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From the archives

The (Other) October Crisis

A new book revisits one of Canada’s most traumatic and telling moments

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Why Did They Strike?

A political generation gap—invisible to most Anglos—separates Quebec students and parents

Ray Conlogue

For most Canadians, the Quebec student strike—picturesquely nicknamed the “printemps érable,” or “maple spring”—seemed to come out of nowhere this past May. About 300,000 college and university students, nearly three quarters of the province’s entire enrollment, struck against a tuition hike proposed by the Quebec government. Images of swathes of fetching young people, many displaying the carnivalesque painted faces and body language of attendees at a rock concert rather than a social revolution, played across the front pages of the world media.

Within a few short weeks, dramatic developments multiplied. These culminated in the late May passage by Quebec’s Liberal government of Bill 78, a law against street gatherings of such questionable legality that it provoked another protest march—by lawyers and law professors. Crowds of citizens poured into the streets, pounding on pots and pans in support of the students.

And then, on September 4, it ended. The Jean Charest government went down to defeat, and the incoming Parti Québécois government cancelled the tuition increase.

The question now: what, if anything, was the significance of the printemps érable? One can surmise that it does not lie in the dollar cost of a year in college. It may even go beyond Quebec’s perennial struggle to assert itself within Canada. In the words of Université du Québec sociologist Madeleine Gauthier, it seems to be part of the rising generation’s “great current of reconsideration” of the principles of western society.

The maple spring actually began two years ago in 2010, when the Charest government told student and faculty representatives that the ongoing economic crisis meant there would have to be a steep rise in post-secondary tuitions. The representatives, who had not been consulted beforehand, walked out.

Charest’s government then negotiated solely with university administrators, leading to the March 2011 announcement by finance minister Raymond Bachand of a 75 percent increase in tuition over the course of five years. By August students began a peaceful campaign to have the hike rescinded, leading to a street rally in November and the first vote to walk out of classes in February of 2012.

It must be said, from the perspective of Canadian students outside Quebec, that Quebec students seemed to be enjoying a very sweet deal. According to Statistics Canada, Ontario students in 2011/12 paid $6,640 in tuition, Canada’s highest, while Quebec students in the same year paid $2,519, the lowest. The average Canadian tuition was $5,366. Even with the Charest increase, Quebec tuitions would still be a third cheaper than elsewhere in Canada.

Observers were baffled as to how this could provoke more than a quarter of a million students to hit the bricks and shut down the post-secondary system in May 2012. English-Canadian indignation quickly morphed, as it usually does, into an attack on Quebec’s social democratic economic model. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente luridly described student thugs driving other students out of the classroom. “These masked young men and women are the children of the celebrated Quebec model, which shares a certain mindset with the not-so-celebrated Greek model. The state owes us everything, and if we don’t get it, we’ll riot in the streets!”

This was answered by an opposite extremism from “soixante-huitard” Quebec academics nostalgic for the uprisings of 1968 and the hippie-era rhetoric that accompanied them. “I am writing this letter,” said Université de Montréal philosophy professor Christian Nadeau to the demonstrators, “in order to salute you and to humbly ask that you help us follow through with your endeavor.”

While Nadeau and Wente are extreme in their views, they do represent the ideological gulf between Canada’s two solitudes. And this remains true even though a majority of Quebecers agreed that the Charest tuition increase was necessary. The important difference is that francophones admitted the necessity not with neoliberal glee, but with great misgivings. This is because, within the French-speaking world, the reference point for post-secondary costs is the social democratic goal of zero tuition. That is the norm in France, as well as in the Scandinavian countries.

This is also why many Quebec academics, including popular Université de Montréal philosopher Michel Seymour, saw the Charest proposal as a capitulation to the Anglo-American model. In principle, that model says that students should pay handsomely for a degree that will enrich them for the rest of their lives. But in Seymour’s view the market model drives tuitions so high that students instead are shackled with debts that will take many years to repay—years in which they become habituated to what the French call “le capitalisme sauvage” and lose sight of alternatives.

It might appear that the Parti Québécois victory in September put this combat to rest by driving a stake through the Charest proposal. Voilà le triomphe du populo-romantisme! But that is not quite the case.

First, reluctant voters gave the PQ only a minority government. Second, and more important, many influential Parti Québécois supporters are troubled by the province’s heavy and rising debt load—not least of them François Legault, the breakaway Péquiste who founded the Coalition Avenir Québec party. It won many seats that otherwise would have gone to the PQ. The CAQ supports higher tuitions.

Another restless Péquiste is Joseph Facal, a minister in Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government who resisted attempts by Ottawa to invade Quebec’s control of education. But later, serving as minister of state for the public service under Bernard Landry, Facal moved to the right. In his 2010 book Quelque chose comme un grand peuple, he writes that the Quebec model is aging poorly and becoming a “fearful retreat into positions that lead nowhere,” sometimes accompanied by a rhetorical “flight into virtual and incantatory universes.”

Although the education issue is only one thread in a book written well before the current student uprising, Facal makes acute observations about Quebec’s school system. “With universities, it is hard not to notice that many who go there do so less for the learning than for official accreditation as demanded by the workplace … or to waste time.”

Facal is also concerned that the rising generation knows little about Quebec’s centuries-old struggle for cultural survival. He cites startling statistics to show how much the province has changed since the independence referendum that nearly took Quebec out of the confederation in 1995. In the short 17 years since, a half million Quebecers who mostly voted for secession have died of old age. These were the ones who were connected to the province’s history. They have been replaced by immigrants with no connection to that history, and young Quebecers born since 1978 who have little knowledge of it.

In short, the current generation of students do not know the historical roots of the independence movement, and are not serious about their education. The universities and colleges harbour “thousands of young people who should not be there”  because they lack cultural and academic commitment. This contributes to Quebec’s dropout rate, which, says Facal, is the highest in Canada.

Is it the highest? Determining that is not simple. The situation is complicated by Quebec’s unique system of CEGEPs, or colleges. Unlike in other provinces, a Quebecer must have a CEGEP degree (equivalent to a college degree) in order to go to university. It happens that Quebec has the highest rate of college dropouts in Canada, but a lower rate of university dropouts.

When you average the college/CEGEP dropouts with the university dropouts, the result is that, yes, Quebec does have the highest post-secondary dropout rate in the country (and also, incidentally, the highest secondary dropout rate).

In 2008, the Montmarquette report on Quebec education advocated higher university tuitions on the user-fee principle. That is, people using an in-demand public service should pay more than people who do not use it. Higher tuitions would reduce wasteful use of the resource, such as students dropping out, in the same way higher electricity bills reduce frivolous power consumption.

That dropout rate also preoccupies Pierre Fortin, a Université du Québec à Montréal economist with an international reputation. Fortin is not an indépendantiste, but he is sympathetic to Quebec’s aspirations to be a francophone culture in North America.

Fortin points out that the Charest increase would have merely returned the ratio between tuition and total university costs to where it was in 1994. That was a desirable ratio: it would have the student paying just under 20 percent of total costs (it is about 12 percent now). This would give a student a stake in his or her educational outcome but not shackle that person with excessive debt.

Fortin also has hard-headed recommendations for reducing university costs. One is that professors’ salaries be reduced through a multi-year freeze to bring them in line with Quebec’s cost of living, which is much lower than that of English Canada or the United States.

He does not, however, agree that the social democratic model is responsible for the student malaise in Quebec. He points out that university dropout rates are climbing across North America, and the quality of university teaching has deteriorated as much in high-cost American schools (he is a Berkeley graduate) as it has in lower-cost Quebec schools. He also emphasizes, as does Michel Seymour, that grade inflation, increasing dropouts and the electronically damaged attention span of today’s students are a general problem across North America.

The jeremiads against Quebec’s “socialist” policies in the anglo media, he writes, miss a fundamental point. He uses health care as an example. “The key thing is to make a distinction between ends and means. The ends [for Quebec] are universal and free access to healthcare services. We should remain flexible on the means of achieving this. Many socialist countries in Europe involve the private sector in healthcare and still achieve universal low-cost access.” Polls show that 88 percent of Quebecers support this mixed economic model, whether applied to health care or college, but feel that their governments are failing to apply it properly.

Seymour goes farther than Fortin. Where there is an admixture of public and private funding, he believes the private sector model acts aggressively to undermine the public model “so that the university takes on qualities of private companies, with rising salaries for the president and departure bonuses for everybody.” He cites legal philosopher John Rawls’s analysis of how a market economy may undermine equality of opportunity for all.

It is not likely that students in their late teens or early twenties are going to be preoccupied with how their strike fits into economic theory or the long arc of Quebec history. But they are aware of their movement’s own history. It began with a general strike in 1968 for what was undeniably a social good: to end the anglophone/Catholic church domination that had left Quebec with a second-rate French-language school system. Subsequently there were eight more general strikes, many of which sought a tuition freeze.

The movement’s formative influences included the Charte de Grenoble, which launched the French student movement in 1946. Today there are three Quebec student unions: Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), the more recent Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE). CLASSE is the most radical of the three, and the only one lobbying for the PQ to commit to a goal of free tuition.

Camille Robert, a CLASSE organizer in her early twenties, recalled in a mid-August interview that education in Quebec has been considered a public good since the 1950s. She had figures at the ready to demonstrate how the Charest government has undermined this tradition: for example, spending $350 million on a single hockey arena compared to $500 million annually for the entire university system.

She was particularly indignant (along with media analysts, it should be said) at the Charest government’s refusal to negotiate with student leaders. She threatened that the fall semester would be struck if it were re-elected. Referring to the repressive terms of the Charest government’s Bill 78 (now known as Law 12), which declares that students who march without police permission will be arrested, Roberts said: “We will strike even if it splits the student movement.”

As we have seen, Charest was not re-elected. The incoming Parti Québécois minority government has bought peace by announcing that tuition will rise only according to the rate of inflation: about 2 percent annually—a far cry from the 15 percent per year for five years which the Charest government had threatened.

Madeleine Gauthier feels that the Charest government mistook the current generation of students for mere pranksters and frivolous neo-hippies who could be intimidated and outwaited. In her analysis, the students are realists who know that their generation is small in numbers (due to the low birth rate) and cannot hope to assert itself at the ballot box. Students also understand that much of the provincial debt will eventually fall on their slim shoulders.

And finally, the students know very well that many older voters now calling for a tuition hike marched for free university tuition when they were young. The sense of generational betrayal, says Gauthier, is especially severe since these young people have been accustomed since childhood to speaking to their parents and other adults as equals. “They would have accepted a compromise solution if this had been offered earlier,” says Gauthier, “but [the government] let things fester for three months.” In fact, Charest himself never met with the students.

The students do, however, have critics. Henry Milner, a political theorist at the Université de Montréal, feels that theatrical street politics is counterproductive. Where, he asks, are their political organizing skills? He speculates that the Facebook generation has become so habituated to an electronic conversation with like-minded people that it does not know how to confront and persuade, face to face, those who do not agree. Even the unions, a natural ally of the students, did not endorse their cause publicly.

Student leaders reply that they have indeed done one-on-one, door-knocking organizing in several of Quebec’s rural regions. But the printemps érable website is an entirely electronic and youth-oriented universe that does not acknowledge the least justice in the other side’s views. On a certain level it is charming (one researcher calls herself Geneviève L’obstineuse—Genevieve the Obstinate). It is surely familiar, in its élan and in its shortcomings, to a boomer generation recalling its own printemps érable of 40 years ago.

But critical observers, like Pierre Fortin, suggest that no industrial economy can afford to freeze university tuitions. That would make such a country uncompetitive over time. Fortin is also convinced that Quebec’s high dropout rate is symptomatic of a complacent generation that does not understand the economic challenges the province faces.

Quebec must also deal with larger difficulties arising from its history, difficulties that set it apart from other advanced industrial economies. In their 2007 study Language, Citizenship and Identity in Quebec, the linguists Leigh Oakes (a Briton) and Jane Warren (an Australian) note that one of these is its relationship with the more powerful English-speaking majority: “The English-Canadian press frequently aims to discredit Quebec nationalism by comparing it to tribalism, ethnic cleansing, racism, apartheid, xenophobia and the like.”

The denigration of a minority by a majority is never without an effect. In the case of Quebec, this is magnified by two further historical burdens: it does not have a legally enforceable national language and it is not politically independent.

These factors weaken Quebec’s ethnicity, defined as the ensemble of cultural, linguistic and historical factors in its identity. Ironically, note the authors, Canada has a federal multicultural policy that aims to preserve ethnicity. In practice, however, this is directed to immigrant communities. Where the French and English are concerned, the conversation is almost entirely about respecting the ethnicity of the recently arrived.

Quebecers themselves have bought into the underlying idea that ethnicity is not for modern people. The province’s official policy, which calls for a langue publique commune for all Quebecers, is based on what Oakes and Warren call the assumption “that French can somehow be ‘de-ethnicised’ to become the property of all ethnic groups.”

This project faces a grave difficulty, because Quebec has a collapsing birth rate and requires a large intake of allophone immigrants. These people find it confusing that their new home (Quebec) has French as its official language, while Canada (also their home, but much more powerful) claims both English and French as official languages.

The result is foreseeable. Many immigrants to Quebec tenaciously learn and use English as much as they can. Partly for this reason, and partly because federal Supreme Court rulings say that the children of immigrants can choose to attend college in English in Quebec, the use of French on the island of Montreal has recently dropped below 50 percent.

What does this mean for Quebec’s young people? Oakes and Warren make two observations. One is that recent generations of young Quebecers tend to reject the “folkloric” aspect of the province’s culture. They also note that young Quebecers aspire not only to speak English, but to have an identity in English, which opens them to the world. The authors’ belief is that these factors test the limits of social identity theory as it is normally understood.

Social identity theory developed in the 1970s, when sociologists asserted that part of each person’s individual identity is defined by the “group” he or she belongs to, whether that be religious, cultural or even simply citizenship in a particular nation. Some sociologists have recently suggested that minorities that refuse to speak the national language threaten the social identity of the majority.

Quebec is a rare case of a national language minority that is deeply rooted (it pre-existed Canada), affluent and thinks of itself as part of the First World. English Canada feels threatened by this, as social identity theory suggests, but has accepted that French will remain the majority language in Quebec. However, English Canada still leaps to the defence of immigrants to Quebec who assert their right to use English rather than French, refusing to acknowledge that this obviously threatens French.

Not surprisingly, there is a more careful analysis of this issue among francophone leaders. Jean-François Lisée, a respected writer elected to the legislature on September 4 for the PQ, argues in his book Nous that Quebec needs a cadre of English speakers in order to function independently in the world economy. He is willing to accept a minimum French-speaking population of 55 percent on the island of Montreal—an astonishing concession—but also argues that the separate system of English-speaking colleges, or CEGEPs, must be eliminated. Instead, a minority of courses will be taught in English in a universal system of French-language CEGEPs. Although he does not mention it, this will clearly—and, in my view, rightly—compel many immigrant students to use French rather than English.

This would be an evolutionary development in Quebec’s doctrine of “interculturalism,” an ideology the provincial government has developed as a substitute for Canada’s multiculturalism. The only difference between the two, as observers have noted, is that interculturalism takes place in French. Lisée’s proposal would ensure that continues to be the case, while also providing a significant number of educated English-capable francophones to interface with the world economy.

This sophisticated engagement with the permanent presence of English in Quebec may explain why threats to the French language do not seem to be an immediate issue for the printemps érable’s supporters. As many observers have noted, it is primarily a fight to maintain social democratic principles in Quebec (“it is principally a left-right conflict,” says Marcos Ancelovici, a McGill sociologist). But this commitment to Gallic-style social democratic ideals appears to be compensatory: having momentarily set aside the language issue, the students have fastened on tuitions as a means of shoring up a “French” economic identity against the American-style “neoliberal” doctrines of the Charest and, certainly, Harper governments.

This also has the political advantage of allowing them to make common cause with English-speaking students who, as we have seen, are more numerous now than before.

These various aspects of the maple spring help explain the keen interest of Parti Québécois intellectuals such as Joseph Facal and Jean-François Lisée in the kind of militancy adopted by young Quebecers now.

Understandably, there is less interest among opinion leaders outside Quebec. My inference from this is that a federal government that no longer needs Quebec seats to sustain a majority and an anglophone electorate that for historical reasons finds it difficult to absorb straightforward information about Quebec have removed themselves from this conversation. That in turn creates a strong possibility that Quebec’s government—whichever party dominates it—will see no alternative to demanding new powers in future. Indeed, the new PQ government did so within three weeks of being elected.

Few of the young people involved in the printemps érable movement are likely to be au fait with social identity theory. It may also be true they do not know much about “Leetle Bateese,” the rebellion of 1837 or la survivance. Some of them are delighted to make common cause with Occupy Wall Street and get invited to American campuses to tell their battle stories. There, calling upon their impressive—if accented—English, they will lend their voices to the protest against the inequality and environmental brinksmanship of the existing global order.

On a political level, however, they—like the rest of us—live at home. In a few years the printemps érable generation will begin to take its place in the province’s educated work force. At that time it is very likely to move toward the hard-headed version of social democracy articulated by economists like Pierre Fortin and indépendentistes like Joseph Facal. That this doctrine is intensely annoying to the English-speaking world will no doubt be a plus.

Ray Conlogue is a former arts writer for The Globe and Mail and author of The Longing for Homeland in Canada and Quebec (Mercury Press, 1996), an analysis of the cultural and historical dimensions of Quebec’s independence movement, as well as being a translator, teacher and author of a young adult novel.

Related Letters and Responses

Heather Menzies Gabriola, British Columbia