On Smoke Bombs & Tuition Hikes Part II: Protesters

So it appears that June has been quite a busy month for me- between the research project at McGill, a trip back to New York, and the Jazz Fest here in Montréal. In that time the protests have subsided to a mere trace of what they had been in the previous months, however the leaders of the respective student societies have promised to restore the previous momentum by the time they are supposed to return to class. Nevertheless, I will touch on some (though by no means all) of the fallacies I see with the current protest movement. For the reasons why I disagree with the spirit of the protests, you can read my previous article.

The entire movement is predicated on flimsy support

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of knowing the General Assembly (GA), I will explain briefly. In theory, the GA is the pinnacle of direct democracy. All members of a given society, in this case the respective student societies and unions, are invited to a brick and mortar venue where by way of Robert’s Rules of Order, they debate and vote upon a predetermined set of resolutions. In reality it is impossible to schedule it at a time where everyone can attend, in a venue where everyone can fit, with a format where everyone can express his opinion and be informed of all those around him. While the details may vary for each society, the organizers typically like to keep it this way so that a fringe group of exceptionally political students can pass resolutions on issues they know a majority of students would actually disagree with. Typically the quorum for the GA is a pittance of a statistically significant sample size. For example, McGill’s undergraduate student society (SSMU) has a quorum of 0.4% of the student body for regular GAs and 2% for GAs that would declare the student body on ‘strike.’ To be clear, this means that a mere 1% of students could decide that the other 99% should boycott class, thereby feeling entitled to enforce compliance by way of picket lines. SSMU either had either the better sense or the lack of preparation to call a Strike GA in time, so the students in the Faculty of Arts decided to hold their own, which narrowly defeated a strike. Failing that, some students in individual departments began holding their own GAs, where they voted for or against either symbolic day-long strikes or the unlimited student strike. At any rate, McGill tends not to get caught up in the political whims du jour, and remained largely unaffected, however all of the French universities and colleges along with some English ones declared themselves on strike.

Of course the very notion of a student strike is a bit of a contradiction, considering that students are receiving a service rather than providing one, and one that is being paid for almost entirely by the ones they are striking against at that. Nevertheless, many students who are purportedly in favor of accessible education sought to block students and professors from their classrooms in order to avoid the consequences of their own truancy. However, by the end of the scheduled exam season, some 70% of students finished their semesters on time, leaving at most 30% to continue protesting. I say ‘at most’ because I am sure that some of that remaining 30% were willing to continue their education but were prevented from doing so by their peers. This is all to say that to even call this the ‘student movement’ is somewhat disingenuous considering that it is not supported by a clear majority of students, however for lack of a better phrase, it will have to suffice.

Civil disobedience does not a just cause make

Many supporters of the movement are quick to liken themselves to Americans fighting for racial and gender equality in the 1960s or Gandhi’s resistance to British imperialism. They have even gone so far as to call this Le Printemps d’Érables, or “Maple Spring,” audibly indistinguishable in French from Printemps d’Arabe, or “Arab Spring,” as if uprisings against oppressive dictatorships are even remotely equatable to a minor fee increase in a liberal democracy. Clearly there have been times throughout history where civil disobedience, and even violent disobedience has been the only recourse for just change to be brought about. Yet protesters tend to imply that the very act of civil disobedience inherently legitimizes the movement. They expect that because they are protesting, all others are obligated to listen to them and agree with their points, lest they be accused of merely conforming to the status quo.

Of course any group of people has the right to demonstrate against an issue they feel is important. To me the idea behind civil disobedience is simple: one stages an event that will provide media outlets a vehicle to report on one’s cause. When 250,000 people march in support of a cause, it provides the newspapers, television, and radio with a narrative that will invariably include the group’s message. It is far more sensational than simply writing a letter or signing a petition. Once society’s attention has been caught, it is up to the leaders of the movement to articulate their case and win the hearts and minds of a plurality of voters so that the elected officials will either listen to the public or be voted out of office in the following election.

However, the rest of society has a right to listen to or ignore the protest, and if listened to, agree or disagree with its message. Ignoring or disagreeing with the message does not then invite the protesters to find increasingly disruptive and often illegal avenues of dissent. The act of protesting does not inherently place one’s movement on the right side of history, nor is the public under any obligation to listen and agree, as many in this student movement seem to believe. And it is this belief that escalates the protests from peaceful marches in the streets to blockading classrooms, rioting, vandalizing property, and shutting down the metro system by throwing bricks and smoke bombs in the tunnels. This is ultimately the failure in the logic behind the student protests. They believe that by resorting to increasingly immature and destructive actions they will somehow sway the majority of Québecers where reasonable discourse has failed. Yet by blocking roads and shutting down the subway they will only continue to lose support to those who may have even been sympathetic to their cause.

Violence puts the government between a rock and hard place

Burning cop cars and shutting down the metro do not just erode support from the people; it puts the government in an impossible situation. Suppose that someone from the student movement was able to articulate a legitimate defense of their position to the government and the latter was inclined to accept. Had the movement remained a series of peaceful demonstrations with limited societal disruption then both sides could shake hands and call it a day. Yet as it stands, any concession from the government will appear to be a concession to violence. It gives the impression that if any group should demand something then the government will relent only after enough property destruction and societal disruption is caused. It is the same reason why a parent can not relent to a child throwing a tantrum, or else the child will only learn to throw another tantrum the next time he desires something.

Some thoughts on a compromise

I was surprised to learn that I had previously over-estimated the cost of tuition in Québec. Although its face value currently stands at $2,519 per year, the provincial government gives students enormous sums of interest-free loans and bursaries, to the tune of $12,000 a year, just for being a student! I am having trouble now understanding how getting paid by the government to be a student is not accessible enough for higher education.

Of course though, everybody in Québec wants to see these protests come to an end. The protesters want to get back to class, the police want to return to reasonable working hours with time off, the city wants to stop paying exorbitant costs to keep the peace, and the provincial government wants to focus on more important issues. So how does everyone proceed from here while still saving face?

What is needed though is a solution that will not result in another stand-off every few years when inflation outpaces the cost of tuition. The go-to card of the student protesters seems to be that the increase is 75% of the current cost, so even though the total sum is still quite affordable (especially after the government gives you your loans and bursaries), it is relatively, a large increase. The obvious solution is that the tuition rates must be indexed to inflation in order to avoid these large relative increases and the ensuing conflagrations. For example, I believe that Ontario schools increase their tuition by 6% every year so that they remain affordable, but the schools are still able to pay the increased costs of wages, materials, and maintenance. Even if the government were to drop the bulk increase all-together, I would be happy with any solution that allowed tuition to perpetually increase modestly so that disgruntled students would not have the rallying-cry of a large relative increase.

Of course we are all entitled to agree or disagree with the spirit of the protests or even the tactics that may or may not be justified. I don’t think my opinions against rioting, property destruction, and the like are too controversial, however if you disagree just let me know in the comments and I will do my best to defend my positions.

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One comment

  1. mattd4488

    Very comprehensive and articulate, Herr William! You’re making me rethink my posting strategy. Perhaps quality is better than quantity after all.

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