The distorted media coverage in the anglophone press of the Quebec student protest movement and the relative silence in the academic community outside Quebec over some of the issues raised are perplexing.
Some of the tactics of the protesters appear disturbing, the social and economic upheavel disproportionate, and the major focus of the movement on -- from an Ontario perspective certainly -- minor tuition hikes may seem trivial. But that can hardly explain the failure to accurately represent the various complaints and motivations and to acknowledge the contextual political factors that contribute to the continued success of the protest.
Few commentators here point out that an energizing factor for this protest movement is the widespread and politically exploited discontent with a government associated with various controversies: from the controversial attempt to grant shale gas exploitation contracts for the St. Lawrence river, to serious allegations of corruption, to the uncompromising stand-off with students, and most recently the use of legislation to curtail the protest itself.
Particularly in Ontario one could have perhaps expected a more sophisticated analysis about how things can escalate. We are still digesting the excessive use of police force and the use of event-specific freedom restricting legislation; further in the past, we have also seen how overall discontent with the Harris government frequently led to manifestations of "activist" protesters, which reflected a more general resentment within the wider community.
Some media pundits in the anglophone press not only fail to accurately present what is happening, but also use the occasion to express public disdain of Quebec social programs and of much of what Quebec society arguably stands for.
Margaret Wente's commentary in our "national newspaper" spans the crown. In her commentary, she refers to Quebecers as the "Greeks of Europe," arrogantly insulting two communities with remarkably superficial sneers that can only be described as an anti-Quebec rant. She contrasts some of Quebec's challenges with the economic success of provinces such as Alberta, ignoring of course that the success of Alberta's oil-based industry has little to do with the absence or presence of good social programs. Invoking the economic collapse of France as an example of Quebec-style disastrous public policy is also easy, but has again little to do with investment in social programs and state support for education.
She obviously could not invoke the U.S. to argue that lower taxes, less wasteful support for social programs and high tuition go hand in hand with economic success and healthy social cohesion. And she handily avoided discussing Scandinavian countries, since that would have required her to admit that her all-too-easy equation of what, in her view, must be "socialist" systems with economic failure doesn't fly.
For Wente, the Quebec daycare program is a clear example of this state-organized, "from cradle to grave" pampering that anglophone Canada has wisely avoided. But it is interesting that many analysts would pinpoint state-supported daycare along the lines of the Quebec system as wise public investment that contributes directly to equitable childhood development and long-term educational success. Not so long ago, the official -- at least on paper pan-Canadian -- opposition was still promoting universal child-care as a paradigm Canadian-style policy. These days, it seems fine to suggest that since Quebec does it, it must be stupid.
Rather than stereotyping Quebec as a cradle-to-grave socialist welfare state and the protesters as spoiled brats, we could start asking why there hasn't been much sophisticated public debate elsewhere about some of the other issues now very prominently discussed in Quebec. In fact, by focusing narrowly on a comparison between Quebec rates and our tuition rates, we ignore that this is really also a fundamental debate about models of university education.
The increases appear minor compared to our existing rates, but a near-doubling of tuition rates as does reflect a conscious move away from an existing model of university education. These types of moves deserve public debate, a debate which we have largely avoided because changes have been subtly but steadily implemented over the last two decades. Students and Quebec commentators are also expressing concern about the growing business-oriented nature and business culture of our universities, with managerial styles and concomitant business-style salaries of university executives and professors (particularly in professional programs).
They point to the contrast between the growing debt load of students and the sometimes indecently high salaries, departure premiums, and other forms of compensation of CEOs and members of corporate boards, which seem, to detached outsiders, simply disproportionate to their societal contributions. It is telling that although anglophone academics have raised these issues in recent books, in student newspapers and academic newsletters, it has been much more part of the public discourse in Quebec in the context of the protest movement, with op-eds in leading Quebec newspapers.
In a recent open letter, UdeM's Daniel Weinstock explicitly urges colleagues outside Quebec to recognize this more sophisticated public debate.
Perhaps we could start asking our respective provincial and federal governments to much more explicitly affirm what model of university education they truly support and what style of academic institutions they favour. If our governments are truly committed to university education as a public good, they should put their money where their mouth is. So far, we seem to let them get away with continued reduction in their proportionate contributions to higher education by silently accepting continued increases in tuition fees and private (largely corporate) donations to fill the gap.
Ours is clearly already to some degree a two-tiered educational system, which is not only in part created by tuition fees and growing income inequality but also further feeds it. In some way, the higher costs of professional degrees may now have become a (largely unexpressed) moral justification for high salaries post-graduation. Yet, it can be much worse. The excessively high costs of "better" education are clearly problematic in the U.S. Should we really emulate that model, or rather try to ensure equitable access to high quality education through appropriate adjustments to our system? If higher tuition fees than the Quebec fees are appropriate, where should we stop? How can we ensure that higher tuition does not amplify the growing inequities in our society? Can we put alternative funding models in place? The Quebec protests should be an occasion to reinvigorate that debate.
The media coverage also calls for another type of self-reflection. It is tempting to just ignore the Wente-style anti-Quebec ranting. Yet, such ranting seems to have become "bon ton" in some circles and is happily endorsed by herds of mostly anonymous commentators. Quebec politics is complex and not always easy to understand from the outside. Public opinion often appears on an emotional roller-coaster. Nationalist fervor of some and firm rejection of it by others complicates predictions about electoral success at provincial and federal levels.
One thing that is, however, most likely to reunite many Quebecers and inflame nationalist sentiment is the type of popular bashing of some of its widely touted accomplishments by "outsiders" and the apparent indifference of anglophone Canada to the expression of reasonable concerns. More respectful attention to and treatment of what really lives in one of our largest provinces may also reduce the risk of serious political trouble down the road.