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s is the case for all social movements, the current mobilisation of college and university students in Québec is contextualised. It bears the signature of a local culture, with its own history. Interpreting this mobilisation without knowledge of this specificity is bound to yield distorted conclusions. So here are some core facts that I believe have to be acknowledged and which underscore the logic of current events.
Free access to public education in Québec timidly started after WW2 when the Québec state realised it would be beneficial for the nation if its largely rural and uneducated population could learn to read, write, and count properly. Primary education was made public, mandatory, and free. After the long reign of the conservative, clerical, and anti-intellectual Premier Maurice Duplessis (1944-1959), a period that was later labelled ‘the Great Darkness’, in 1960 Québec entered what became its ‘Quiet Revolution’. Under the impetus of Liberal Premier Jean Lesage (1960-1966), the state decided it was time to remove public education from the hands of the Catholic clergy and to create a Ministry of Education (1964). The Ministry’s mandate was to help Québec enter modernity by handling public education – a fundamental tool of personal and collective emancipation – more appropriately. Much at the same time, to form a workforce less and less tied to subsistence agriculture and unskilled labour, high school was also made universally accessible, mandatory, and free.
It is highly significant to note that during these years of change, the Ministry of Culture was created (1961), electricity was collectivised (creation of Hydro-Québec in 1963), the public sector’s pension fund was taken from bankers to be administered by the state (la Caisse de Dépôt et de Placement, in 1965), and public health services were made universally accessible and free of charge (creation of Régie de l’Assurance-Maladie in 1969). In terms of targeted taxation to help pay for all this, the provincial lottery system was set up (Loto-Québec, in 1969), and a state monopoly on the sale and taxation of alcohol was enacted (Société des Alcools, in 1971). All became, and still are, pillars of today’s Québec welfare and economic health.
One of the driving forces of this wind of change after decades of social near-stagnation was the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Teaching in Québec set up by Premier Lesage’s government to reflect on every aspect of the education system in the province. In 1964, that Commission famously produced its five volume Rapport Parent (The Parent Report; named after Alphonse-Marie Parent, priest and former principal of Laval University). In a nutshell, this highly influential document proposed that intellectually formed citizens were a collective asset, that access to higher education had to be democratized, and that lower college education (CEGEP; Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) be made free.
And here is the twist. The Royal Commission also proposed that as soon as possible, university education should also be made free and accessible to all. This, the commissioners declared, constituted a logical and inevitable evolution to make higher education a central part of Québec’s long term development. But the government wasn’t sure Québec could afford this step, so in 1968 it compromised by freezing sine die university tuition fees. This basically meant, considering regular inflation, that these fees would decrease annually until they died out. That was the acceptable, viable, and explicit plan and it remained so for 40 years, having never been seriously questioned by successive governments — until this one unilaterally decided to trash it.
This brief history of the logic behind low tuition fees for higher education in Québec helps to realise that: 1) universal access to tertiary education in Québec is not a new fad germinating in the unripe brains of young leftist agitators, and that: 2) it was the state’s very own idea on the recommendation of a Royal Commission, a choice that was respected and prized for four decades.
The REALLY new idea in the current debate regarding the rise of tuition fees is a bold attempt to rewrite history by chipping away at sound principles of collective intellectual and economic enrichment. This uncanny plan has been germinating in the – no doubt highly educated – minds behind the Liberal government of Jean Charest (himself former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1993 to 1998). The memory of that other provincial Liberal leader, Jean Lesage, and of the visionaries of the 1960s clearly means little to the current Liberals. Higher education, it appears, is merely a commodity with a price tag. With this approach, the Charest government blindly applies the neo-liberal gospel bankers, lobbyists, and large investors whisper to its ear, failing to recall what has come over time to distinguish Québec from English Canada or the US.
With the current offer to jack up tuition fees by 82% over seven years, the Charest administration tries to drill into our heads that this is the only way to improve the financial situation of Québec’s universities. The student movement passionately agrees with better funding for tertiary education. What it disagrees on is who should foot the bill. But contrary to government propaganda, students are not asking for someone else to pay for their education; indeed, they show proof of their social accountability on a daily basis. They and the growing number of non-students supporting their demands, want a firm public investment in the collective future of the next generations. They believe this government has a lot of slack to play with if it seriously wants to put its money where its mouth is. Examples abound. Certain Québec universities have been notorious of late for poor speculative real estate investments that threatened to swamp their entire budgets. With the judicial system turning a blind eye, the mob consistently lines its pockets with every possible public contract in the construction business. The petrol and mining industry coming at Charest’s invitation to dig into Québec’s vast and mind-bogglingly rich territory are awarded lavish tax breaks and under-cost access to electricity produced with tax-payers’ money. In fact, a disturbing proportion of extremely wealthy companies operating in Québec get away with paying just about no taxes at all. In other words, it is also good governance and accountability that protesters ask for, and the cornered Liberals of Jean Charest’s government resist tooth and nail. Mind you, it is true that the Liberals have a lot to lose, having been part and parcel of this sad state of economic affairs for decades.
In sum, what started in February 2012 as a fairly focused reaction by Québec’s youth to being forced to pay more for what two generations of their forbearers had enjoyed for cheap, has reconnected a whole people to its own history and became a movement by which vast numbers (the largest public demonstrations in the 400 years history of Québec) have crystallized their hopes for better governance and a sound vision for the future.
The Liberal government has here a fantastic opportunity to seize the day and possibly lead a new Quiet Revolution. Or it can stick to promoting its last-century, business-as-usual agenda and shove its head in the sand. This poor show looking more and more like a bad rerun of the Great Darkness.