One Hundred Days of Student Protests in Québec: Printemps Érable or Much Ado About Nothing?

One Hundred Days of Student Protests in Québec: Printemps Érable or Much Ado About Nothing?

“What would Spinoza say?” one of the student strikers asked. He had taken a course on Spinoza with Carlos earlier in the year and was now blocking our way into a class that we were teaching together this term. The students of the philosophy department at McGill University had just voted to join the longest and largest student strike in Québec’s history to protest the government’s plan to raise university tuitions. His task was to enforce this decision.

The great seventeenth-century philosopher would surely have supported free public education of the highest quality. A good political order, Spinoza argues, is not only concerned with the safety and prosperity of the citizens, but above all with their scientific training. For knowledge, according to Spinoza, is the key to the good life. Indeed, since Plato many philosophers have claimed that rulers ought to promote the contemplative life.

But it isn’t the question of the value of contemplation that has led thousands of students to take to the streets since mid-February. At the height of the strike, during the second half of March, about half of Québec’s 460,000 university and college students refused to attend classes. One climax of the movement so far was on March 22, when some 200,000 protesters filled the streets of Montréal—one of the largest demonstrations Québec has ever seen. Some have dubbed the movement the “printemps érable” (maple spring), an allusion to the recent “printemps arabe” of the Muslim world. That comparison may seem far-fetched. After all, students here, unlike citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, are not risking their lives to get rid of an oppressive dictatorship; they are opposing “la hausse”—the increase in university tuition fees announced by the government of Jean Charest, the leader of the Québec Liberal Party.

Québec students currently pay $2,168 per year to attend university, the lowest tuition fees in North America (the Canadian average in 2010-11 was $5,138). The plan is to raise the tuition by 75 percent over five years, to nearly $3,800 by 2017. Although this is a significant increase, it still leaves Québec at the lowest end of the North American spectrum. The Charest government has argued that Québec’s universities are severely underfunded and that in austere times like these students ought to pay their “fair share.” One can surely disagree with Charest’s argument, but this does not seem to explain the extraordinary passion driving the strike. Besides demonstrations, students have resorted to acts of civil disobedience—blockading bridges, businesses, and government buildings—and acts of not-so-civil disobedience by militant splinter groups—stone throwing, graffiti spraying, window smashing—to which Québec’s notorious riot police have responded with brutal crackdowns. While some students are recovering in hospitals from critical injuries, others are being charged with inciting fear of terrorism for shutting down the Montréal subway system with smoke bombs. A resolution of the conflict is nowhere in sight.

Line Beauchamp, Québec’s education minister, threw in the towel in mid-May. Soon after Québec’s National Assembly adopted an emergency law proposed by the Charest government that significantly curtails fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression, with the aim of ending the strike by force, or, as the government puts it, “to restore social peace.” The draconian measure seems to have backfired: on May 22, the 100th day of the strike, tens of thousands (250,000, according to the organizers) marched again through Montréal to protest the law. It was the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (the march violated the new protest laws by following an itinerary not approved by the police). Outside of Québec, reactions range from indifference and puzzlement to growing indignation about what seems to be a lack of proportion. What are the students so angry about?

MODERN QUÉBEC was founded in the crucible of “la révolution tranquille” (the quiet revolution) of the 1960s, when Quebeckers emerged from “la grande noirceur” (the great darkness) and turned against the archconservative government of Maurice Duplessis, who ruled Québec from 1944 to 1959. Québec society under Duplessis was marked by rigid social hierarchies: a local political elite entrenched by rampant nepotism, an Anglophone minority running the economy, and a Catholic Church watching over the citizens’ beliefs and mores through the education system and Québec’s cultural institutions. The quiet revolution not only separated church and state and laid the groundwork for Québec’s political, economic, and cultural self-determination; it also aimed to dismantle these social hierarchies and create an inclusive society based on social solidarity and equality of opportunity. In this respect, Québec chose to follow European welfare states (including, of course, France) rather than the brand of neoliberalism advocated by economists such as Milton Friedman during the same era in the United States.

A key element of Québec’s transformation was the reform of the education system, whose many shortcomings were documented in five volumes by a royal commission headed by Alphonse-Marie Parent. Reformers both modernized the curriculum and abolished the many arbitrary barriers to admission based on gender and religion (Carlos’s mother-in-law was the only Jewish woman to graduate in the 1963 class of McGill Medicine because of quotas for both women and Jews) and, above all, wealth. In essence, going to university had been the privilege of affluent young men, more likely Anglophone than Francophone, who used their degree as an entrée-billet to Québec’s elite—becoming doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, clerics, and so on. Statistics for the early 1960s show that 11 percent of Anglophones and 3 percent of Francophones aged twenty to twenty-four went to university, and that only 14 percent of the students were women.

Against this background, the Parent commission proposed a public system of higher education that would allow everyone with the relevant skills to study. To ensure accessibility, it recommended abolishing tuitions altogether in the long run. Going to university shouldn’t depend on the size of one’s wallet or on other arbitrary factors such as gender, religion, and language. In this spirit, the Québec Liberal Party, the same party now championing the tuition raise, promised in its 1960 election campaign to ensure “completely free education from elementary school to university for all students with the required talent and will.”

Although universities never became free in Québec, tuition remained frozen at $540 between 1968 and 1988. And thanks in large part to a tradition of vigorous student protests, increases since then have been relatively modest. Meanwhile, the students never gave up on the quiet revolution’s goal of free higher education. That’s why eliminating tuitions over a period of five years was a core demand of the counter-proposal that Québec’s largest student association, the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), submitted to the Charest government at the beginning of May. The failure to recognize that free higher education is a distinctive social value rooted in Québec history and culture accounts for much of the puzzlement, indifference, and indignation about the strike outside the region. To take just one example: in a particularly insensitive op-ed piece in Canada’s main upscale English newspaper, the Globe and Mail, former business magazine editor Margaret Wente ridiculed the demands of Québec students and portrayed them as spoiled brats (“sociology, anthropology, philosophy, arts, and victim-studies students, whose degrees are worthless in a world that increasingly demands hard skills”). The piece garnered more than 2,000 reader comments, most of them cheering Wente.


FOUNDED IN 1827, McGill is among Québec’s oldest universities. However, as an Anglophone institution with a large number of out-of-province and international students, it is only loosely tied to the local academic culture. As in previous years, and despite an energetic minority of strike supporters, McGill’s students did not join the strike. Among the few exceptions was the philosophy department, which went on strike for a week. During this week we cancelled one of our lectures to hold an in-class debate about the strike’s merits. The debate provided an illuminating window into the rich array of moral, political, and economic issues at stake.

A key concern of students who support the strike is the effect that raising tuition will have on the accessibility of higher education. One student pointed to statistics suggesting that university enrolments in Québec went down after the tuition increases of the 1990s. “The new raises will exclude about 7,000 more students—not because they are less talented or self-disciplined than their peers, but because they have less money.” Many coveted occupations—doctors, judges, engineers, university professors—require university degrees. So isn’t it unfair that among equally capable young people, some will be barred from pursuing such careers only because they can’t afford higher education?

A student opposed to the strike countered that the new tuition fees won’t exclude anyone. She prepared a detailed analysis of what a university degree will cost after the tuition raise. Even without parental support and bursaries, students can get by if they work fifteen hours a week at minimum wage and pay back student loans for three years after graduation. “Everyone who really wants to study can study!” she insisted. But other students rejoined that fairness does not only require equal access to higher education, but also equally favorable learning conditions. Wouldn’t it be unfair, for example, if some students do better on exams only because they don’t need to work and hence have more time to study?

Another question raised by students opposed to the strike was whether free higher education is either necessary or sufficient to ensure accessibility. For one thing, both the government and university administrators have promised that the planned tuition raise will be accompanied by a significant increase in student aid. Although not everyone is convinced that these promises are sufficient, at least in principle adequate financial aid programs could reconcile tuition fees with accessibility. More unsettling are statistics indicating that a considerably smaller percentage of Quebeckers in lower income brackets go to university than Canadians in other provinces, even though Québec has the lowest tuition fees. However, one student was quick to point out that these statistics omit the CÉGEPs, Québec’s unique system of public General and Vocational Colleges that offer two years of post-secondary education between high school and university. Thanks to the CÉGEPs—another legacy of the 1960s reforms in the wake of the Parent commission—college attendance in Québec is the highest in Canada. Still, why don’t more Quebeckers go on to university? Money may be less important than cultural attitudes transmitted through parents or teachers. In Québec’s two-tier school system, for example, students from expensive private schools are considerably more likely to go to university than their peers from public schools.

Quite apart from whether raising tuition fees is morally justified, one student had doubts about its economic necessity. He mentioned the Québec government’s mismanagement of public funds in recent years, in particular the embezzlements connected to the notoriously corrupt construction industry. Students also distrust the lamentations of university administrators about underfunding. In 2006, for example, it was revealed that the Université du Québec à Montréal had squandered hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the bungled construction of a new science center. No wonder that one of the main demands of the striking students is that university spending be subject to a rigorous system of oversight in the future.

ONE STUDENT was particularly outraged by the strike: “How can you prevent me from taking a class that I paid for? You are infringing upon my rights!” This is the attitude that the striking students are afraid of. While they don’t deny ownership rights, they argue that higher education is not like a car or a television (“Against the Commercialization of Knowledge,” a large banner at one of the demonstrations summarized the concern). In their view, the tuition raise is evidence for the transformation of higher education from a public good into a private commodity. And this, in turn, is just one manifestation of what they see as the government’s broader neoliberal agenda: trimming social programs, tax cuts for the wealthy, economic growth at the expense of the environment. That’s why in April they joined a demonstration against the Plan Nord of the Charest government, an ambitious project to invest $80 billion over twenty-five years into exploiting the natural resources in northern Québec. Where the Charest government sees the creation of 20,000 new jobs per year, the students see greedy politicians and corporations destroying the environment and the ancestral homeland of First Nations communities in order to enrich themselves. The sense of marching against the totalitarian power of international capital, corrupt politicians, and the mass media—disguised for gullible citizens as liberal democracy and the free market—helps to explain the talk of a printemps érable. It also connects the Québec student protests to the worldwide Occupy movement.

Leaving aside the question of whether a neoliberal cabal is indeed running Québec, the lure to commodify higher education is certainly one that universities find increasingly hard to resist, especially since the 2008 economic crisis has led to a decrease of public funds, alumni donations, and returns on endowments. It’s not surprising that administrators at McGill, which can bank on its international reputation to attract well-endowed students, have been among the most vocal supporters of the tuition raise. Apart from the accessibility problem (which, as we saw, can be addressed through adequate financial aid programs), this gives rise to a new question: what will happen to the content of higher education if universities turn into service providers? The fear is that curricula will no longer be determined by scholarly and educational considerations, but by what students are willing to buy, namely, skills that will pay off on the job market. How will this affect disciplines that teach things that aren’t profitable in this way, especially the humanities and parts of the social sciences? Like universities elsewhere in North America, McGill is no longer run by professors, but by academic managers who often think about higher education in market terms. As the chair of a small department in the faculty of arts put it, “if you want to survive these days you have to sell yourself.”

Shouldn’t one insist on a fair distribution of burdens as much as on a fair distribution of opportunities? Most citizens don’t go to university; so isn’t it wrong to ask them to pay? Replies to such sentiments appeal to ethical reasons—the importance of guaranteeing equal opportunity through accessible higher education—but also to the self-interest of citizens: higher education benefits society as a whole, through, for example, scientific research, technological innovation, and economic growth—not to mention by allowing the most talented, not the richest, to become our doctors, judges, and engineers. Moreover, university graduates who go on to become high-income earners will soon repay their debt to society through Québec’s progressive tax system.

But should public funds also pay for studying Plato, Shakespeare, and Foucault, or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the cultural practices of Indian tribes in the Amazon? These may well be valuable things to do, but so is, arguably, going to the museum, the opera, and the theater, or to a rock concert or a hockey game. To come back to Plato and Spinoza, one can counter that knowledge is in itself a good that should be made available to all citizens according to abilities other than the ability to pay. Or one could argue that the humanities convey critical and intellectual skills that are indispensable for true democratic citizenship, and that studying the literatures and histories of other cultures conveys the kind of insight and empathy required of citizens in a multicultural society.

Even if we grant all this, it still doesn’t seem unfair if those who directly benefit from higher education pay a greater share as long as they can afford it. One model worth considering has already been instituted in Australia in the form of “HELP” student loans. Australian students must pay university tuition, but these payments can be deferred and converted into interest-free debt that the government will reclaim through a compulsory income tax. The tax only kicks in once graduates begin to earn a sufficiently large salary, and it is rated to the salary’s size. Such a system would keep higher education universally accessible, while putting a larger part of the burden on those who directly benefit from it. At the same time, students would not be pushed into attaining “profitable” skills through fear of heavy debts. And universities would not be lured into confusing education and marketing, since the tuition revenues would be distributed by the state rather than going to them directly. This isn’t the system of free higher education recommended by the Parent commission, which the students want to see funded through progressive taxation. But it does seem to respond to the fundamental concerns about social justice and the commercialization of higher education that have animated the strike from the start.

At any rate, unless the students want to abandon the rules of democracy altogether and try their hand at revolution, it is important that they make their case clearly to Québec society. For a while the strike seemed to be playing into the hands of Charest who, despite being one of the most unpopular politicians in Québec, has managed to become the province’s longest-serving prime minister after Duplessis. While the Québec Liberal Party was trailing in polls before the strike, it has moved to the lead thanks to the government’s “tough” response to the protests, especially after the movement’s radical wing began grabbing all the attention through daily skirmishes with the police and revolutionary rhetoric denouncing the strike-wary majority of Quebeckers as trapped in neoliberal ideology.

Bill 78, the emergency law passed on May 18, may be a turning point, however. It suspended the semester at striking colleges and universities until August, prohibited protest activities on campus and demonstrations anywhere without advance police approval, and imposed hefty fines—from $1,000 for individuals to $125,000 for student associations—on anyone failing to comply. The bill is widely perceived as a declaration of war against the students and as an assault on fundamental rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The enormous turnout of defiant protesters on May 22 suggests that the bill achieved the opposite of what it set out to do: it not only gave a boost to the student movement but helped forge a large coalition of citizens—separatists, unionists, intellectuals, artists, and so on—concerned about Québec’s future. What started as a protest against an ostensibly modest raise of university tuition fees 100 days ago has thus become the midwife of a vigorous public debate about the political, social, and cultural physiognomy of Québec.

Carlos Fraenkel teaches in the philosophy and Jewish studies departments at McGill University. Adam Etinson is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montreal and teaches in the philosophy department at McGill.

First photo: red square patches, the symbol of the student movement in Quebec (by Photomaxmtl, 2012, via Flickr creative commons); second photo: from the May 22 march in Montreal (by fatseth via Flickr creative commons)

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