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Why the Quebec Student Protests Are Still Relevant

10/02/2014 12:32 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

Those who attended a university in Quebec during the 2011-2012 academic year may have forgotten that year's course material, but they will remember one thing: protests. A lot of them. The provincial government had proposed tuition increases that many student associations and unions could not swallow. A stand off ensued. By the middle of the winter semester friction had turned to flame. Montreal streets became -- depending on your perspective -- rousing choruses of justice in action or an illegitimate movement only democratic on its surface.

It was the final semester of my last year as an undergraduate student. A diversity of concentrations had evolved into an interest in public administration and, as such, my focus on the student movement was less on the particular partisan goals pursued and more on its process. If the means used by my activist peers were something I could recognize as fair and thoughtful, then surely I could support the end. Or at least accept it.

This was not the case. For the following two reasons:

1. A misguided sense of moral superiority. Those on the anti-tuition hike side, now of red square fame, eschewed tough discussions on postsecondary education policy by draping their perspective in preordained justice. Any opposing perspective must not only be flawed, but necessarily oppressive, if you come to the table thinking you carry some sort of Gandhi card. Any status quo or pro-tuition increase arguments were reduced to ostensibly horrendous types of -isms, usually "neoliberalism" or "capitalism."

These were strange tactics because a rigorous progressive platform for lowering tuition rates could no doubt have been built (other countries have; Germany just erased all tuition in that country). This would necessarily entail costs to the system and somewhere, somebody would have to lose out, but that sounded too much like economics. And for many of the protestors, economics was a part of the "-isms." It also wasn't clear then, as it's not clear now, that more funding would lead to better education. Much of the policy talk from my protesting peers relied mainly on vague assertions that "Norway's done it."

2. An incoherent sense of democracy. It is an irony of ironies that student associations and unions, those organizations most fond of whipping out their democracy credentials, can have few qualms about crushing dissenting minority voices. Student departmental associations held town halls, where -- usually red-square adorned -- student leaders would try lead debates followed by a vote. The idea was that 50 per cent plus 1 would mean all students have to strike. Never mind the complex issue of whether student status entails the ability to strike (to some that's simply not using services you signed up for). The assumption was that 49 per cent of students could be coerced into taking steps against their preferences.

Most workable versions of democracy set a high bar for restricting so many individual choices, and then the votes are made by elected representatives with a mandate to represent people on the decisions that govern their lives. These votes occur at city councils, provincial legislatures and parliament. If you'd like to see change in a way that so fundamentally arrests individual choice, then get your political party into government, where they can make legitimate decisions (should they get enough votes and pass the legal bar liberal democracies, like Canada, set for them). Somewhere along the line during the protests, I became disillusioned with the degree to which my departmental student association thought it could represent my interests.

Is any of this relevant almost three years later? Yes, because mini-versions of the Quebec protests still play out on Canadian campuses. They may not be about tuition, and their ideological bent could be left or right. But too often when students organize around political causes they take on the same unsavory tones that reject dissent and make straw men of opposing arguments.

It seems that a great many students can afford to make an ideological stance an end in itself, versus a means to a greater end. I don't mean afford in a monetary sense, but in a worldview sense. The university campus, for all its charms and wonders, is a place where a specific perspective can be nurtured without serious challenges from the outside world. Such perspectives include values and norms which, when challenged by forces beyond campus, react -- I warily write -- immaturely.

I used to dismiss statements by -- usually over 30, work force experienced -- people that would seem to patronize undergrads with "Just wait till you get into the real world." After studying at three different Canadian universities in as many provinces, while keeping one foot firmly off campus, I don't dismiss them. I see exactly where they're coming from.

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