21 April 2012

Still Red

I don't pretend to speak for the student movement in Québec, but I certainly do admire their dedication, their mobilization and their ability to see beyond their own interests to the links with other elements related to the governance of our society.

Is this not about not wanting to pay additional tuition? How is that not about the students' own interests? Well, most of them will never pay these fee increases because they will have graduated by then. They are out to make their voices heard for future generations. They are questioning the kinds of choices we are making as a society. Like the choice that this government made when it received an additional health and education transfer from Ottawa in the course of an election campaign two elections ago — they announced income tax reductions instead of investing in the things that many of us see as essential. To the credit of the Québec electorate, the Liberals almost lost that election, and you can trace the point of decline to the announcement of the tax cuts.

Now, 'we' want to invest massively in infrastructure to help large companies extract mineral wealth from the north for their own profits, and we'll surely give them good deals on royalties and things like electric costs to boot. Add to that the decision to evaluate every government service with a view to identifying which items might have fees attached to them and implementing fees like the health charge that will apply equally to every person, regardless of income. Let me tell you that $200 looks different to a single parent on social assistance or working at one or more minimum wage jobs than it does to one of those mining company shareholders.

I'm part of a generation that paid significantly less for tuition when I was in university, and I have to add my voice to those who are willing to pay more through our progressive income tax system to support maintaining lower tuition fees, if not eliminating them altogether. We are all familiar by now with the graphic that the ministry has issued to show how Québec students are getting a great deal on their tuition fees in relation to students in other Canadian provinces. Why compare ourselves to other societies that are making some of the same errors our government is? I'd propose to measure ourselves against some societies that have made some different choices, and the deal for Québec students doesn't look so good in this comparison.

Oh, but our horribly high taxes, you ask? Once again, in comparison to where? Usually the answer is in comparison to a bunch of places that don't share our values, like the one to the south of us that hasn't managed to provide health care to all of its citizens, even with its "commie" new health care scheme. I don't want to live in a society that aims for the rock bottom in what it can be.

The other thing I have to say about this student mobilization is that I am impressed with the size of it, especially over what has now been ten weeks. We live in a society that barely manages to get half of its members to vote on who should be governing us, and where efforts that don't bring results quickly are usually abandoned by apathetic types who will roll over and accept the 'new' status quo. The students are showing us it doesn't have to be like that, and with style.

I watched from the sidewalk as the March 22 demonstration pass by my office, in awe of the creativity and the discipline. At one point, we heard the siren of a fire truck coming up the hill and the solid crowd of demonstrators parted with such efficiency that the truck didn't even have to slow down as it passed through. I have never seen the traffic do anything like that.

Are there increasing acts of vandalism? Yes, there are. If you had been peacefully demonstrating for ten weeks before an opponent who refuses to meet you or to discuss the main issue with you, would you now have increasing frustration? No, there is no excuse for violence. But there is no excuse for the kind of police violence that we have seen either. It started much earlier than this week, with pushing, batons, pepper spray, tear gas and percussion grenades aimed at people occupying the street. The police attitude has been hostile from the outset. You know what they say about catching flies and honey? It looks like they were always much more interested in swatting the flies and their intentions have been very clearly visible. That doesn't invite calm, it provokes escalation.

Let's talk a little more about attitudes. This past Friday, while the remnants of a student demonstration that had marched to the doors of the Palais des Congrès, hosting an event on the government's big plan to boost mining company profits in the north, turned toward the more violent on both sides, the Premier made jokes to the assembled crowd inside. (He's portraying the demonstration as people clamouring to get in and suggesting that the students might want jobs, as far north as possible.)

This wasn't the first time he has mocked the movement, as we can see in this InfoMan segment. Do you mock people like this, refuse to meet them to discuss their concerns and then point fingers when their frustration leads individuals among them to do "antisocial" things?

And now our Premier has some thinking to do. Does he wait until the big anticorruption inquiry hearings are underway to call an election, or does he do it in the midst of this kind of social unrest of his own making?

Either way, I hope he'll be looking for another job after the election, as far north as possible.

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