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Reflections from the Sidelines

March 22 – the day that was meant to break the government’s back on the issue of tuition increase. Encouraged by the precedent set in 2005 that this government is essentially pliable, today’s march shows little signs of having achieved its aims. Instead, it crystallized the stalemate that has emerged between student groups and a steadfast government.

In fact, despite some absences from classes today, and the decision of a few of our faculties to strike, McGill is strangely absent, even irrelevant, in this episode. What strikes me as interesting is the disrupt between the overwhelming self-identification of our students as left-wing and their position with regards to increases in tuition, which leftists suggest will reduce accessibility and further commercialized the public good that is education.

On universal health care, Bill C-10, the oil sands, it isn’t difficult to surmise what the dominant political position of our student body is. If, and this is a big if, most students come to their particular political positions by way of a coherent set of principles and beliefs, then why the incongruence?

What could be an otherwise important debate about the organization of our society and the role of the university within it is simply ignored. For anyone that has had the chance to follow this debate on Radio-Canada or in La Presse, it’s evident that the conversation runs deeper than dollars and cents. The cleavage shouldn’t be whether we consider a 75% increase to be a fundamentally trivial amount of money or an ineluctable barrier to education.

Is the university an institution that prepares students for careers? Does it equips them not only with certain skills but with a degree that, itself, has value: the value of which is largely determined by the Canadian and international context in which these universities compete? Perhaps. This vision stresses choice, quality and dynamism. Proponents of this system see the university as a means of self-improvement and self-actualization in the context of producing vibrant individuals.

Or, is the university a public good? Should it stay true to its communitarian role as a place of learning, the benefits of education belonging not only to the individual but also to the larger society? In this vein, university isn’t an investment so much as an enriching experience. These people see the university as a means of social betterment in the context of producing good citizens.

This distinction, though grossly generalized, is not trivial; simply because certain societies have arranged their institutions according to certain values does not on its face constitute a legitimate prescription for Quebec.

Quebec must organize its society democratically; democracies function by way of structuring the contestation of political power (or, the ability and the legitimacy to implement a certain set of preferences). This contestation of power occurs most obviously at the ballot box; but it plays out just as importantly in protests, manifestations and editorials.

Each society will be informed by its history and its values just as each society will be constrained by its wealth and context. Quebecers take to the street because their political culture has always been more militant. Quebecers prefer low-cost university simply because they have it. It’s seen as an intrinsic part of what makes it a distinct society. After all, it isn’t by accident that Quebec developed this model for its society in the first place. On some level, Quebecers are more inclined to see society as an organic whole rather than a collection of individuals or a peaceful coexistence of factions; it’s partly why questions of immigration and language are thornier here.

Likewise, Quebecers cannot ignore that they cannot afford to live as Scandinavians do. First of all, there is more wealth to tax there. Norwegians certainly don’t have the same reservations about developing natural resources to pay for social programs like people here do. Furthermore, Quebec’s location in North America ensures that it cannot continue to increase its personal and corporate tax rates without damaging economic growth, with some level of capital flight.

That is the real debate. In my opinion, the model as it exists in Canada – and to which Quebec is moving – is an appropriate solution to the values and interests, both economic and social, of our society. It isn’t egregiously expensive for students, nor does it reduce educative quality under the guise of egalitarianism.

This debate is underway today in many universities, homes, families and CEGEPs across Quebec. Despite a vocal minority, it doesn’t resonate here. Why?

For nearly half of McGill’s student body – which is either out-of-province or international – Quebec simply isn’t their society. They have no fundamental or financial stake in the future of this province. Other than for the value of their degree, tuition rates, tax hikes and all the rest of it simply is of no concern. When juxtaposed with our interest in American politics or international fads like KONY, this is regrettable.

Moreover, the majority of McGill students that are from Quebec are Anglophones from the Montreal area. When there is only one political party in Quebec that represents and counts on this group, it shifts the axis of the political cleavage away from economic/social issues to questions of identity and partisanship. The tuition increases are of one the Charest’s government’s more popular measures. To defend it is a rare treat for his party’s supporters.

McGill students are more sympathetic to social democracy than our position on this issue suggests. To most of our students the fight to ensure low-cost accessible education within the larger framework of socially progressive society is a valid goal and shared ideal. For half of our student body, the problem is this society simply isn’t theirs. Perhaps along the red and white felt squares someone should devise a, say, purple one designating a position of deep and utter disinterest in this debate. Then again, who can be bothered?


–  Christophe Cinqmars-Viau

– Photo by Alana Jesse

About Admin

Student of Political Science at McGill University. Clara is Canadian, and has lived in Vancouver and Toronto aside from Montreal. She also spent nearly seven years growing up in Curitiba, Brazil. Clara speaks English, Portuguese, French and Spanish and is preparing for a career in international relations. She has been with The Political Bouillon from its inception and would love to see it continue to evolve into a forum for students to share their opinions and analyses on world issues.

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