Barbara Kay: Quebec’s student radicals put their irresponsibility on parade
National Post - Thursday April 16th, 2015
For most university students, spring means exams and the search for a summer job. Amongst a certain cadre of Quebec students – a few hundred out of Quebec’s student body of 44,000 – warmer air is an invitation to ratchet up the political activism that preoccupies them in every season. This spring’s activism revolves around the question of whether or not students, like workers, should have a legislated right to strike.
“Activism” is a euphemism, though, for what has transpired in Montreal over the last few weeks. Radicals, struggling (and failing) to animate a campaign for students’ right to strike in protest against the Liberal government’s austerity program, upped the ante on disruption, vandalism and even masked thuggery. Last week at UQAM – the Université du Québec à Montréal, born in the throes of 1960’s counter-cultural rebellion, and usually ground zero for left-wing student militancy – riot police were kept busy controlling about 200 protesters who barricaded themselves inside and trashed the building. According to reports, police kept their cool and met violence on the student side with restraint.
The activists had no business being there in the first place. A March 30 protest had involved enough violence, including actual physical assaults, to result in a Superior Court injunction forbidding protesters from blocking access to classrooms. Issuing the injunction, Justice Robert Mongeon noted that jurisprudence arising from 2012 protests made it clear that students have a right to protest – that is, to boycott classes – but they do not have the right to prevent others from attending class. Most Quebecers found that ruling and the thinking behind it eminently reasonable, which is one of the reasons the Liberal Party won a majority in last April’s election, and the Parti Québécois, who have long supported and encouraged militant students, who form a solid part of their base, was trounced.
Student radicals do not seem to have gotten the message that there’s a new government in town, and that it was democratically elected. They want what they want, and this time they want – well, everything: no austerity, no hydrocarbon development and lower or no school fees, even though higher education is available to Quebec students at ludicrously low costs compared to anywhere else in Canada.
Activists’ anger is fuelled by flaccid interest amongst students and the general public as compared with 2012, and also by internal divisions. The solidarity of the 2012 “Maple Spring” protests, which helped elect the Parti Québécois that year, is now fissure-ridden. The executive of a group with the acronym ASSÉ, powerful back then, has been sidelined for suggesting a delay in agitation in order to collaborate with public-sector unions, whose anti-austerity protests will commence in the fall. As well, a group called Fondation 1625 (named for the $1,625 increase intuition fees over five years proposed by Premier jean Charest in 2012), speaking for the overwhelming majority of students who simply wish to get on with their education and consider the disruptions an obstacle to their timely educational advancement, takes the position that students are consumers of a service, and they should be afforded consumer protection.
This is the government’s position as well, and this government owes no political fealty to radical activists. Just as employers often speak of the “right to work” when up against union demands perceived as unreasonable, Quebec Education Minister François Blais rebuts the “right to strike” with the “right to study.” His warning that the government will not pay for makeup courses doubtless contributed to the deflation of zealotry this time around.
It’s unfortunate that Quebec’s “Printemps 2015” movement has mashed together anti-austerity protests by students and the more legitimate concerns of public-sector workers. An April 15 Gazette editorial says, the right to strike for workers is a fundamental constitutional right. As the editorial points out, when it comes to job security and a living wage, “all too often, strike action is the last option [workers] have to assert these demands.” It seems to imply that students should have the same rights.
But students are not workers, nor are they a collective in the way that workers are, and there is no “last option” for students, who have no mortgages or families to support, and are not permanently tethered to their “job” of taking courses. Students are consumers of a product they use only transiently. If they were protesting the quality of their education, protesting that they were not adequately prepared for future jobs or that their diplomas were being rejected by employers, it might make sense for them to “strike” in order to force Cegeps and universities to improve the quality of their programs. But that is clearly not the case here. What we have here are a cluster of ideological radicals with no sense of personal responsibility, a captive audience and a great deal of time on their hands, using their education institutions as soapboxes for political apprenticeship. Students may peacefully protest whatever they want, but they should not have the right to strike.