La Belle Province has rarely held such a prominent place in international news. The student strike, lasting since February, is making headlines around the world, and scores of YouTube videos portray the student rage in its full force. Foreigners could witness acts of vandalism and police brutality, among huge crowds in Montreal streets, during an unprecedented student strike in a normally peaceful region of North America.
English Canadians and media are trying to make sense of this crisis. The opinions in English Canada are sharp and divided, with much disdain directed against the entire student body or the provincial Liberal government, or, more rudely, against the whole province.
But many pundits don’t have a clue, it seems, what this Quebec Spring is all about: it’s about an unescapable 75-percent increase in tuition fees over the next seven years, for an already overtaxed and indebted generation.
The rage is entirely understandable. These students know that something seriously unfair is happening. They feel – more clearly than they can explain, unfortunately – that their generation will have it harder than those before them. They understand that they will face a massive generational penalty – something like a pay-twice scheme. Let me explain.
The Government of Quebec already imposes on its citizenry some of the highest income and sales taxes in the world, partly to service a huge provincial debt that will not decline anytime soon. Quebec youth will inherit this debt and these high taxes.
One of the rationales for the high taxes was affordable education, around $2,000 a year, no matter what faculty you attend. So, yes, Quebecers pay a lot of taxes, but in exchange we get subsidized degrees and then move on to the workforce with a manageable amount of debt. That was the Quebec way: more European than North American.
Now, the Liberal government is pushing this 75-percent increase in tuition, but without any easing of taxes for them or their parents. The government clearly wants to have it both ways, or as we say in French, the State wants le beurre et l’argent du beurre.
And that is too much to bear. It is seen as rapacious, because it is. The taxpayer paying twice: once to get the services in theory, and then to get them in reality. Because tuition fees are like a tax, at least for attending publicly funded universities.
The students have another legitimate grievance: the increase in frivolous spending by these public universities, or more precisely by those running them. Higher and higher salaries, more administrative jet-setting, more fancy cocktail parties. So it’s the largely penniless student body that should pay for this luxury? By taking more loans? By eating more potatoes for supper?
Some have speculated that this 75-percent tuition hike could be made totally unnecessary if there was a stop to all the wasteful spending. That may be an exaggeration, but it might also be close to the truth. In any case, a small hike in tuition may well be necessary for many reasons, and perhaps the students would accept one, if at the same time there was a real effort to curtail the bureaucratic spending of universities. But, No, says the government. Let them pay twice! Even three times, in interest fees on their loans. This is the State beating down an entire generation. It is fiscal bullying.
So, Quebec youth are exasperated. They feel the weight of their future burden, and that is why they are on strike: compared to their elders, they are being overcharged. No wonder their reaction is so intense: they aspire to a lighter life, not a life of debt-slaves. A minimally enjoyable life, where they have some purchasing power, some basic financial freedom. They are not asking for the moon: they are asking their elders to be fiscally fair with their generation as a whole.
Of course, many citizens are angry at these students, and rightly so. All this mayhem is hurting Montreal’s economy and reputation. It is slowing traffic and is bad for restaurant and shop owners. Students know better than to break windows and burn things, and the student leaders were not quick enough to condemn this violence. But let’s not forget that the violent students really are a small minority.
Now that the Liberal government has passed a law, Bill-78, that is truly anti-liberal and probably unconstitutional, many previously indifferent citizens are taking the students’ side. Lawyers have publicly condemned this emergency law, some even walking alongside protesters in their black robes. The strike was mostly about student fees, but now, at least for some, it’s mostly about fundamental and constitutional freedoms. It’s no wonder that so many Quebecers long for a general election.
So, you’re right: it is about more than the yearly $325 hike in tuition. It’s also about fiscal and economic justice for young men and women who never chose to be born between 1990 and 1995, the worst of recent times to be born, it seems.
There are many sad ironies in this ongoing student strike. The main one is that these so-called Communist students, these anti-capitalist, red-square-wearing left-wingers, are, in fact, on the fiscally conservative side in this debate. They are demanding lower taxes and more cuts in wasteful government spending. Or, in other words, plain fiscal justice.
Jules Bourque, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Université Laval, is a former lecturer at Université de Moncton.