening)


HummingLoon said...

I've experienced similar (though not as extreme) in Toronto. I agree with the protests, but not with the vandalism. As to the intimidation of other students, I know it's wrong, though I understand why they're doing it.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

What's really unfortunate is that the vandalism and intimidation tend to turn off those who might otherwise be very sympathetic and perhaps even supportive of their cause. Just isn't helpful, IMHO.


Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais said...


I'm afraid I find myself in disagreement with your daughter, Victoria. Not about her denouncing the violence, the intimidation, of course. Not about her saying "I want to join the police later", which I actually applaud. Not about her own live account of the events, which I do find very refreshing, and surprisingly different from the hitherto sympathetic reports I had read and taken at face value in Le Monde and in The Guardian (always distrust the press, always - when will I learn?).

However, I do disagree with her saying "Instead of taxing the entire population, he said that students should pay their fair share. Québec students pay the lowest tuition in North America, about 3000 dollars for a year. He proposed an increase in 1675 dollars in 5 years. It would bring tuition to maximum 4975 Canadian dollars a year, an increase of 75 %. Still much lower than the national average".

Why is it a "fair" share? Why would it be wrong to "tax the entire population"? The entire population benefits hugely when its youth is not barred from higher education because of costs. To me it's not a valid argument to point out that Quebec students pay the lowest tuition fees in North America, as if they were some sort of "exception" or "anomaly" and had to finally "toe the line" somehow. Why should education become a privilege for those who can cough up $10,000 or more per year? Or who have parents who can do that for them? I speak from experience, having burdened myself with a €15,000 bank loan to finance my education in a not-free-at-all Grande École. It was my choice then (which I now sort of regret), but at least I had a choice. It took me 5 years after graduation to pay it back (including a lot of interests, of course), and it did not feel great to be still paying debts for my education more than 8 years after I had entered college. This is when I realised how big a difference it makes between those who can afford this, and the others. It has nothing to do with how bright you are - it's all about money, and keeping it in the "right" hands.

Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais said...


I think a society that demands that its young people start in life with upwards of $20,000 in debt if they do not have well-heeled parents, goes down the wrong path. Should we levy more tax on people whose houses got broken in more often and demand they pay their "fair share" of police work? Should we raise taxes for people who have kids so that they pay their "fair share" to adequately fund local schools, to which childless people also contribute to the same extent (or indeed, to which they contribute more) via their taxes? How about having to pay the Fire Department if you want them to bring their trucks and save your house from burning to the ground? I suppose such a service comes at a cost for the community. Would this not be "just having to pay for stuff" because "life can be tough"? This sort of thinking opens the door to a broken society and it saddens me that young, intelligent people embrace this reasoning. No, it depresses me, really.

Your daughter's description of how the situation is viewed at McGill speaks volumes of what is at stake: "Thankfully, at McGill University (where I'm at), the strike was voted down. This was attributed to the large population of foreign students who simply do not care about local Québec politics." I'm afraid it's not just about accepting that "life can be tough" and that "sometimes you have to pay for stuff", really. It took the previous generations decades of struggles against the ruling classes to enable us to live now in a society where we enjoy some rights, where we can aspire to improving our lot during our lifetime, where our life does not necessarily have to be ruined because of a few months of illness and the costs of it. And now, step by step, this is being taken away from us. Our societies are becoming more unfair, more repressive. Warren Buffett is taxed significantly less heavily than his middle-class employees. Is that normal? How about his "fair share"?

I wouldn't mind being told that "life can be tough" if I had not seen what happened in the last 5 years, when bank after bank got bailed out and so few people got prosecuted for the debacle, when it became crystal-clear that we live in a world run by those who privatise profits and socialise losses, in a world of socialism for the rich. And the middle classes? Well, just tell them that "sometimes you have to pay for stuff". Er, no.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

All good comments, JM. We'll see if she comes back and answers.

I'd just say that I'm not sure comparing a university education to local fire departments is the right analogy. In theory, fire protection services in most communities are offered to everyone regardless of their socio-economic status. It' just something that comes with residency and paying taxes locally. As such it's not terribly controversial for most people. Universities are also public goods/services but they are selective. A French kid does not get a automatic entry into a Grande Ecole or even a basic public university just because he's French and lives here. And when you consider the basis upon which universities make their selection, in many systems these are highly dependent on socio-eonomic factors. The playing field is rigged in favor of those who already have capital (human or otherwise).

I think that's unfair and to the extent that some universities (especially the very good ones) are already packed with the children of middle and upper income families, turning around and telling the general population in the area that they need to pay more in taxes so that these kids can go to a top school for the least amount of money possible (or even for free) could be described as "socialism for the rich."

Personally I'm more in favor of putting resources into basic education and doing what we can so that something resembling equal opportunity exists for every child. Then I would say, for something like a unversity education which is by definition to open to everyone, some kind of means testing would be fine by me. The kids who qualify but can't afford it should be given free tuition (not loans which as you point out is just a huge stone around a student's neck). But those who can afford to pay something, should to lessen the burden on those taxpayers whose children will never see the inside of a university. My .02.

Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais said...

Thanks for your patient answer Victoria. Of course it's a complex debate. I am not claiming that higher education should be for free for all in all cases.
A general principle that should be reasonably demanded from governments is that access to higher education is guaranteed (well, only subject to the student’s merit of course), truly affordable for the recipients, delivered some standard of quality, and with as little cost to the taxpayer as possible. I definitely agree with you here: aspiring students should be given a real chance to learn what they desire, and have a proven talent for, regardless of their financial means.
Of course, there cannot be one single way of achieving this ideal goal. Then it’s up to the Government of Québec to prove that the reform is a step in the right direction, that the Québec society as a whole will be better-off on the day when students must pay $5,000 per annum instead of $3,000 as they have done so far. It seems to me that they have so far failed to convince the public about this, which is not very surprising if they hardly come up with better arguments than “we have the lowest tuition fees on the whole continent and will still do even after the price hikes”, “pay your fair share” or “sometimes you have to pay for stuff (you spoiled brats)”...
Oh, and one side note on the “tax the entire population” part. In France (the country I know best), if you say “tax the entire population”, it means “tax those who pay taxes”, and this is how I understand it. Because of our progressive income tax system, a good half of the French households are exempted from paying income taxes (which do not include all other taxes like VAT, etc, that they do pay). Of course, such a situation is not set in stone and could change by due process of law, but where I’m leading to is that although lack of equal opportunities means that kids from middle-class families have much higher chances of entering universities than their counterparts from poorer backgrounds (a sad but true situation), nevertheless, the partial funding of higher education through taxation per se is not entirely detrimental to the underprivileged, who benefit from tax exemptions and are eligible to scholarships, etc. Of course, if a government were to levy a special tax on all the population, including poorer, tax-exempt families just to fund higher education (from which they are all but excluded), now this would be a big problem and I would likely disagree with that as well...
I hope that by saying this, I do not come out as someone who disregards the needs of the less well off, it is not intended. To me, education is sacred and there should be as few obstacles as possible for anybody in the society to get it.