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Why the silence on Ottawa’s role in the Quebec student strike?

Social Movements

The following article draws attention to an important issue that has been largely overlooked in the Quebec student strike.

The author, Pierre Graveline, is a well-known journalist, editor and publisher, and is currently the executive director of the Fondation Lionel-Groulx. A former official with the Quebec teachers union, he is the author of a book on the history of education and teacher unionism in Quebec.

I have translated this article from the Quebec on-line newspaper L’aut’journal.

  • Richard Fidler

The strange disappearance of the Canadian state from the debate on the student strike

by Pierre Graveline

For months now this crisis has preoccupied everyone in Quebec, filled the media coverage and dominated the debates in the National Assembly, while the international media ponder “the Quebec spring” and demonstrations of support are held from Paris to New York, from the Cannes film festival to the streets of Hollywood.

Not a single statement by the Canadian prime minister or any of his ministers! Not a single allusion to the conflict by Bob Rae and the federal Liberals! No comment by Thomas Mulcair and the NDP MPs — claiming to represent the Quebec left but too busy playing ostrich, burying their heads in the Alberta tar sands! And not a single speech by the Bloc québécois on this topic!

Nor has there been a single reference to the federal government by Jean Charest or any of his ministers during this crisis, and not a single word that might suggest that the Canadian government has some responsibility in this crisis from Pauline Marois, François Legault, Amir Khadir or Jean-Martin Aussant!

In the demonstrations, not a sign or a slogan addressed to the Canadian state or the federal government! Not a single Canadian flag, but a myriad of flags of Quebec or even of the Patriotes!

Among the various protagonists — the university rectors, CEGEP principals, Chambers of Commerce, student associations, the trade union movement, commentators and analysts alike, with very rare exceptions — the same deafening silence, the same collective amnesia!

The Canadian state has disappeared from the radar screens! Sent to another, distant galaxy! Vanished into thin air!

Up to a certain point, we can rejoice at this situation.

What an eloquent testimony to the profound sense of identification of our fellow citizens with the Quebec nation! Marginal at the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, a minority sentiment at the time of the 1980 referendum, and barely a majority in 1995, this feeling of identification has now attained the level of 70% among Francophones, 77% among those aged 18-24 and, clearly, is close to 100% among the demonstrators!

This growing affinity with the Québécois national identity naturally leads us to consider the Quebec state as our only national state, the one to which everyone turns when the time comes to make the decisive choices for our future.

When we debate the financial crisis of our universities, whether we are analyzing the causes or imagining solutions, it no longer occurs to anyone, it seems, to turn, if only for a moment, to the Canadian state.

A heartening illustration of the strengthening of our national identity, to be sure, but also testimony, I fear, to the political dead-end into which Quebec has retreated, of our collective inability to think of ourselves as free citizens of a nation with full control over all its powers and all its resources. And, I note with sorrow, a tragic testimony to the provincialist blinkers of our parties and our so-called “sovereigntist” leaders.

For the Canadian state, like it or not, still exists, in reality stronger than ever. In education, as in all areas, its decisions weigh heavily. They limit, restrain, determine our freedom to make choices.

What is the source of the under-funding of our university system? Everyone makes as if they forget it, but this under-funding originates in the Canadian government’s unilateral decision, made in 1994-95, to reduce by 50% the federal transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education.

For years, the university rectors attributed the under-funding of their institutions to this federal decision and tried to reverse it. Just a few years ago, we saw the formation of a common front of the universities, student associations and the government of Quebec around this issue.

But, observing the lack of fighting spirit of the Charest government, and concluding that the coming to power of the Conservatives deprived them of any hope in this regard, the rectors of the Quebec universities ultimately decided to adopt the same strategy as the Canadian universities: to pass on the largest possible share of the bill to the students and, to justify this action, to blame them for the under-funding.

And everyone, from the premier to the editorial writers, chimed in with this new refrain.

And so it was that we forgot the responsibility of the Canadian government, although its cutbacks in post-secondary education amount to a loss of income of $800 million per year for Quebec, according to the conservative estimates of the Quebec Finance ministry.

With which we could not only fulfil the needs of the universities, but make a significant step toward free education by reducing by $200 million the tuition fees and the other costs they are asking the students to bear.

Throughout the four months of the current crisis, not a single so-called sovereigntist leader has come forward to remind the Québécois of this “detail.”

In the Canadian government’s strategy rooms they must literally be doubled over laughing.

And here we Québécois are, tearing ourselves apart for four months over the $250 million tuition fee increase that our government wants to impose on the students, and looking for “provincial” solutions to the conflict. Could the increase be spread over seven years, ten years, why not 15 years? Or could we cut into this or that tax credit, even — God forbid! — increase taxes on the middle class, or what have you?

Locked into our provincialism, not only do we forget the responsibility of the Canadian government in the origin of the crisis, but in our desperate search for solutions to the crisis we don’t even consider the dues and taxes we pay to that government!

What does the $250 million increase we demand from our students represent in financing our universities?

Well, it amounts to barely one-half of one percent of the $50 billion we pay each year, Quebec citizens and businesses, to the Canadian government and over which, as an impotent minority, we have no say.

Fifty billion dollars, of which $4.5 billion constitutes Quebec’s contribution to the $21 billion that the Canadian government is spending, this year alone, on its military budget, a budget that is proportionally higher today than it was during the Cold War, a budget that ranks 12th in the world, a budget that is ten times the budget allocated to the environment, a budget that provides for opening seven Canadian military bases abroad, a budget that provides for the purchase of 65 F-35 planes at a cost of $462 million each, an expansionist military budget that two-thirds of the Québécois, according to all the opinion polls, disapprove.

Let’s think about this for a moment. The cost of purchasing just two F-35s amounts to what is needed to institute free tuition throughout the Quebec university system.

There is no need, therefore, to increase taxes on the middle class to establish, if not free tuition, at least a moratorium on the increase in fees. The problem is absolutely not a problem of collective financial resources, but a problem of political choices in the use of the taxes levied in Quebec.

Yet, with very few exceptions, such as an article signed by Gilbert Paquette and some other members of the IPSO in Le Devoir, and a demonstration held by the Cap sur l’indépendance network — two actions that unfortunately had little follow-up — not a single leader of the so-called sovereigntist parties has been found to raise this essential dimension of the social crisis we are experiencing.

Provincialist blinkers, I said, but also short-sighted electoralism. Elections are coming: the important thing, right, is to criticize Jean Charest in order to win some votes.

And that is how we are missing a wonderful opportunity to make the link between the social crisis we are going through and the national question, to expand the horizons of our democratic debates, to raise the national consciousness of our people and to advance on the road to our political independence.

So goes life in our “belle province,” from the Latin provincia which signifies, I must regretfully recall, “land of the conquered.”


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