Montréal seen from a familiar sidelines vantage point

There seem to be two basic lines of objection to the Quebec government’s proposed tuition increases

Graham Hughes/CP Images

I admit I’ve always felt ambivalent about mass youth protest. I came along just after the Sixties generation, you see, and so my undergrad years fell in the early 1980s. My demographic coterie had heard about enough from our older siblings, high school teachers, and younger professors about changing the world by taking to the streets. It was getting a bit stale and sentimental. Pierre had rediscovered the virtues of a decent haircut. Phony Beatlemania had, we were given to believe, bitten the dust.

By the time the next round of serious street demos rolled around with the anti-globalization movement that hit the news big time with 1999’s “Battle of Seattle,” we were way past donning gas masks. Last year’s Occupy encampments forced some of us to alter our preferred dog-walking routes.  I touch on all this to candidly frame the way I’ve watched, from afar, the Montréal protests: I can’t see my younger self in the images. So if my perspective seems detached to those, say, a decade older or younger than my 50 years, I think that could be partly a matter of my lack of nostalgia.

I haven’t gone to Montréal to report on the scene (you’ll want to read my colleague Martin Patriquin for real journalism). All I’ve got are the weekend observations of an intrigued outsider, which I’m writing up for what they’re worth, inviting correction and argumentation.

To start with the core issue, there seem to be two basic lines of objection to the Quebec government’s proposed tuition increases. The first (put to me recently in an interview by Brigitte DePape, the Senate page protester) is that higher tuitions discourage students from low-income families from pursuing post-secondary education. To this valid concern, Premier Jean Charest’s April 27 offer—adding $39 million in bursaries and adjusting student-aid rules so low-income students wouldn’t be affected by the tuition hikes—is at least a plausible response. If the figures Charest put on the table can shown to be insufficient, then bargaining about those details is in order, but not a non-stop, no-compromises protest movement.

That leaves the second, and much broader, objection: post-secondary education should be free, or close to it. As a point of principle, a strong case can be made for this position. But free is obviously not the model anywhere in Canada and certainly not in the United States. If you’re serious about presenting that case, then, you have to argue for paying through higher taxes in Quebec than in neighbouring—and competing—jurisdictions. Is that practical? To provide just one key point of comparison, Quebec’s provincial taxes already add up to about 18 per cent of its gross domestic product (around $54 billion from a $297 billion economy), compared to 13 per cent in Ontario (roughly $79 billion from a $585 billion economy).

And the need to chip away at Quebec’s ominous provincial debt-to-GDP ratio—about 15 percentage points higher than Ontario’s (according to the Conference Board here) which is itself nothing to boast about—has already prompted Charest’s Liberals to boost the Quebec sales tax and its health care levy and its gas tax. The government is also trying to crack down on tax evasion in the province’s notorious construction industry and in the restaurant sector. Where else should it turn for more revenue? It looks like a jurisdiction that needs to find cash where it can, even from the student body, which has of course proven to be a politically disadvantageous turnip to squeeze.

So I don’t see how the case against tuition increases convinces as either an argument for equal access (since if that’s what it was about we’d be hearing more pointed argument over provisions for low-income students) or how the province should tax and spend (since we haven’t heard any coherent critique of the seemingly reasonable way the government is addressing its awful fiscal situation).

That brings us to the contentions from various quarters that all this is all actually about something far more profound that school fees. I take it this is what anthropologist Serge Bouchard was getting at in the Globe and Mail where he’s quoted alluded to a generational “wild awakening and spontaneous show of solidarity.” I’ll leave “wild awakening” aside, but I think I grasp the meaning of the word “spontaneous,” and I have to wonder how it possibly describes, for instance, the systematic marshalling of crucial union support for the student demonstrators. To me, this smacks more of cool strategy than warm spontaneity: unions tend to grow fearful for their public-sector members’ pay, pensions and job security whenever a government turns to fixing a serious fiscal problem.

Still, I don’t doubt that among those banging pots and pans in the streets of Montréal genuine dissatisfaction runs deep. The tuition issue looks more like a catalyst than a root cause of their outpouring of discontent. I’m going to make the bland, safe guess that most of the demonstrators wish government could be about something more than balancing the books and civil life amounted to something greater than a set of market transactions. Those are excellent starting places for thinking about drafting a political program, but hardly the present-day equivalents of, say, opposing a war or advocating civil rights.

When the Occupy tents came down, that movement had accomplished something: solidly establishing income disparity as an issue to be taken seriously. In that sense, those of us who had moaned about Occupy’s lack of precision in its demands were proven wrong. The occupiers at least had a core grievance that needed hammering home. So far, though, the Montréal demos don’t appear to be achieving anything similar. If all the noise is to amount to the watershed wished for by those sympathetic to the protestors, then the striking students’ leaders, or somebody, will have to make their point clearer, or bigger, or both.

Up to now, however, the gripe about tuitions isn’t compelling enough, and the broader themes are too amorphous, to justify such a prolonged claim on our attention. Of the protest movements I’ve watched from my generation’s customary, comfortable position on the sidelines, this is one that doesn’t make me worry that I was born at the wrong time.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.