Student groups fight the right

Tuition issue is indicative of new political debate facing Quebec

Quebec’s largest student lobby group, along with the province’s main trade federations held a conference this weekend to talk about why the government shouldn’t increase tuition fees. Alliances between the student lobby and organized labour are common in Quebec. Last spring some of these groups got together to criticize proposals for the provincial budget, but this was more than a one-off event. It was the first step in a mobilization by labour and student groups, calling themselves the “Alliance sociale,” against Quebec’s resurgent right wing and this could be a sign of a fundamental shift happening in Quebec politics.

Since the Quiet Revolution, the Quebe politics have been dominated by identity issues such as sovereignty and language. The main political divide has been nationalism versus federalism, rather than some form of left versus right.

It is telling that none of the federal parties have affiliates in Quebec’s provincial politics (despite the name, the Quebec Liberals cut ties with the federal Liberals in the 1950s) and even though Quebec has a left-wing reputation, NDP candidates have only won a seat three times in the province.

At the federal level, left-leaning voters in Quebec have generally voted for the Bloc, which has supported a broadly left-wing outlook, even though Lucien Bouchard had been cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s government and several of his BQ co-founders were also former Progressive Conservatives.

At the provincial level, the national question has also dominated politics. While the Parti Québécois does fall to the left of the Quebec Liberals, until recently both parties have supported a large role for the state with a strong social safety net. Jean Charest’s recent cuts and tuition increases may be unpalatable to the left but they’re seen as timid by the right.

Until recently Quebec’s right had been relatively quiet. Since 1970, only the Liberals and the PQ have held power. Between 1976, the last time any members of the Union Nationale were elected, and 2007, when the Action Démocratique du Québec became the official opposition, there was almost no right wing presence in the National Assembly. Of course, the ADQ was not able to maintain that momentum.

But lately Quebec’s right has been making more noise.

The current context for Quebec’s right-wing resurgence comes from a 2005 manifesto issued by a group of “prominent” Quebecers, including Bouchard. Their “clear-eyed,” or “lucide,”  vision for Quebec, among other points, included a call for higher tuition. Bouchard and his prominent friends were back last February, again calling for a tuition increase.

Interestingly both the left and this new right agree on one thing, that Quebec’s universities are underfunded. They just don’t agree on whether students should pay a bigger share or if that task should fall to the government.

But while student groups are lining up against this vision of Quebec, university administrators are joining up with the right wing. Concordia president Judith Woodsworth was named to the board of directors of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal on Nov. 2. That group issued a statement in late September calling for tuition increases and essentially endorsing a “lucide” vision for post-secondary education. McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s presentation to the National Assembly’s education and culture commission in September outlined a very similar vision.

There’s a lot more to this growing left-right divide than tuition fees, but the issue is indicative of the new debate in Quebec society and the breakdown of the old consensus on what role the state plays in society, what services it provides and how that’s paid for.