Montreal Under Protest – The “Students” vs. The “Grownups”

Students have been protesting the scheduled tuition hike since it was announced in March of 2011.  They have organized marches involving hundreds of thousands of people.  So why has Montreal become so hostile to their message?  Are they fighting for something worthwhile, or simply whining about the increase because they’re used to being so spoiled?

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In the beginning I was very skeptical.   I attended university in the U.S., saddled with student loans up to my and my parents’ eyeballs, and the idea of Quebec students protesting a relatively small tuition increase to the lowest tuition in North America seemed rather absurd.  After all, I paid far more in one year than any of them will pay for their entire education.  Who were they kidding?

And I had statistics on my side – that well-timed press release that Quebec students were only actually paying 12% of the cost of their education.  Only 12%? Seriously? Many of us – parents, job-holders…the ‘grown-ups’ – had a hard time seeing these student protesters as much more than spoiled, self-entitled kids who just didn’t want to go to class. After all, shouldn’t students have to foot some part of the bill? If it’s free – if they have no stake in it – how can we expect they will take it seriously?  We worked for our educations, so who do they think they are complaining about tuition while they march down St. Catherine Street in their $800 Canada Goose jackets? Get a job. Problem solved. Much to the glee of Mr. Charest, the arguments and condemnation continued to pile up.  People I know who hardly ever get riled up over political issues started hurling insults across social media. Stupid spoiled kids.

Then it got worse. While our provincial government must have hoped that the lack of public support would kill the protests quickly, that’s not what happened.  The students blocked a major bridge during rush hour. The ‘grown-ups’ were not impressed. We were late for work and we cared even less about their stupid tuition problem. We wondered what the hell they were thinking. Sure, they had our attention, but only long enough to piss us off.  What purpose could their poorly-timed temper tantrum possibly serve?

As time went on, each new protest was reported by the media not in terms of growing solidarity, but in property damage – furthering damaging their credibility. From what we continue to see on the news, each new protest appears to bring some variety of mayhem along with it. Close-up shots of rocks through windows. Broken glass. Damage. Violence. Stupid, self-entitled kids.  End of story.

But that ISN’T the end of the story. In fact, it’s not the story at all.

Let’s go back, because this didn’t happen overnight.  In March of 2011, a small group of Quebec students took to the streets to protest after the government announced that it would raise tuition by 75% in 2012.  Just 8 months later, on November 10th, 2011, 20,000 students marched in Montreal to protest the upcoming tuition hike. 20,000.  If you’ve ever tried to organize anything you know that’s impressive.  It’s one thing to gain the support of that many people – but to organize and mobilize them into a 20,000 person march is remarkable.  With numbers that big, one has to wonder if it’s even possible to rally that many people over nothing greater than a sense of self-entitlement.  That doesn’t make much sense. The trouble is, aside from being “the students,” we don’t really know much about what they are asking for.

Recently, Julius H. Grey wrote an article for The Gazette explaining his view on why the students have a good case. Instead of talking about the protesters and their actions, he speaks to what they are actually protesting about – access to education.  I encourage you to read his article, but in it he concludes:

“We should reject out of hand the right-wing populism that masquerades as common sense and promotes “user fees” of all sorts to cut taxes. The end result will be a constant increase in inequality. Instead, Quebec should reiterate our belief in an open, free university, not encumbered by the goals of the business lobby or the push toward productivity. Such a system should be accessible to all who desire to learn.”

He makes a decent case for the pursuit of free education. But is that realistic?  We do, after all, have the lowest tuition fees around.  Don’t they eventually have to increase for us to remain competitive? Aren’t the students – even if they are well-intentioned – being a little unrealistic?  Well, according to Alexander Shields at Le Devoir, the answer is no. In his article, The Cost of Free, Shields estimates that it would actually cost the government less than 1% of its expenditure budget to offer free education.  Less than 1%. Maybe we should be talking about this.

So let’s recap. If this movement wasn’t simply a collective temper tantrum, but a carefully planned initiative that has grown over the last year, the simplistic media caricature of the spoiled student doesn’t fit.  And, more importantly, if what they are protesting actually merits our attention, then how did our reactions veer so far, so quickly and so drastically against them? The short answer – it’s everyone’s fault.  Collectively – as grown-ups, students, friends and neighbors – we screwed this one up.

First, the students have made some pretty critical mistakes. While the strength of the student unions and their ability to mobilize students is very impressive (the envy of many student unions elsewhere in Canada), they lost the public’s support mainly because they never bothered to ask for it. Judging solely by the actions they took, there appears to have been no attempt to reach out to anyone outside the student community.

Finding ways to disrupt daily life is certainly a tactic, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY tactic. You don’t win arguments (or supporters) by standing in someone’s way and yelling at them. You also don’t win supporters throwing rocks through windows.

Now, to be fair, it’s obvious that it’s a very small percentage of protesters actually causing any damage. However,  the leaders, spokespeople and organizers should have been MUCH quicker in denouncing the violence. When you allow it, or condone it through silence, you allow both the government and the media to paint you as the enemy they wish you were – no matter who you actually are or what your message is.  You lend credibility to their assertions that you are nothing more than reckless children.

While there are other critiques to be made, the students’ greatest and most surprising mistake is that they have largely allowed the media to define them.  As a generation raised to become experts of social media, I can’t imagine how they let that happen.  They could easily have made and circulated YouTube videos explaining their goals, telling their stories and encouraging others to join them; or encouraged their enormous network to spread information created by the unions themselves.  Maybe even get their striking students, perhaps an economics major or two, to crunch the numbers that might make their case. Anything to serve as an alternative to the evening news – which cares little for facts and balance when there’s a shiny broken window to gawk at.

I did say the blame was shared, and I meant it.  As Montrealers, we are used to being divided – and for the most part, we are complicit to this division. English and French. Quebecois and Immigrants. Students and Grownups.  It’s all essentially the same thing.  And since the protests began we have treated ‘the students’ as if they were some foreign invading army. Them. But it’s not ‘them’, it’s ‘us’. Our neighbors, our kids, our friends’ kids. We don’t have to agree, but let’s at least admit that basing our opinions on a few traffic jams and the 6 o’clock news is not the same as listening to what they have to say.  And not one of the people whom I questioned after I saw their hate-filled status messages took the time to attend a protest or speak to a single student to find out what was actually going on. Shame on us for that.  As grownups, we’re being awfully childish.  Why do we keep turning on the TV to find out what’s happening outside our windows?

We’re better than this.  And we really should be able to come together on something other than hating Toronto.  Again, I’m not saying we have to agree, but before we vent our hate on Facebook, we should at least know what we’re railing against – and what it means for the future of our province.

So now what?  It’s apparent that the protesters aren’t going anywhere.  Let’s focus on the issue at hand instead of how it has been delivered.  Consider for a moment: Is raising tuition really necessary?  Is not raising it truly unrealistic? Are increased grants and bursaries a more equitable solution? Should all people have equal access to post secondary education regardless of financial means? Is it in the government’s (society’s) best interest to facilitate an educated population?

It bears repeating that nothing is gained on either side by standing in the way and yelling. Enough yelling. Enough division. Enough hate. Let’s have the conversation. 

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About American Raksha

Writer, digital media strategist, Chaos Ninja and advocate of strategic nonviolent action. www.heathermccuen.com
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