THE BLOG

Tuition Protests Turned a Debate Into a Screamfest

02/04/2012 10:02 EST | Updated 04/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Since writing a post criticising the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) for protesting Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's 30 per cent tuition rebate, I've had conversations with many people about the policy -- with everyone from CFS-Ontario President Sandy Hudson and Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, at a pub event, to a stoned protester, talk-radio hosts, and reporters.

Tuition costs a lot of money and it is a real barrier to the aspirations of low- and middle-income students. There are a variety of programs to support students, but the McGuinty grant is the most progressive my generation has seen: targeted investments to help the students who most need help.

The CFS has taken a bizarre position against the 30 per cent cut; it's calling for a 13 per cent cut for all students, regardless of their income level. The union has imported Herman Cain's regressive flat-tax policy to tuition.

There's something strange going on when the leftist CFS is importing the ideas of the far right. More and more, I see the similarities between the extreme left and the radical right. Both are dogmatic. Both prefer ideology to pragmatism, and to twist the facts to suit their worldview. The CFS staff -- including Sandy Hudson -- are well-informed individuals. But you're judged by the company you keep.

At the CFS protests this week in Queen's Park, I was reminded of why I'm a Liberal: I strive to be reasonable, to have a discussion, and be polite. The CFS I saw on display was a group of radical leftists, inciting a group of students -- many of whom were bused in from York University, which allowed class absence for the day.

I watched as a student-union executive refused to control an adult union hack from intimidating a first-year student during a confrontation over torn-down, pro-McGuinty posters. The union member was incensed that the Liberal flyers obstructed CFS posters, and acted aggressively against the student, including allegedly uttering a homophobic slur. A report was filed with campus police after a discussion with a dean of students, although no charges were laid.

As the protest continued, the individuals rallying the crowd increased their intensity and ad hominem attacks against Mr McGuinty, fully sanctioned by the CFS organisers.

Their rhetoric, rather than being about how to make a good policy better, seemed preoccupied with inflaming a class war between the rich and the poor -- when it wasn't laced with profanities:

"F*ck Dalton!!" ...and other variations on the ol' f-bomb....

"Hey Glen: don't be a drag, just be a queen!"

(Ironically, the protesters marched under a war memorial at Hart House, chanting their obscenities in front of the memory of those who died so they could have the right to protest.)

Meanwhile, the protestor's demands were too simple -- "drop fees!" -- and too militant to be taken seriously. Its numbers -- perhaps 1200 at its peak -- were down substantially from previous years, likely because the tuition cheques began arriving to students' bank accounts that same morning.

I was in Trafalgar Square last winter during the student protests. Skinheads, militant leftists, pseudo-Nazis, and other miscreants threatened and intimidated pedestrians, myself included.

While the CFS protests paled next to the hooliganism of London, there were some individuals whose conduct tried to mimic it, and to alienate an aggrieved group of students against so-called elites.

Why is this problematic? Violence and intimidation are obviously deplorable and disgusting, and must be condemned, and I call on the CFS to do so formally and fully. Being angry, feeling victimised, and wanting to make your point heard is fair; we all have the right to protest. For the CFS to align itself with violent and extreme individuals demeans its work and limits its efficacy.

The 30 per cent policy is a great investment in low- and middle-income students' access to education. It's even being done during a period of country-wide austerity. It will allow those who have earned a place at college or university to afford their schooling.

Education -- including in the skilled trades -- is the surest investment in the future economy. Using funds, even in a deficit situation, to enable students to prepare for their future careers and expand their horizons is commendable. This policy is a remarkable first step, and adds to the gamut of other services already in place.

The policy could be better, and Minister Murray has indicated he's open to expanding the scope of the funding to include late-entry students, such as those who work for a few years before entering university because they need the money. There's also more to be done to support part-time students.

There's a dialogue to be had. But the CFS is more interested in screaming.