Quebec students are exercising their democratic right to protest

The Quebec protests continue. On May 22nd, students observed the 100th day of their "unlimited general strike" against proposed tuition fee hikes of $1625, now to be phased in over seven years. They say these mean "a heavier student debt burden, hundreds of more hours a year spent working instead of studying, less access for working class and lower class students…the financialization of student life, and the privatization of the university."

The students view education as something for which they should not have to pay and reject a society that cannot guarantee all citizens their rights, including education.  The red felt squares they proudly wear mean "squarely in the red" and refer to spiraling student and consumer debt.  They align themselves with those who are opposed to both capitalism and the One Per Cent. Inequality is a growing concern right across Canada.

La Coalition large de l'ASSÉ (CLASSE) sees tuition elimination as both economically viable and socially just.  Tuition fees, they argue, ignore financial capacities and increase social inequalities. The "commodification" of education views students as consumers rather than as citizens of tomorrow.

Their viewpoint is supported by a research paper from the Institut de Recherche et d'Information Socio-économiques (IRIS), which in 2007 concluded that abolishing tuition in Québec to offer free education at the post-secondary level would cost approximately $500 million, less than one per cent of the provincial budget.

[ Counterpoint: Allowing protests threatens Quebec - David T. Jones ]

The protesters think the intent of the Charest government is to change the social contract. They dislike its austerity policies and plans to reorganize provincial life with fiscal discipline.  These policies, they assert, target the traditional Quebec model of social cohesion that has viewed health and education as rights of all citizens.

The students' demand for a 'Quebec Spring' also comes in the wake of unprecedented allegations of corruption and the government's plan to exploit shale gas further and impose the first-ever "health tax." Students are united in supporting a cause for which they feel breaking the law is justified.

Why such militancy?  The answer lies partly in the reality that more than 180 unions are using principles of direct democracy in weekly general assemblies. Students have a direct role in shaping the culture of university life through the policies and activities of their unions.  An emphasis on direct democracy infuses the current movement, with unions ranging from the combative wing of the movement, such as ASSÉ (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante) which demands free education to more corporatist and mainstream student unions that integrate with political parties.

Student strikes proved effective in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996, and 2005; the one of 2012 is thus not going to be easily abandoned.

The protests now represent more than the interests of students. The government is seen by many as attacking lower income families and their sense of community inclusion. The strike resonates in universities, homes, workplaces and wherever there is opposition to austerity measures, such as increases in hydro rates and layoffs.

On May 18th, the provincial government passed an emergency law, Bill 78. In Montreal, a new municipal anti-mask law accompanies it.  What would be viewed as acceptable in most democracies is being interpreted and represented by protesters as the criminalization of citizens' right to assemble and protest.

Québec is one of North America's most indebted — a $180 billion provincial debt — and heavily-taxed jurisdictions. The students have opened a debate on political and economic priorities.  What has ensued is a clash of rights in a pluralist democracy.

Concurrently, however, the democratically elected government, judging that many Quebecers are fed up with the disruption of economic life, including the festival season, has the right to reduce the size of government and to enact laws it sees as in the overall public interest.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.