This summer, the leaders of Quebec's student radicals will be coming to a campus or community centre near you, whether as part of their Quebec public relations campaign in preparation for the expected fall election, or as part of their CFS sponsored Ontario tour intended to spread the student “strike” movement to the rest of the country. Neither of the revolutionary road trips organized by the CLASSE (Quebec largest student federation) is likely to be successful, and both may end up reinforcing just how out of touch the protest movement’s leaders are with the vast majority of Quebeckers and Canadians.
In Quebec, the influence of the radicals appears to be in steady decline. The daily protests which caught the attention of the world in March and April have petered out in the dog days of summer. Demonstrations in downtown Montreal are mostly down to isolated handfuls of protesters, banging on pots and pans to make themselves sound louder and more numerous than they actually are. If their objective was to get the silent majority of Quebeckers behind them, they have failed completely; a majority of the population supports the government’s position on the tuition increase, while close to 70% of College and University students refused to boycott classes and finished their semesters on schedule. Student associations remain on “strike” in only 14 of the province’s 48 Colleges and in the more ideologically sympathetic departments and faculties in about 11 of its 18 universities. The majority of them are located in and around Montreal with only minimal representation from the rest of the province.
The failure of the student leaders to earn greater public support is in large part due to their radicalism and indifference to the democratic process. The leader of the CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, has made no secret of the fact that he sees the strike as something akin to the student wing of the Occupy Movement rather than a response to the recent tuition increase. His official position is that all tuition should be free and that student associations should be accredited as labour unions performing educational “work”. But his public appearances have featured calls for a broader “social strike” of all classes of society against the Charest government. The CLASSE manifesto, released as the opening salvo in their Quebec summer tour, advocated socialist economics, higher taxation, environmentalism and the nationalization of Quebec natural resources to protect them from the threat of foreign ownership.
Though it sounded a great deal like an election platform, the CLASSE leadership doesn’t see itself running for office anytime soon or trying to influence the major parties in the upcoming provincial election. When asked about the vote, Nadeau-Dubois responded that Quebeckers needed to get the Liberals out “whether by an election or by some other method.” His fellow spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds indicated that a general assembly would need to be held to determine whether CLASSE members would accept the results of the election. It is unclear what “other method” they envision if the results are not accepted.
When they tour the province this summer, the CLASSE leaders may discover that their priorities are not shared by the vast majority of Quebeckers, and may find themselves called on to explain the violence and disruptions they have inflicted on Montreal since the beginning of March, their hypocritical attitude towards the rule of law (Nadeau-Dubois has encouraged his followers to ignore court injunctions which prevent them from blocking other students from going to class, but has gone before the same courts to argue that Bill 78 is unconstitutional), and their insistence that the majority of Quebeckers, already taxed at rates as high as 48%, should be paying even more in order to provide them with free post-secondary education. We can only hope that the CLASSE leaders will learn something from the people on the BBQ circuit, and accept their verdict at the ballot box.
Moving on to Ontario
If Quebeckers are unlikely to give them a positive reception, the CLASSE can look forward to something closer to incomprehension from Ontarians. At the instigation of the Canadian Federation of Students, a number of senior CLASSE organizers will be touring Ontario universities to prepare the groundwork for what the CFS radicals hope will turn into an Ontario boycott every bit as significant as the one in Quebec, or in the words of one of the speakers “the renewal of militant, radical social movements in Canada.” We wouldn’t count on it.
For one thing, the experience of Ontarian students is very different from that of their counterparts in Quebec. The Ontario governments of the last two decades, both Liberal and Conservative, have understood that access to education has more to do with providing financial support to the lower income students who need it most—the conclusion of the 2004 report presided by former NDP premier and current Liberal leader Bob Rae—then in maintaining a frozen, bargain basement tuition rate for both rich and poor. Moreover, Ontario universities charge tuition based on the costs of particular programs of study and don’t follow Quebec’s policy of imposing a single tuition rate for virtually all undergraduate students in the province, the consequence of which is that a québécois Arts Student will often end up paying 40% of the real cost of his or her university education, while a veterinary or dentistry student may end up paying as little as 10%; a bizarre form of “social justice” if there ever was one. As a result, Ontario students pay more for high cost professional programs like medicine and law, which they correctly regard as an investment to insure future, higher paying jobs. The Ontario approach seems to work; despite a tuition rate of $6,040 per year on average, university attendance is nearly 50% higher in Ontario than it is in Québec.
More importantly, Ontario’s students, even the radicals, have a very different tradition of protest than their counterparts in Quebec. The CFS has been protesting and campaigning for tuition freezes for years, at the involuntary expense of its members. Yet their protests have typically taken the form of occasional “days of action”; monster rallies outside the provincial legislature that last one day and include only the students that want to miss class. These protests represent the norm for interest groups looking to influence a democratically elected government. The concept of declaring a “strike” for a service that has already been paid for, shutting down universities, and trying to renegotiate the tuition rate with the government as though were trade unions would be alien to most Ontario student associations and their members.
We don’t expect the CLASSE’s English Canadian road trip to lead them anywhere. If anything, it may only serve to remind Ontarians of how lucky they are not to be trapped in the chaotic, extremist trap of québécois student politics. We hope, and expect that they will continue to fade into irrelevance within Québec and throughout the rest of the country.