How the Anglo Punditocracy Demonizes Québec’s Student Protests

Anglo Canada is sticking its fingers in its ears and humming a happy song. Many in the English-speaking punditocracy and media (or perhaps mediocracy?) are doing their best to persuade us that student protests in Québec are nothing of any consequence.

This is getting a little harder to do, now that so many other folks are joining the students. But it is not too late to jump on the bandwagon to ridicule or demonize the protesters. Just follow these simple steps. (Steps can be rearranged and amplified for dramatic effect.)

Step 1: Set the stage with a dismissive tone.  Many like to scorn protesters as naïve over-entitled brats. If you really get huffing and puffing, brand students as anti-social radicals. This leads nicely into step 2.

Step 2: Suggest a sinister undertone. Highlight any behaviour suggesting that protesters are undisciplined violent thugs. (Take care to frame this in a way that denies the possibility that the noble police force ever provokes any unpleasantness).

Step 3: Explain WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON. This is your chance to look like you are magnanimously enlightening those poor confused students. Remember, it is your job to reassure English Canada that the status quo is entirely reasonable and the forces of authority radiate with the glow of legitimacy.

Protestors walk north along Berri Street under the Sherbrooke Street overpass in one of Montréal’s nightly demonstrations prior to the introduction of Law 78. May 14, 2012.

Now that you have concluded that protesters are in the wrong, find some evidence

Steps 1 and 2 can usually work just by evoking appropriate stereotypes, but in step 3 you will likely have to introduce something that passes as evidence. Naturally you will want to select evidence that supports your point of view. But at all times, maintain your Continue reading

Don’t Kid Yourself: We all pay for the defunding of higher education

I went to McGill in the late 80s and early 90s when tuition fees were less than $1,200 a year, so with summer jobs and some parental help I graduated from my first degree debt-free. For my MA, which I took in Ontario, I worked part-time and graduated after one year with a debt of $10,000.

By way of comparison: my partner went to university in Ontario after grants were eliminated, and when the first round of tuition fee hikes were implemented. He completed a BA and then an MA, and graduated with a debt load (and compound interest) requiring monthly payments of around $650 for 10 years.

We know we benefited, and are benefiting from, our education. Both of us have found employment that allows us to make use of what we studied, and each of us paid back our loans. But that debt (particularly my partner’s), until it was fully repaid, impacted every major decision we made as a couple and then later as a family. And we still live with those decisions: when we bought a house, when we had kids, how many kids we could afford to have, the fact that we don’t own a car, how often we see our families who live out of town. (The other determining factor is the high cost of child care outside of Québec.)

“Have you set up RESPs yet?” we’re often asked. Are you kidding—with both kids still in child care? And since we have fundamental issues with the RESP system, the public money it represents and how, like the RRSP system, it’s geared to the wealthiest families who can most afford to save, we’ll be exploring other ways—once child care expenses go down—to save for our kids’ education so that they can start their adulthood as debt-free as possible.

Of course, if our house needs major repairs it promises to throw a huge wrench into “the plan”. Because for many of us, life is as precariously balanced as a three-legged stool: alter one element (like when I broke my leg last year, rendering me immobile for several weeks) and the whole thing threatens to topple.

Our societies are likewise delicately balanced: educated societies are healthy societies; equitable societies are safer societies. There is no one panacea—these elements work together. And they need to work well together—which requires accountability, sufficient financing, transparency, and effective administration. So the question is not “health care or education, what’s it going to be?”; the question is, what do we need in order to create an equitable, healthy, educated and engaged society, and what’s the best, fairest, most efficient way to get it?

It is within this context that we need to examine the rhetorical criticisms levied against the Québec student strike and the people involved.

Discarded placards in Place Jacques-Cartier, Old Montréal after 200,000 people marched through the streets against Québec’s tuition increases on March 22, 2012. photo by David Widgington

Tuition fees in Québec are the lowest in the country. What have they got to complain about?

It’s less surprising that Québec students are protesting than Continue reading

Why Vote Against the Québec Government Offer and Continue Student Strike

Since Saturday, some people have come up to me expressing their delight a strike that is finally over, now that a negotiated agreement has been made between the government of Québec and striking students. My reply is that “nothing can be further from the truth.” Here’s why.

“Education is not for sale. Yes to the general strike.” Photo March 22, 2012 by David Widgington.

1) Government Insincerity & Incompetence

The most obvious reason for rejecting the offer is that there is nothing in the so-called “agreement” that addresses the tuition fees nor offers any proposal for reducing the 82% tuition increase over seven years. The “agreement” that students are voting on this week, proposes to end the crisis with the establishment of a Provisional University Council (PUC), whose mandate would be to make recommendations to the Minister of Education by 31 December 2012 about “the optimal utilization of universities’ financial resources and show, where they exist, recurrent savings that can be freed.” These potential (but not guaranteed) savings would not reduce tuition increases but would instead transferred to diminishing the $500-$800/year user fees universities have been allowed to increase over the last few years. If no savings can be “freed” then status quo prevails. As a temporary measure, $125 in user fees will be reduced to compensate for the tuition increase during the 2012 fall semester. At the beginning of the strike, Premier Jean Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp argued for tuition increases to resolve university underfunding. Their offer now claims that universities have more money than they need, allowing them to squander millions on severance packages, luxurious promotional trips and marketing campaigns.

This 19-person Provisional Council would effectively audit universities to flush out administrative spending abuses. Based on the composition of the Provisional Council (six university rectors, four union members, two people from the corporate sector, one CEGEP administrator, two government bureaucrats and four student representatives) it is doubtful that it will have any genuine motivation to criticize university spending practices and recommend budget cuts to reduce student fees. And there are no provisions that prevent universities to continue to unilaterally increase user fees. Education Minister Line Beauchamp is quoted in Le Devoir as saying, “if gains for students are to be had, they still need to be calculated and are not guaranteed,” already opening the door for the Provisional Council to declare that university spending practices have been optimized and that no money can be “freed” from the budget.

I will vote against the government’s offer because it is a pre-election smoke screen aimed at further dividing the population and improving its position in opinion polls that show 62% support for tuition increases but an even higher percentage that believes Jean Charest mismanaged the student crisis.

In June of 2008, then-Education Minister Michelle Courchesne Continue reading

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