Quebec Student Protests: Young NDP MPs Left Sitting On Their Hands

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PIERRELUC DUSSEAULT QUEBEC NDP
Pierre-Luc Dusseault makes his way to his new job. He now represents the riding of Sherbrooke in the House of Commons of Canada under the banner of the New Democratic Party since May 2, 2011. He defeated Serge Cardin of the Bloc Quebecois with a majority of 3,642 votes in the Canadian federal election of 2011. He became the youngest member to sit in the House of Commons, being elected for the first time at the age of 19 years and 11 months. The Canadian Press Images / Nathalie Madore | CP

OTTAWA - Young New Democrat MPs who likely once would have been among the thousands of Quebec students hoisting placards in opposition to higher tuition are instead being forced to sit on their hands.

At least five Quebec NDP MPs were students in the province before being swept unexpectedly into federal office during last year's election, and several others were only a few years out of school.

But even as the 11-week-old feud between the provincial Liberal government and students gains international attention, the rookie MPs are learning that being Quebec's voice in Ottawa sometimes also means they need to shut up.

There's nothing to be gained from weighing in on a provincial matter that's out of their hands, they've been cautioned, so best not to say anything at all.

Especially because there is something to lose: support in the province that handed them their official Opposition status in the Commons.

"Hiding behind the jurisdictional issue over the student strikes is good politics because there are few benefits for the NDP and a number of risks," said Bruce Hicks, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

There has been speculation that the strike could become the catalyst for a provincial election, and Hicks said any support for the students benefits the Parti Quebecois.

That's bad for the federal NDP, because a PQ government in Quebec will use its resources to support the Bloc Quebecois at the federal level.

Which could end up sending those student NDP MPs right back to school after the next federal election.

Plus, being seen as supporting a protest movement that's led to violence and dozens of arrests is risky, Hicks said.

"The NDP being so silent on this question is obviously the result of the party leadership doing a risk-benefit analysis," Hicks said.

In an interview on CPAC earlier this week, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair stayed away from weighing in directly on the protest, saying it was up to the provincial government to discuss the choices its made on the cost of going to school.

"Let's hope there will be a settlement," he said.

"Violence is not the right way to do things," he said.

The Charest government wants to raise tuition by $1,625. Initially, the increase was to be rolled out over five years but in a bid to stop the strikes, the government said Friday they are willing to phase it in over seven.

Quebec student groups were meeting over the weekend to decide whether to take the offer.

Canada's youngest MP, Pierre-Luc Dusseault, did acknowledge that had things been different, it could have been him out on the streets in Quebec.

The 19-year-old said he believes in education being accessible, but wouldn't comment on what he thought about the cost of it in his home province.
But he said he thinks the protests generally are an important symbol for democracy.

"I'm not for the violence, but I’m for people who have the right to say what they want," he said.

One Tory MP is hoping the NDP's condemnation of the violence will convince them to back his private member's bill that would make it a criminal offence for people to wear disguises during violent protests.

Blake Richards, an Alberta MP, said the New Democrats voted against his bill on second reading.

"I would hope that given these incidents they will rethink that," he said in an interview.

"They've seen the kind of destruction that's occurred in Montreal and they have a number of members that represent the city and I would certainly hope they would rethink and protect public safety and protect businesses."

Richards' bill is expected to go before committee this week.

— With files from Lina Dib.

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