How the Student Protesters Won The Quebec Election

Matt Thompson

Earlier this month, after a hard-fought and often bitter campaign, Quebec voters accomplished something rare – they managed to disappoint almost every major player on the electoral stage.

The Liberals lost their mandate after nine years, with some of their core supporters abandoning them for a party that makes their stomachs turn.  After nearly 30 years as a fixture on the Quebec political scene, including nine as Premier, Jean Charest not only failed to lead his party to victory but was cast out of the National Assembly by voters in his Sherbrooke riding.  The Parti Québécois (PQ) campaigned under the most favourable of political circumstances – competing for change-hungry voters with a government tainted by corruption – but managed to win only the smallest of mandates, almost certainly dashing their near-term referendum dreams.  Pauline Marois rightly earns plaudits for becoming the first female premier in her province’s history but seems destined as well to become one of its weakest – constrained, as she will be, by a razor thin minority, a federal government with little incentive to give her the time of day, historically low support for her party’s sovereigntist raison d’être, and a notoriously restive caucus that refuses to accept any of the above as an excuse for inaction.  And despite seemingly driving the news cycle for the first few weeks of the campaign, performing strongly in the leaders’ debates, and placing second in most polls before election day, the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) still finished third, well behind the deeply mistrusted Liberals.

There is one group, however, which, while not technically on the stage, emerged from the election an unmistakable winner: the student protesters.

You’ll recall that the students took to the streets earlier this year to protest the Charest government’s plan to raise their post-secondary tuition by $1,625 over five years.  For several weeks they marched, blocked traffic and tussled with police, paralyzing large swaths of downtown Montreal.

Clad in red squares and righteous indignation, the charismatic twenty-something leaders of the demonstrations became household names, and coated the movement with a sugary frosting that made the tactics of some of its more extreme members easier to swallow.  At various points, protestors vandalized downtown stores, hurled smoke bombs in metro stations, threatened public officials, and prevented fellow students from attending classes.  They accomplished the latter, in some cases, by actually storming classrooms in black masks and dragging students out against their will.

In a bid to quell the unrest, the government passed a law in May that would, amongst other things, prevent the protesters from demonstrating near university campuses and impeding other students from accessing public buildings.  The students were predictably enraged, and it was at this point that a line seemed to have been crossed.  It would no longer suffice to simply kill the tuition increase; the students would now settle for nothing less than the defeat of the Charest government.  Enter Pauline Marois.  With her political objectives now squarely aligned with that of the protestors, Ms. Marois began, not coincidentally, to sport the red square on her lapel.

Over time, Quebecers grew frustrated with the relentless demonstrations, and Ms. Marois, not coincidentally, lost the red square.  Seizing an opportunity to capitalize on the public’s disillusionment, Mr. Charest called an election.  But a strange thing happened during the campaign – the protests stopped.  The students apparently sensed just in time the counterproductive effect that the chaos was having and went home.  In hindsight it was the wisest decision that they could have made: the Liberal government has fallen, Mr. Charest is out of politics, and the new Premier has repealed the tuition hikes.  The protestors have achieved everything – short of the fall of capitalism – that they set out to.

And if that all wasn’t enough, one of the movement’s aforementioned leaders, Léo Bureau-Blouin, was elected to the National Assembly as a PQ member in Laval-Des-Rapides.  He is only one voice in a large caucus, and a new one at that, but with numbers on his side Mr. Bureau-Blouin will enjoy outsize influence over a Premier who can ill-afford to lose allies.

It is possible, of course, that some future Liberal or CAQ government could attempt to reinstate the increase, but Mr. Charest’s experience this year would loom as a cautionary tale.  Increasing tuition in Quebec will henceforth require an act of bravery that is uncommon in politics.  For now and the foreseeable future, tuition hikes are off the table.

Is this a good thing?  At first glance, the students seemed to have a legitimate beef: the $1,625 figure does seem extreme when you consider that it represents a 75 percent increase over their current fees.  A 75 percent hike of any price you’ve grown accustomed to paying is extreme, and anger is an understandable response.  But consider that tuition has been frozen in Quebec for 33 of the last 43 years.  A freeze does not ensure that students are paying the same amount that their predecessors did, it ensures that they are paying less; they are paying a smaller proportion of their professors’ salaries (which do rise with inflation) than their peers did twenty years ago, leaving universities to pay a larger share.  Even with the proposed 75 percent hike, tuition would have only been raised to about the same level, after inflation, as students paid in the 1970s.  In real terms, it would have been a modest price to pay.

Consider as well that even if tuition were raised by $1,625, Quebec students would continue to pay among the lowest average tuition in the country.  It is on this point that I suspect the protesters lost the Quebec mainstream, to say nothing of students in other provinces, and isolated themselves ideologically.  The protestors are unashamed of their utter resistance to paying what students pay in other provinces because they claim to believe, as a matter of principle, that post-secondary education should be universally accessible, which is code for ‘free.’  This is a philosophical position; a response to it is beyond the scope of this post.  What I will say is that of course accessibility to education is a vital priority.  However, the reality is that Quebec universities are starving – McGill University’s accumulated deficit for fiscal year 2013 will be $281.9 million – and students, as a university’s most direct beneficiaries, logically bear at least some responsibility for contributing to their survival.  Moreover, it is not at all settled that lower tuition leads to improved access.  In a 2007 Statistics Canada study, for example, Marc Frenette found that several factors including academic abilities and parental influences help to explain why fewer students from low- income households attend university.

Beyond the wisdom of cancelling the hikes on a policy level, the protestors’ triumph is troubling for the precedent that it sets.  On Monday representatives of the coalition of students’ unions behind the protests visited Dalhousie University in Halifax to speak at an event entitled: “Lessons from the Quebec Student Protestors.”  One of the representatives, Cloé Zawadzki-Turcotte, told the CBC, “What we have to remember from last spring’s student strike, is that it is still possible to confront neoliberal measures such as tuition fee hikes, you just need to be well organized, have democratic structures and stay combative.”  Evidently she believes that the students have won the battle in large part because of their “combative” (phrased broadly enough to capture ‘lawless’ and ‘violent’) tactics.  Every parent of a school-aged child understands intuitively why it’s perilous to reward bad behaviour, but I fear that that is exactly what happened in Quebec.  Elected officials told the students that they had a responsibility to pay for a larger share of their studies.  They responded by storming out of their classrooms, stopping traffic, breaking windows, and otherwise causing chaos in their community.  And what came of it?  They won an election.

Matt Thompson is a 2014 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He has also received a Bachelor of Laws from Dalhousie University, and is a Member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He previously practiced corporate and commercial litigation with a national firm in Toronto.

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