Welfare and Social Issues

The Maple Spring in Quebec

So what is causing this political, social and festive rising that has brought over 200,000 protesters on to the streets of Montreal, a widespread protest movement accompanied with the uproar of ‘saucepan revolution’?

At the source of all this is the increase of annual university tuition fees from 2,168 Canadian dollars (CAD) (€1,696) in 2012 to 3,793 CAD (€2,967) between 2012 and 2017. Students from Quebec, as echoed by ministers of the Charest  government, hardly have anything to complain about: tuition fees in Quebec are the lowest in the country whose average is 5,366 CAD (€4,226). The fees in Quebec’s neighbouring province, Ontario, are 6,640 CAD (€5,230). Those who advance this argument seem to be forgetting that through its emancipation Quebec, from the very first moments of the Quiet Revolution , established a socio-democratic state with free access to university, something which was progressively reduced with the correlative decline in university goers. We should note that the rate of university education in Quebec is 23% compared to 38% across the rest of Canada. These small increases, which add up each year, run the risk of preventing access to university for working mature students who are often first generation academics and who are forced to combine work, family and study as it is often the case in Quebec . Let us note that free education is still available, more or less, in French-speaking Belgium, France, Finland, Denmark, Scotland, Norway and Sweden.

A Government That Is Adding Fuel to the Fire

The most impartial observers become lost in conjecture on strategy or rather its total absence in government. Is it a Machiavellian pre-electoral calculation, the arrogance of a majority government not keen on conciliatory negotiations or old mistakes made due to the underestimation of the opposition? Government negotiators have accumulated mistake upon mistake: contempt shown towards young negotiators, attempts to divide them, refusal to negotiate, and when the anger mounts, when the streets fill up, when some may cause problems for the big Montreal Formula 1 Grand Prix (shock horror!), the government votes in law 78 , a law which in the eyes of a substantial number of lawyers is a threat to freedom and illegitimate as regards the declarations of rights and freedom guaranteed by the Quebec and Canadian charters. Has the government become interested in worsening the situation by presenting itself in autumn as the last resort, the guarantor of stability? On April 25th, so even before the F1 Grand Prix, policing costs (Montreal police force and the provincial force Sureté du Québec) reached more than $4 million in overtime.

Klondike of Portfolios or Brains?

Just like its opponent, the separatist Parti Québécois, which has quietened down since the death of René Levesque, the Parti Libéral and its Premier Charest are developing a centre-right political project oriented towards getting rich thanks to business. Irrespective of the corruption and collusion with the construction mafia, the predictable environmental risks due to the extraction of shale gas, the pay-offs given to companies who will conduct mining activities in the Great North, without any guarantees to preserve the natural heritage and respect indigenous peoples. Analysts of the provincial state budget show that free university education would have accounted for 1% of the state of Quebec’s budget during the 2012 financial year, whilst this government is turning a blind eye to the administrative chaos in university department and their irresponsible and wasteful real estate projects. Over the 2012-2017 period, this same government set aside $1.25 billion to restore mining sites abandoned by large companies. ‘The liberal management of collective waste, explains Pierre Yves Guay , leads straight towards social chaos. When rich large companies beg for subsidies, the government finds millions so quickly that the papers don’t even have the time to write about it’. Undoubtedly the widening of the movement is amplifying an overall dismay of the government’s fiscal and budgetary policy. In the 2017 financial year, the extra $265 million raised from the increase in tuition fees would represent .33% of the budget. The political question that arises from these fiscal considerations is the following: is the government ready to wisely invest in education? This is doubtful when we see the government spend, despite its previous commitments; $904 million for 500,000 Windows configured workstations in the education network whereas implementing free software that is just as effective and compatible would be half as expensive.

The Founding Act of the Barbarian Age: Universities Become Businesses

The increase of tuition fees, in contrast to what the government claims, is not a purely budgetary act, ‘in reality it is a purely political decision which is part of a neoliberal project to transform the link that youth has with knowledge, institutions and society in general’. Education is becoming a commodity that paying students obtain in a competitive cultural and social context: students are becoming paying users and the budget ‘serves as a weapon of mass destruction in terms of social policy’. In an open letter in the publication Devoir, the philosopher Michel Seymour makes the observation of the progressive transformation of universities into private profit-making businesses: universities are increasingly managed by members of staff that don’t have careers in research and whose salaries resemble those paid by private businesses with obscene retirement grants for vice-chancellors and pro-vice chancellors. Teachers are assimilated to employees tasked with reporting to the university that employs them. Students are becoming customers to be seduced and some universities are creating, at huge cost, like the Université de Sherbrooke, branches in Montreal to attract extra enrolments. The principle of balancing out faculties, which enables less profitable or more costly departments to be run, is undermined and each department should, within 5 years, ensure its budget is balanced. Each position opened in the Université de Montreal must be accompanied with a business plan. Universities are becoming machines that produce profitable graduates for companies who invest by funding private chairs. Bosses of big companies are making off with honorary degrees refused to Platon experts. One can worry about free research when one is familiar with the unpleasant adventure of a researcher in the pharmacology department of an Ontarian university who was fired for having questioned the effectiveness of a drug manufactured by a firm subsidising her department: don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Widening of the Fight and Turning up the Intensity

Tyrannical children, the sons of post-68 liberals, are negotiators who have always been used to discussing in a democratic family framework, with a weakened post-Freudian father and a mother filled with pragmatic feminism, inherited from the traditional Quebec matriarchy. The (calculated) stiffness and arrogance of the government and the maturity of student leaders, not at all, quite the opposite, submerged by budgetary technicalities, negotiating step by step and proposing credible fiscal and political alternatives, have contributed to spreading the movement which is slowly reaching more global issues. Whilst, as the philosopher Deleuze points out, revolutions do little to unite, they spawn individual revolutionary futures and groups- we could observe two large inspiring revolutions from Quebec’s political imagination, the French revolution and the American revolution, which were first fiscal revolutions-Quebec carries itself well in adventure by offering its youth and those who support it futures made out of intergenerational generosity , creative imagination and intelligence. First comes the increase in intensity, the joy of the saucepan revolution, students who humorously resist police brutality, the teachings of the struggle, the drunkenness of protests and meeting, the carnivals the Guy Fawkes masks, imagination controlling confrontation, the respiration of democratic power will leave nothing but olfactory and physical traces in our memories. As Hegel wrote with regard to the French revolution, ‘Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man’s existence centres in his head, i.e. in Thought, inspired by which he builds up his world of reality. Anaxagoras was the first to say that the mind governs the world; but it is only now that man has recognised that thought must rule spiritual reality. It was thus a superb sunrise’, this social conflagration has given rise to superb exercises of thought. Widening and extension of the fight: the infamous law 78 served as a springboard for global denunciation of neo-liberal society and the student movement is at the forefront of the defence of the socio-democratic state of Quebec. There are many rallies: unions, artist collectives, teachers meeting at the teachers against the increase site with the explicit support of the left-wing party Québec Solidaire. Canadian and intergenerational solidarities are emerging and collectives of solicitors are coming to the defence of students charged under law 78 on a pro bono basis. In the near future, we will see whether the widening of the reasons of the conflict will require so many strategic alliances: the environmental waste and nuisances of blind development, corruption of the party in power linked the granting of public contracts to mafia of the construction world, the commoditisation of the learning and training process and the necessary reform of universities, the dependence of the people of Quebec vis- à-vis the federal government under Harper that is extremely close to the U.S ultra nationalist and religious right, these observations and claims that are taking a greater priority on the agenda show the outline of the overall dismay of the systems flourishing in the excitement of the spring. This is just the beginning, of course, but what battle are we fighting?

What Wintry Future Awaits the Cicadas of the Maple Spring?

Whilst the smell of powder reminds the older generation of the barricades of ‘68, the comparison stops there: 45 years ago we were carrying out a revolution to get out of the system but the youth of today are fighting to stay in it. Morals have been free for a long time and contemporary society, despite its accumulation of gadgets, is far from being a society of abundance. If France was bored in ‘68, young Quebeckers today would like to be able to study without having to work to fund their studies. It isn’t about having fun without restriction but rather being able to study without too much difficulty as the rate of employment of young people aged between 20 and 24 years old has gone, in twenty-five years, from 25 to 55% . Is the solution in independence, as some nationalist intellectuals claim protecting the le fait français and the welfare state in a European style, a French island immersed in 300 million English speakers taken by the virtues of neo-liberalism? The liberals in power are making their calculations and preparing their electoral artillery: if we can’t bring the students into line in the spring, they think to themselves, a triumphant victory in the autumn elections should provide us with legitimacy in the government to crush the slightest sign of rebellion in the winter. Of course, the government’s track record is questionable: lack of transparency, collusion with corruption, democratic deficit, constitutional passivity, deficiency in terms of natural resources management and protection of the environment, weak defence of the French language , all of these issues are surfacing in this formidable democratic process that has hit it head on. Some believe that through its radical nature, the student movement has perhaps missed its chance to snag a compromise that is honourable and meaningful with regards to the budget. The latest offers from the State included some notable improvements (such as a reduction in the proposed increase) that the students, partly drunk on the support given by the general public, have rejected . Frightened by the disorder, voters in the autumn may vote for the liberal majority as a guarantee of order and smooth running of business. As Bouchard points out ‘due to this rejection of compromise, the student movement could be contributing to the re-election of the party that it has been doggedly fighting for several month ’. Students fought with so much strength and enthusiasm, in resonance with Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados movement in Madrid, it is because they were over a barrel. They have flushed out forces that didn’t dare declare themselves; they have brought issues that the neo-liberal creed was striving to anaesthetise. Their opponents turned to accounting and budgetary logic to defend themselves but the veil of Maya has torn and the king is naked. But for how long and for how many actors?

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