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Jean Charest: Robbing From the Young to Give to the Old

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Now that windows have been smashed and the students' general strike in Québec has reached week 12, English mainstream media has gradually increased its attention toward Canada's largest (according to one historian), longest and most significant student action ever.

Unfortunately, the coverage has been fraught with assumptions dressed as fact and generalizations that hide the truth behind Québec's impressive social movement.

Québec students have fought to pay the lowest fees in Canada. For university, it's only $130 per year lower than Newfoundland and Labrador, the second least expensive province in Canada when it comes to post-secondary education. For college, their system of education replaces Grades 12 and 13 with free access to college (known as "CEGEP").

Liberal Premier Jean Charest has proposed a 75 per cent increase over seven years. If college fees are introduced, tuition fees will have increased infinitely. It will likely remain the case that Québec fees will still be among the lowest in Canada but increased fees will open the door to more significant increases in the future, like was the case after "nominal" fees were introduced in England.

Many right-wing pundits have rejected the students' demands by focusing on their motives, rather than their goals. A popular word emanating from this chorus of columnists is "entitled." Canada's largest strike in history is just about entitlement, apparently.

But, to say that Québec students are entitled attempts to skirt the issue and ignores some important facts.

In real dollars, Charest paid less for his university education than Québec students do today. Now, he wants his generation of baby boomers to pay less in taxes. The result is robbery of the young to pay for the old. It is hard to see how students are the entitled ones in this scenario.

Entitlement is the word that some will use to describe a social movement that fights for what should be available for all without cost. Right after Ontario was revealed to be the most expensive province in which to study for the third year in a row, Ontario students called for a just a fraction of what Québec students are fighting for. We too were labeled as being entitled, by some.

Young Ontarians are part of a cohort that collectively owes more money in student debt to the Canadian government than any generation in history. The entitlement label is laughable and entirely inaccurate.

Like students in Québec, when Ontario students fight for lower tuition fees, we're not acting out. We're defending access to a precious public service.

But Ontario students have failed to stop tuition fee hikes, while Québec students are winning.

Tuition fees drive social inequality and student activists know this. Ontario's higher education system has gradually moved away from enabling people to better their social standing through education, to further entrenching social inequality. Students who can pay their tuition fees and life expenses up front will pay less than half of what their poorer classmates will pay. Women, racialized students, disabled students and everyone else who makes less money on average, will pay more through compound interest on student loans.

Québecers know the value of education cannot be measured in user fees. They see Ontario with the highest tuition fees and the lowest per student funding and they know where they'll end up if they allow their government to open the door to fee increases, even just a crack.

Arguing that the fight waged by Québec students is because of entitlement is like debating philosophy while standing in quicksand. Québec students are fighting Charest's tuition fees to protect something else: a post-secondary education system that provides the opportunity for economic mobility and opportunity.

Québec students are not entitled, whiny, bratty, or whatever other adjective many journalists or commentators in the English press have called them. They are smart. They can see a fork in the river of Québec's future and are vigorously trying to force Charest to steer left.