GEORGE BROWN – Off the Record
Student unrest in Quebec and the “strike” action taken by thousands has been a simmering issue for at least a decade — a couple of generations in scholastic terms.
In an attempt to get its fiscal house in order and to move more of the tax burden to users, Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government is faced with some tough choices, not the least of which is phasing in a university tuition increase. The government wants to raise the annual base fee by $1,625, to be imposed over five or seven years, depending on the effectiveness of the protests. Quebec students now pay about $2,000 annually in university tuition while the Canadian average is just over $4,000. With the increase, their tuition would still be the lowest in North America.
Students are protesting an increase of $6.25 a week, less than the cost of two beers in a campus brasserie or less than an hour’s work at minimum wage.
Their shortsighted mathematics misses the point that while there is a great cost for a university education (borne in large part by taxpayers and private donations), there is great financial benefit to be found after graduation in the workplace.
More than 100,000 students have gone on strike, stopped attending classes. The government responded by suspending the school year.
The protest has moved beyond whether Quebec students have a right to heavily subsidized university tuition. This story moved on after the first brick was thrown. The Charest government, devoid of any negotiating skills, decided the best way to stop the students’ protest over tuition fees was to make their protest illegal. That caused the tuition protest to morph into a mobile Occupy movement.
Canadians have the right to protest government measures they feel are unjust and they have the right to lawful assembly and become a political force to effect the changes they seek. The Charest government is being pressured to call an election to regain what civil and moral authority has been lost.
Both the students and the Charest government have lost credibility.
The students are protesting a future in Quebec that they don’t want to experience, one that has faced a financial crisis and made the tough decisions necessary to stay viable. Quebec is the highest-tax province in Canada and survives and enjoys its status thanks to transfer payments from the rest of Canada. Quebec’s tax regime has evolved so that about half of Quebecers pay income tax. Public daycare in Quebec costs $45 a day but parents pay only $7 a day; public transit fares return only 45 cents on the dollar.
Quebec has had its 1960s Quiet Revolution that promised a brighter future. It now needs a fiscal revolution to ensure there is a future.