Understanding the Quebec crisis

Understanding the Quebec crisis

Bookies are now offering 5:1 odds that martial law will be declared in Quebec. Though that’s not likely to actually happen, such numbers do present a vivid illustration of just how difficult it is for outsiders to comprehend what actually is happening in that province these days.

15 weeks in, students are still striking over the provincial government’s plan to gradually creep up the cost of annual tuition by $1,625 over the course of seven years. Despite passing glimmers of hope, there still seems to be no obvious end in sight. If anything, tensions have only gotten worse. At a massive Montreal protest / crackdown Wednesday night, over 500 students were arrested as thousands of youth filled the streets in the city’s 31st consecutive night of noise and violence.

It’s all the more fatiguing because a couple weeks ago it did seem like things were starting to wind down. Scant hours after I published my previous cartoon on the unrest, Premier Jean Charest offered a rather gracious compromise to end the strike: the tuition raise would go ahead, but he would seek to offset the damage by assembling a council of student leaders to help examine university budgets, advise cuts, and then pass those savings along to students in the form of reductions to their school’s “ancillary fees.” Initially, it seemed this deal — which was supposedly negotiated in good faith with some of the self-ordained student leaders themselves —would be precisely the magical, mutually face-saving fix everyone had been hoping for, but the honeymoon proceeded to be short lived. When it actually came time to vote on the deal, the vast majority of Quebec student unions, councils, clubs, and “assemblies” ended up vetoing it by large margins, dealing a crushing blow to Charest’s peacemaker pretensions.

The Quebec minister of education proceeded to resign in proper British parliamentary shame shortly thereafter, making her the first political casualty of a crisis that may consume many more careers to come. A scorned Premier Charest then quickly put on his “bad cop” hat, and pushed an emergency powers act — known as Bill 78 — through the Quebec legislature, suspending all university classes at several of the most turmoil-plagued schools and introducing broad new definitions of what constitutes an “illegal” protest. No longer could students march wherever and whenever they pleased: the cops now needed to be informed at least eight hours in advance, and obstructive protests on university campuses were explicitly banned. Fines topped out at a maximum of $5000 for individuals and $125,000 for student groups.

It was these new powers that resulted in the mass arrests on Wednesday night, and the ensuing suspicion among gamblers that the province is drifting ever close to some form of outright police-statism. Certainly the protest leaders themselves have been keen to encourage such perceptions — Charest is, of course, openly considered a “dictator” — but it seems other venues of more establishment opinion are starting to fret as well. The leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, the provinces’ main opposition party, promptly described the passage of Bill 78 as “one of the darkest days in Quebec democracy,” while the Quebec Bar Association has called the new law brazenly unconstitutional. This mainstreaming of dissent has been particularly bad news for the Charest government, who now find they must devote as much time addressing the legitimate worries of general human rights watchers as the obviously overblown rhetoric of the strikers themselves.

As I noted in my last essay, the sheer foreignness of the Quebec student crisis, which is so clearly the result of a set of cultural-political understandings completely without equivalent in Anglo-Canada, makes it an episode almost impossible to stir sympathy for in the rest of the country. It has become a localized sideshow rather than a national concern, and despite the interested peering of foreign journalists, the Canadian press has mostly reported on it with vicarious disdain. The overwhelming tone has been one of incredulity.

It’s an especially fun-house mirror experience for someone like me, who was active in student politics back when I attended university here in British Columbia. In those days, the dominant issue in B.C. student government was how to distance our organizations from the remnants of dated, self-aggrandizing radicalism that was no longer seen as productive or palatable to the interests of the vast majority of students. During the mid-2000s, both of my province’s two biggest schools actually went so far as to sever all official ties with Canada’s two leading national “student movements” — the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Students Associations — on the basis that their techniques of lobbying and protest were mostly based on fantasyland logic and archaic tactics. The very idea that student groups can or should exist primarily to try and wrestle perks and goodies from various levels of government was steadily abandoned in favor of a much more practical vision of the student association as a provider of modest services to enhance the university experience. A former student president I once knew literally described one of his proudest achievements as getting more microwaves on campus.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine B.C. students “organizing” in any meaningful way for some sort of co-ordinated anti-government action. For starters, almost no one would participate — even student politicians themselves mostly regarded their powers and mandates as fairly illegitimate  — and the provincial government would never respond with anything beyond polite bemusement. Actual strikes barely get anywhere these days, so why would one where none of the strikers were even denying labour to society be any any different?

In Quebec, alas, everything is vastly different. The radical presumptions and rhetoric of the 1960s have never been fully rejected, in large part because heavy federal subsidizes have mostly spared the province from the full economic consequences of unrestrained leftism. Society remains organized according to social democratic principles that presume the fundamental legitimacy of tiny, unrepresentative groups like unions and cultural organizations, with their equally unrepresentative, extra-parliamentary tactics of protests, strikes, blockades, and violence regarded as respectable, authoritative acts that deserve to shape the democratic process.

Premier Charest may resign, he may repeal Bill 78, or he may call an emergency election and lose it to the further left separatist party, who don’t even have any pretensions of moderation. The polls suggest that’s quite likely, and therein lies the greatest irony of all.

Quebec has been pushed to the brink of an absurd social crisis, which should have provoked a critical reexamining of the underlying roots of the province’s cultural-political dysfunction. Instead, the most regressive forces have been barely discredited at all, while the leading figures of order, common-sense, and moderation lie weakened and bloodied.

It’s a weird place.


  1. ThePsudo

    At least you both like poutine. That's a valid basis for national unity, eh?

  2. Jake_Ackers

    Spoil the province spoil the youth. I have a question. What do the rest of the people in Quebec think? Even if the youth protest, surely the rest of Quebec outnumber them. Wouldn't the ballot box shut up the youth?

  3. JonasB

    Could someone explain why the Charest government doesn't just go ahead with the either the original fee increase or the compromise plan? I don't understand why he can't just pass the thing and get this whole embarrassing ordeal over with. It's not like the consent of the students is required for any of this.

  4. Nicolasrll

    I was kind of disappointed when the deal fell through a couple of weeks ago. It seemed like a good way out for everyone: an effective tuition freeze for the rest of the year, after which there would presumably have been elections that would have settled the whole issue. Everyone was saving face, which I thought was especially nice because both the student's federations and the government had more or less completely commited themselves to their positions.

    But here we are instead: the whole thing still underway, with a new super polarizing emergency law restricting the right to protest added on top. I really don't know where this is going to end. Still, if nothing else, it's not entirely disagreeable to see my home country suddenly become so interesting!

  5. Kwyjor

    This is not a cartoon. This is a block of text.

  6. ThePsudo

    Name a great comic strip that doesn't do big blocks of text from time to time. Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County, Penny Arcade, they all do it. Being able to choose from a broad gradient between pure visual and pure text is one of the inherent joys of the medium for comic artists.

  7. Kwyjor

    Also, I have no clue whatsoever what the Finnish model is or why it is relevant in this instance.

  8. Kadin

    Seems a bit arrogant and rude to have your representation of Canada expressing confusion. Quebeckers are Canadians, aren't they? Why not put yourself there instead.

  9. Max

    His analysis of the situation has the rest of Canada being wholly unsympathetic to the students' cause.

  10. ThePsudo

    Specific demographics are expressed by their own characters, whereas overall Canadian sentiment is represented by our Little Beaver Friend. Quebecker students are a demographic, so they get a demographic representation. That's consistent with past precedent.

  11. Dan

    I'm glad someone is keeping track of Filibuster Cannon.

  12. ThePsudo

    A Filibuster cannon would be pretty cool, but I think you meant canon.

  13. Gray

    I now have an image of an irritated LBF aiming a cannon at some cause that's irritating JJ.

  14. Gray

    Well, that's always a fun point to consider. At least a substantial minority of Quebeckers would seem to wish that they weren't…and I wonder how many folks in the rest of Canada hold the same view. Quebec is part of Canada legally, but culturally…there is a very deep divide there that includes a linguistic component not found in many countries. Views on the Quebec student situation are more symptomatic of this divide than anything.

  15. @MHR_Topher

    While I have little experience with the Quebec crisis, I feel anyone could apply this comic and idea to other areas, especially to segments of Occupy Wall Street as well as specific groups with youth movements across the United States. Even within my own college, both under-graduate and graduate groups, this type of thinking is pervasive.

    And even though this line of thinking is common, there aren't many cases that, like you said, "which is so clearly the result of a set of cultural-political understandings completely without equivalent in Anglo-Canada, makes it an episode almost impossible to stir sympathy for in the rest of the country."

    Though in the end, if this is the worst students can complain about, there are either things going on:
    – Things are just so AWESOME in Quebec that this is the only thing to complain about
    – These students need to realize there are much bigger issues to worry about in the world

  16. Nicolasrll

    On a side subject, J.J, I believe that's twice you've referred to the student leaders as "self-ordained", or something like that. My understanding is that all of them are elected by the student federations that they represent, so I was wondering why you described them that way.

  17. J.J. McCullough

    I actually used to run student elections at my university and I can say they're basically an enormous hustle. Only around 10-15% of the student body ever votes to elect the officers of the student society, which is a number so small it is indeed accurate to say the ruling student establishment is basically self-selected by and from a tiny subculture of ambitions insiders. And since many schools lack a proportional representation voting system, the legitimacy of these elections is even further compromised by the fact that you often get leading officers picked with mandates in the mid-30%s, if that.

    Nothing about the process can be fairly said to "reflect the will of the students" in any meaningful way. Which is why it;s so obnoxious when these leaders procede to exert their powers to the full extent. As I hopefully pointed out in my essay, the student government crowd in British Columbia, and I believe other Anglo provinces, has become increasingly aware and uneasy with this reality, and have restrained their ambitions somewhat as a result. Not so in Quebec, where the student politicians seem to lack any sense of self-awareness of the system that produced them.

  18. Guest

    So is that a criticism of the negotiating team for supporting the compromise, then, given that it was rejected by the wider consultation?

    I agree, it's a problem when student representatives elected on a platform of "better music at the student bar" and similar claim a mandate to "reflect the will of the students" on political matters. But I don't agree that no student representative should ever aspire to political representation. Lack of turnout at elections, if indeed this is a problem in Quebec, which it may not be, is not a mandate for agreeing to whatever the government offers, it's a mandate to seek guidance from the membership.

    Low turnout in student union elections is often either a sign that the union is actually just a social club with a student bar (sadly true of many) or that most students trust those who know who's who to actually vote.

    A good parallel for consideration is the French union model where about 9% of French workers are union members but when there is a strike, it is not just union members but the whole workforce that strikes. And if the strike is solid, then clearly it has a mandate.

    A lot of this comes down to the split in the union movement between unions aligned with social-democratic parties, who prefer executive committees (the model which prevails in much of the Anglo World) who make decisions on behalf of the membership, and syndicalist unions, who prefer general assemblies where all members can attend and vote for themselves (more common in mainland Europe, and I think the model used by some of the QC student unions).

    The former are now waking up to the fact that the service model is neither effective nor sustainable, and many years of such centrally-managed behaviour have left them unable to organise effective strikes.

  19. Jelmer Renema

    Have you considered that it's the Anglo-Canadian system that is unusual here? In most Western countries, unions are viable organisations, university education is (almost) free and no-one would question the right of student to organize their own representation.

  20. PTBO

    Good Point- considering the mass youth, student, and worker protests sweeping the world, it seems that English Canadians are incredibly docile and apathetic about their economic and social well-being. We have no backbone or the fighting spirit that French Canadians demonstrate on a nightly basis.

    In Ontario, we thought 6000 was a good turnout for a Toronto tuition reduction rally. And we were pleasantly surprised to see that the march (which involved a 2 hour sit-down badly disrupted rush hour Toronto traffic and public transit) somehow made Page 14 of the Globe and Mail. (Although it was tough to compete with the 50 pro-Tibet protesters that got 4 days of front page, colour, above the fold treatment that week). Obviously, this is pathetic compared to Quebec.

    The English student's movement had has some successes i.e. better transit, a national grants program, free adult basic education, tutition fee freezes/reductions in some provinces (Manitoba, NFLD, Ontario), and a tenacious/successful campaign againt ICRLs in Harris-era Ontario.

    But Quebec shows that we have to raise the bar and start standing up for ourselves. The future belongs to those willing to get their hands dirty and we are letting the world pass us by.

  21. ThePsudo

    No one is questioning the right of students to organize their own representation here, either. The question is on whether they have actually done so, not whether they have a right.

  22. Jelmer Renema

    Then why the derogatory quotation marks around the word 'organizing' in the original article?

  23. Kento

    How sympathetic are we supposed to feel with the guy in the cartoon? I really like him, and find to be far more relatable than the narrative in Anglophone North America.

  24. Gray

    Reading the survey (and admittedly struggling through the French, though the gist seems clear and Google Translate is invaluable), it seems that opinion on the students is running about 2:1 against…reading things in depth, it looks like the bill would have 65-70% support but for the big fines (the other elements have support ranging from the mid 60s to the low 70s, but the fines split folks 50-50).

    Also of interest: On question 6, the options given are:
    -Resume negotiations without suspending the special law (47%)
    -Resume negotiations while suspending the special law (32%)
    -Adopt a moratorium on tuition increases (14%)
    -Abandon the rise (7%)
    I wonder what a poll including an option of "abandon negotiations with the students and proceed with the rise" would have generated.

  25. Marc Paradis

    I can say as a québeçois, that he bargains with them for political reasons. It would look really bad if he did just push the hike thru. The serendipidous, circular logic now is that he seems to have done just that with «la loi 78».

  26. Marc Paradis

    I don't want to sound like an expert (i'm not), althought i would like to add my two cents.

    I have followed or been close to universities and cégeps for the last 20 years. What is not really explained is that protesting a hike fees has been almost a yearly event. Certainly a rite of passage in Québec universities. I can count at least a dozen years where strikes have happened or have been averted. Whenever the provincial gouvernment tries to add a hike, students bodies protest against it. When compared to across the River (Ottawa). I cannot remember when Ottawa U was on strike, maybe once. To compare: my tuition fees were 2000$, Ottawa U was 5000$.

    The flip side is that by protesting each and every hike, the québec universities are in need of funds. There should be a hike, it should just not be that substantial or that quick. Even a small hike should be a big victory for Charest. Althought now with «la loi 78», he has lost the image of a peaceful negotiator. He should have scaled back his hike and find a smaller victory.

  27. Jake_Ackers

    Depending how far the elections are I would just force the cuts/increases. If it's far away just do what has to be done if not wait until the next election and then do it. I'm sure most people in Quebec won't punish that much the elected officials if at the end of the day the budget is balanced. Youth don't tend to vote in high numbers anyway.

  28. Gray

    The election is going to be within a year or so…the Liberals' mandate is up in 2013.

  29. Thomas Carlyle

    A whiff of the grape should settle their hash.

  30. Gray

    I ran in elections at my school as well when I was an undergrad. Even though there was some effort made at the time to ease the issue of unrepresentative election results and "spoiler" candidates by using IRV, things didn't always work out that way…I remember tallying the number of "exhausted" votes in one election and noting that "exhausted vote" was probably the real winner of the election, but the software didn't allow for that to be noticed.

    Moreover, turnout and candidate interest among non-Freshmen tended to be pretty dismal as people got busy with other things (and it has fallen off dramatically in the last few years, I am told; apparently last year, they couldn't even fill about half of the offices with candidates and were electing people off of the "write-in" box for many posts). Still, at least then, we could usually manage 30%-ish turnout overall among undergrads (ranging from 50% among Freshmen to…very low among graduating seniors).

    With that said, I believe that there is a difference between someone with, say, the support of 20-25% of the eligible electorate making a claim to legitimacy on something that is almost indisputably within the competence of their office and someone with perhaps 1/3 that support claiming some form of legitimacy on something that is not only not part of the competence of their office but that was likely far beyond the minds of the electorate at the time of voting.

  31. Gray

    A thought has come to mind: Charest's decision not to just pack the hikes through seems reminiscent of Scott Walker's decision to let the circus surrounding the Wisconsin bargaining law spin out as long as it did when it turned out he had a mechanism to pass the law from the start. Is there really anything stopping Charest from simply passing the hike through the National Assembly and being done with it? And if so, even allowing for the protesters to have some amount of political legitimacy in Quebec, why hasn't he just decided to bite the bullet, pass the hike (or the compromise, agreement or not), and be done with it?

  32. Patrick

    Just throwing this statistic out there, but at my university of 20k+ students, our new student body president won with a whopping 411 votes. There were 6 people running which would make, at max, 2400 people voting, which is around 10%. I would consider the student government in no way representative of the students.

    Essentially, at the school I attend as well as the past schools I've attended, student government is considered more of a club than a governing body.

    I think instead of looking at how many votes, a more representative opinion of students' agreement or disagreement with the issue would be the % of total students that are at the strikes/rallies/sit-ins.

    Also, why are we calling this a strike? They're refusing to… they're not refusing to work, because they're not working. I know many people who wouldn't mind being "strike breakers" and get their education for $2500/year.

  33. ThePsudo

    I'd volunteer to be one of those scabs.

  34. f.v.

    Oka Crisis

    Oka should happen again and this time all over the continent. Deport Whitey.

  35. Marie-Claude Lavoie

    The political climate in Quebec is rather unsettled at the moment. Consider the recent "vague orange" during the federal elections (NDP sweep), the fact that the Parti Quebecois had several defectors last year that splintered into an alternate party, and the fact that the current Charest government is having to defend itself in front of the Charbonneau commission investigating Quebec construction industry (NOTE: A commission that is, in essence, reviewing allegations of widespread corruption and that Charest delayed as long as he possibly could until finally bowing to public pressure).

    This may have all started with a student strike trying to prevent fee increases but, with the advent of the ridiculous Loi 78, the people of Quebec have awoken to the need for reform or, at the very least, the need to have a deeper more meaningful conversation about the future of the province. It's not just students at this point, it's people from all demographics. The people of Quebec want change — they just need to decide the best way to bring this to fruition.

    Video about the Casseroles that shows the face of the protestors (young and old, individuals and families, etc.): http://vimeo.com/42848523

    An Open Letter to the Mainstream English Media: http://www.quebecprotest.com/post/23754797322/an-

  36. ThePsudo

    The joy and togetherness spoken of in that Open Letter do not seem related to the current political situation, but only to the entertainment value of being part of a popular event. If so, how many of the "protesters" are, in fact, interested in the politics rather than the spectacle? It seems as though any enduring message would be lost behind the pageantry. That can't be so, can it?

  37. Sebastien Cormier

    What I never understood was why people were calling it "violent". Especially considering it wasn't and that nearly the entirety of the counter-arguments rested on that assumption.

  38. Alayna

    There are certainly a couple more details to take into consideration, but thanks for sharing this info.