Tuition protesters’ winning streak just never ends

Paul Wells on Minister Beauchamp’s resignation and more
Photo by Tim & Selena Middleton on Flickr

Bliss it is in this dawn to be alive, and to be young, Trotskyist, and a Quebec Cégep or university arts or humanities student or loosely-affiliated hanger-on is very heaven! What a time our friends are having. One of them’s on the cover of L’actualité! And that’s just the beginning.

The protesters have lately won a string of victories over the courts and over students who want to get to class and finish the academic year, but whose court injunctions to that effect have been voided by mobs of protesters blocking the students’ path. Then just over a week ago they forced the governing — oops, “governing” — Liberal party to decamp a party meeting from Montreal to Victoriaville under threat of violence.

The protesters got their violence anyway, and they wrested a deal from Education Minister Line Beauchamp. It would have installed student representatives in a permanent governing directorate at every university in the province with a mandate to divert the schools’ finances from operations toward student-fee cuts. But Beauchamp and Jean Charest made the mistake of claiming not to have caved, and for their bravado the deal was rejected in wave after wave of (poorly-attended) student votes.

Then today Beauchamp resigned. So it’s going better every day. Guess who the protesters’ next trophy will be. No, guess. Think curly hair.

This morning’s La Presse had a column by Michèle Ouimet calling for Beauchamp to be removed from the negotiating table, so I guess Michèle gets part credit for today’s events. Elsewhere in the column she writes, “the government must negotiate because the street is getting more radical.” She lists verbal intimidation, smoke bombs, and threats against journalists among the protesters’ techniques, before calling on Charest to “resolve the impasse.”

By Ouimet’s logic, if the impasse isn’t resolved soon, it must be Charest’s fault and he too will have to be — what’s the euphemism? Oh yes — removed from the negotiating table. D’you suppose this hasn’t occurred to the blackmailers and smoke bombers?

Meanwhile you can have hours of fun by looking on Quebec universities’ websites for any hint or signal that the universities’ administrations support the tuition increases that are supposed to help them. While searching in vain for any hint that UQAM is still in some line of work besides extracurricular smoke-bomb design seminars, I noticed that it raised barely $6 million in its annual fundraising drive this year.

Not far away, but crucially outside Quebec, little Trent University, with one-quarter UQAM’s undergrad student population, is aiming for $50 million in its fundraising drive. It’s an imperfect comparison; Trent’s isn’t a one-year target. But it’s more ambitious all the same, and Trent can have that kind of target because for alumni and local grandees the idea of giving voluntarily to the local university hasn’t become some sort of sad joke, far from it.

Charest’s tuition policy for his first four years in power was to maintain the freeze he inherited from Bernard Landry. In his second term he increased fees by $50 a semester. After six years in power he decided at last to keep up. His goal today is to require, after four years, half as much in total tuition fees from students for a Quebec-standard three-year university degree as the average Canadian student outside Quebec pays for a four-year degree. I’m not saying he brought this on himself. No premier could deserve this mess. But his courage came to him late, and the price he is paying, in peace and dignity, is commensurately higher.