08/20/2012 12:08 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Back to School for Striking Quebec Students -- But Not Back to Democracy


And so, it ends with a whimper, not a bang.

On Friday, college students at CEGEP du Vieux Montréal and at CEGEP Saint-Laurent voted to end the "strike"; in the days before, students at other CEGEPs across Quebec voted to return to class. Though many university student associations have yet to vote, the strike against proposed tuition hikes seems to have run its course. Some students are already back in the classroom.

The student protests shut down Quebec higher education, gained international attention and shook that province's politics. By all accounts, the democratic protests were highly successful at gaining attention.

There's only one catch: the protests were anything but democratic. Indeed, it would have been illegal for any labour union in the country to conduct itself the way the student union leadership did.

Quebec student leaders themselves have acknowledged the success of the Red Square movement with their tactics -- and, hey, they aren't talking about grassroots support. Rather, Francophone student associations opted to use direct democracy to make decisions (in contrast, Anglophone schools rely on representative councils and campus-wide referenda instead).

If you're thinking direct democracy sounds like the efficient Swiss tradition of annual citizen referenda, think again. In truth, we're talking about something closer to the operation of a dockworker's union of old. At most Quebec student unions, assemblies are empowered to make major decisions; these meetings typically have tiny quorum thresholds and ban proxy voting.

While most students opposed the tuition hikes, it's also true that most students didn't want to jeopardize their own educational future in protest. That's where the far-left's exploitation of direct democracy played such an important role. The myth is that assembly-based student government is healthy because it's democratically inclusive. In fact, radical student leaders found the meetings effective precisely because they were so exclusive.

Many -- like the author of a recent Viewpoints article -- see these assemblies as critical to a long-run campaign to promote their own political agenda, regardless of actual student demands or circumstances. "The current strike in Quebec has been a long time coming," Elise Thorburn writes. "We can realistically say that activists there have been organizing for this strike not only since 2010, but since 1968."

How exclusive were the strike votes? When Radio-Canada investigated, reporters found that activists in Quebec set the agenda, dates, times and meeting venues to exclude students with real lives, real classes and real jobs. Students replying online to the story complained that strike assemblies often conflicted with exams or classes. Others complained that assemblies took several hours to get to a vote, making it impossible for students with other obligations to stay.

Shutting down a school for months is obviously a significant decision. Yet turnouts at the original strike-vote assemblies generally ranged between 5% and 35%. At Concordia, fewer than 1,800 students were present to vote in a confused debate, making a potentially life-changing decision for more than 36,000 other classmates. And, by the way, the strike vote was done in a way that would be illegal for any Canadian labour union -- by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.

That's not to fully dismiss the concerns of students. I was a student union president myself in the mid-1990s at the University of Manitoba. With that experience behind me, I thought Anglophone Canada's harsh editorial reaction to student protests was a little over the top. After all, it's routine -- and fair -- for people to complain about the government raising fees with little or no warning. Premier Jean Charest's proposed tuition hikes are modest and reasonable, but it's equally reasonable for students to protest mid-program fee hikes -- especially given the uncertainty of future employment.

But the student leadership seems to have gone three steps beyond a reasonable protest, essentially hijacking Quebec's post-secondary education system and tens of thousands of students with it. Now, with the strike winding down, the Parti Quebecois hopes to capitalize. Strike leader Leo Bureau-Blouin is both a PQ candidate and a regular presence at campaign events. Last week, PQ Leader Pauline Marois explained that Bureau-Blouin would probably keep up his studies part-time if he was elected. That's good for him -- but, thanks to his politics, students across Quebec didn't have the option in recent months of working and studying.

When announcing his candidacy, Bureau-Blouin made a point of saying that he hoped to represent all the voters in his riding. Nice. This would be nice, too: students having a greater influence in the actions of their student associations. The next Quebec government needs to democratize the student associations. After all, if Quebec student associations want the right to strike like regular labour unions, shouldn't they be held to the same basic democratic standards?