Meet the average Quebecer

The portrait painted by the polls

Republished from Inkless Wells on

To read today’s CROP—La Presse poll on the tuition protests in Quebec (main story here; detailed tables in a .pdf here, all in French) is to see evidence of a population applying consistent values in a difficult situation. It’s not at all surprising, but after hotheads have spent months trying to conscript the population to one faction or another in the dispute, it’s heartening.

(UPDATE: Some readers have noted that CROP used an online poll. There’s a good discussion of the methodology in the La Presse story, and some more general discussion here. I’ve seen no evidence that online polls, which are increasingly common, produce wildly different results from telephone polls, which have their own growing problems. I know of no new telephone poll that asked this many questions on the tuition dispute. I’ll let you know if one comes along.)

First big question: Do you support the government position (increasing tuition fees over seven years) or the students’ (a tuition freeze)? On the central policy question of the dispute, the government wins nearly two to one, with 64% supporting the government to 36% who support the students. This is true even in Montreal, where support for students is highest (60/40 in government’s favour); even among young adults (56/44 in the 18-34 age bracket); even among female respondents (63/37) and francophones (62/38).

But what about Law 78, the government’s latest enforcement tool? “Generally, do you favour or oppose this special law?” Here it’s much closer, 51% in favour and 49% opposed. There’s no gender gap, but 18-to-34-year-olds oppose the law 56/44; francophones oppose it 53/47.

Then an apparent paradox. Taken individually, most provisions in the bill receive substantial support, much more so than the whole law does. Some 67% support suspending courses until late August, 70% support a ban on blocking access to those courses when they resume, 64% like the 50-metre protest-free perimeter around schools, 70% favour requiring 8-hour notice and a specified itinerary for any protest with more than 50 participants, 72% say police should have a right to refuse any proposed itinerary for safety reasons, and 71% say these restrictions should apply to any Quebecer, not just to students.

The only thing in the bill that isn’t generally popular across the province and across demographic groups is the big fines for infractions, which can range from $1,000 to $125,000. That splits the province 50/50, with francophones opposing 52/48.

I like these numbers a lot. How can people support a law’s provisions but not the whole law? The answer comes with the next question. What effect will the law have? Only 20% think it will “settle the conflict,” 36% think it will “only delay the problem until later,” and 44% think it will “make things worse.”

Take these results together and we begin to see the wisdom of crowds — not the ones in the street, necessarily, but of the whole population. Opinions are divided, but in the main, Quebecers:

• think it is more legitimate to ask students to contribute more to their education than to say they have paid enough.

• believe Law 78 asks for things a government should be able to ask of its citizens — i.e., that it’s a legitimate law;

• don’t think Law 78 will make student refuseniks more likely to cough up their tuition money — i.e., they don’t think it’s a pertinent law.

I especially like the reluctance around fines. It’s confusing and counterproductive to use money as punishment when the original dispute is around money and most Quebecers don’t think the higher tuition fees would, themselves, constitute any kind of punishment. I wish the law had provided some non-monetary penalty, such as forfeiture of the academic year for striking students. But then, as the government and most poll respondents understand, the law must apply to everyone because many of the protesters are not students in the first place.

Onward. With a useless law in pursuit of legitimate ends, what should the government do? Abandon tuition increases? Absolutely not, say respondents: the notion gets 7% support, gusting to 10% among 18-34-year-olds. What about a moratorium, the preferred solution of Montreal newspaper columnists? Only 14% support that. Just because a problem is difficult does not mean it should be put off: 79% support negotiations, and most of those think the special law should be kept in force during negotiations, rather than suspended. Quebecers may not think Law 78 will help, but they do not want to see their government backing down once it has moved.

What do respondents think of the Charest government’s attitude? Mixed: 51% think it’s justified, 49% unjustified. And the students? Less mixed: 60% think their attitude is unjustified. On this question the students don’t enjoy majority support in any region or demographic group. Well, then, Quebecers will want to take away the kids’ right to “strike,” right? Wrong. Except in Quebec City, which comically serves as a bastion of people who can’t believe what silliness the folks in Montreal are getting up to, most respondents believe students should have a “right to strike.” So: They’re not sure the protesters are reasonable but they support the right to protest. There’s a deep vein of liberalism running through these answers.

How well do people think the students are represented by their assorted putative leaders and spokespeople? Fairly well. Who’s responsible for violence? The people who commit it. How are the police doing? By a three-to-one margin, they’re thought to be performing well. And the student-group acronyms? FECQ and FEUQ, less doctrinaire, are broadly admired. But for CLASSE the proportions reverse, and even more people disapprove of CLASSE’s tactic of civil disobedience.

Here, a note on iconography. Maclean’s has come under criticism for its cover this week, a state of affairs we’ve enjoyed on occasion in the past. Oh well. Meanwhile, this morning’s Le Devoir has a page-one photo of CLASSE spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois giggling while a guy in a panda costume hugs him. Next to the photo is a “news” story to the effect that The Man just doesn’t understand the elaborate critique of capitalism the students are delivering through their brilliant street theatre.

Well. Nadeau-Dubois’ group has the disapproval of 61% of Quebecers, 59% of Montrealers, 52% of young respondents and 62% of francophones. If Maclean’s had run a cover photo of a panda hugging Jean Charest with a cover line saying, “Those Crazy Kids Just Don’t Get the Old Sweetie,” we’d be closer to Quebec public opinion than Le Devoir is today. I say this because I like Le Devoir. I hope it won’t continue to stray so far from its readers’ values.

But I digress. The poll also includes a standard election question. The results show Jean Charest’s Liberals with 31% of the vote to 30% for the Parti Québécois and 22% for François Legault’s centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec. It’s not enough to win — among francophones, the Liberals remain in third place. But those are better numbers than Charest has seen in ages. His Liberals’ share of the francophone vote is up five points since February. And the Liberals are actually more popular outside Montreal than on the island, the best indicator for the extent to which the tuition dispute is driving other political choices.

Everyone in this dispute is trying to win an argument, it seems, except the people of Quebec. The people of Quebec think the government’s policy goal is good but they doubt its legal means are useful. They don’t buy what students are selling but they support the students’ right to try. They admire the police and want them to enforce the law, not robotically but with judgment and common sense in the mix. They despair of a quick solution that would please everyone but they are uninterested in putting the debate off until later. Sometimes in these big social conflicts, fairness and moderation have a hard time getting heard, but it doesn’t mean they go away.