Democracy in Motion: The Student Protests in Quebec

For the past eleven weeks, thousands of university students have been protesting in the streets of Montreal demanding that the Quebec provincial government not only rescind its plans to raise tuition rates but that it provide free post-secondary education. The mayor of Montreal, Gerard Tremblay, has responded to the mostly peaceful protests by declaring that it is unacceptable “that the reputation of Montreal be stained on the international scene.” By also referring to the vandalism of businesses in downtown Montreal, the mayor made evident that he was more concerned with the reputation of Montreal in the eyes of the international business community than the potential perception of the city as an example of democracy in motion.

The protests by Quebec students highlight the lack of inclusiveness in the formal democratic structures of a neoliberal state such as that which currently exists in Canada, thereby necessitating the need to take democratic action in the streets. University students throughout Latin America long ago realized that they needed to organize in order to respond to the undemocratic manner in which tuition rate increases and efforts to privatize higher education were being imposed on them. It is common practice in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Chile for students to march in the streets, battle police, occupy campuses and sacrifice—or postpone—their own schooling for the greater cause of ensuring that affordable education is available to everyone.

In the eyes of many in Canada and around the globe who are opposed to the neoliberal project that is reaping social and economic havoc on people everywhere, the Quebec students are the latest re-incarnation of the Chilean student protests that captured the world’s attention last year. The most surprising aspect of the Quebec protests is not that they are taking place, but rather that they took so long to emerge and that students from across Canada did not long ago respond in the same manner to the authoritarian dictates of neoliberalism.

The implementation of neoliberalism in Canada over the past couple of decades has slashed funding to universities, thereby forcing institutions of higher education to implement tuition hikes and conform their programs to the needs of corporations in return for private funding. In essence, the neoliberal restructuring has constituted a de-facto privatization of post-secondary education as tuition now accounts for a greater share of a university’s budget than does government funding.

Both federal and provincial governments in Canada—regardless which of the major parties is in power—have advocated the need for fiscal austerity in order to reduce deficits. While clearly there is nothing wrong with operating a government in a fiscally responsible manner, the types of austerity measures imposed are not inevitable but rather ideologically-motivated decisions. In Canada over the past 25 years, the right-wing neoliberal ideology has determined the nature of fiscal austerity. This ideology requires that the size of government be reduced in the social sphere while maintaining, or even increasing, its interventions and spending in the military and economic spheres to the benefit of corporations.

So while funding transfers from Ottawa to the provinces for social spending has been slashed, both federal and provincial governments have happily kept the subsidy spigots open for corporations while simultaneously reducing government revenues through tax cuts and spending lavishly on the military—both for the wars in Afghanistan and Libya as well as for purchases of stealth fighter jets and the building of warships. Even when the federal government was routinely achieving surpluses, neoliberals justified the continued cuts in social spending by contradictorily arguing that existing social programs placed too heavy a fiscal burden on federal and provincial governments.

Ultimately, the neoliberal project has involved the promotion of a shift in values by placing an increased emphasis on individual responsibility in order to allow government to abdicate its traditional social obligations. Therefore, rather than increase funding for healthcare, education and other social programs, the government has instead distributed money to individual Canadians through sales and income tax cuts.

In his first two years in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper implemented two consecutive one percent reductions in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as a way of redistributing some of the federal surplus to individuals rather than using the money to boost social spending, particularly in the areas of healthcare and education. In other words, it is increasingly the responsibility of individual Canadians to use the extra dollars in their pockets from tax cuts to fund their own education and healthcare.

This latest abdication by government of its social responsibilities ensured a continuation of the trend under neoliberalism of escalating costs to attend university. Under neoliberalism, undergraduate tuition rates have risen from a national average of $1,185 in 1988 to $5,366 today. The current national average would be closer to Ontario’s $6,640 average tuition rate if it were not for Quebec’s significantly lower rate of $2,519.

Critics of the protests often point out that Quebec students pay the lowest tuition rates in the country, thereby implying that the students should meekly accept the neoliberal austerity measures. However, lost amidst the dominant neoliberal discourse and media focus on the small minority of protesters engaged in property destruction is the fact that it would be surprisingly easy to meet the students’ demands for free post-secondary education—not only for Quebecers, but for all Canadians.

According to Prime Minister Harper, the first one percent cut in the GST—half of his total reduction—reduced government revenues by $6 billion annually. At that time, political scientist David Johnson pointed out that the $6 billion in annual revenue that the government relinquished would cover the tuition costs of every university student in the country. There is no starker example of the fact that the reductions in government social spending in the neoliberal era are not motivated by fiscal responsibility so much as ideological commitment.

In contrast to Canada’s neoliberal approach, governments in Scandinavian nations have instead decided to maintain the philosophy of affordable education as a human right. In fact, in Sweden, not only is university education still free, but full-time students also receive a monthly stipend from the government to help cover their living costs. Furthermore, the maintaining of such high levels of social spending has not diminished the quality of life enjoyed by the average Swede. According to the 2011 UN Human Development Index, which analyzes education, healthcare and purchasing power to determine quality of life, Sweden is ranked in the top ten nations in the world.

The comparison with Sweden makes evident that the Canadian government’s cutbacks in post-secondary education spending are ideologically-driven policy decisions rather than “necessary” or “inevitable” fiscal policy. After all, Sweden exists in the same global capitalist context as Canada. Furthermore, even relatively poor nations such as Cuba and Venezuela, who are actively challenging the neoliberal paradigm, provide free university education to their citizens.

Ultimately, the most surprising aspect of the student protests in Montreal is the fact that it has taken so long for such an uprising to occur in Canada. Rather than dismissing Quebec students as spoiled brats who should not complain because after the increase they will still pay the lowest tuition rates in Canada, we should instead be wondering why students throughout the rest of Canada have so meekly accepted the neoliberal doctrine imposed on them.

The students in Quebec constitute a social movement in defense of human dignity and basic human rights. They are fully aware that the tuition increases, no matter how minor, will move the province one step further away from fulfilling the basic human right of free education for everyone and one step closer to the crisis in education—and related high levels of student loan debt—prevalent throughout the rest of Canada.

The Quebec protests, at their core, are about whether we want, not just an education system, but a society that primarily serves the interests of the wealthy or those of all of its citizens. As the mayor of Montreal made apparent with his concerns for the city’s international image, the democratic expressions taking place in the streets pose a threat to the political and economic elites who are intent on imposing their neoliberal project on everyone. It’s too bad that such expressions of democracy by students are not occurring in cities across Canada.

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