Québec students: ten talking points - The issue is debt, not tuition fees
By Andrew Gavin Marshall, Straightgoods
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Student strikes in Québec began in February and have lasted for three months, despite draconian police and legislative response. Demonstrations and organizations involving roughly 175,000 students have been conducted mainly in French, a factor that allows English language media to ignore or misconstrue the students and their struggle. The following is a list of ten talking points about the student movement in Québec, to help place their struggle in its proper global context.
- The issue is debt, not tuition fees.
- Striking students in Québec are setting an example for youth across the continent.
- The student strike was organized through democratic means and with democratic aims.
- This is not an exclusively Québecois phenomenon.
- Government officials and the media have been openly calling for violence and "fascist" tactics to be used against the students.
- Excessive state violence has been used against the students.
- The cash squeeze that caused the government to raise tuition fees results in part from corruption: hundreds of millions of dollars for construction when to organized crime instead.
- Québec's Establishment supports the tuition increase.
- A massive and highly successful propaganda campaign is underway to discredit, dismiss, and demonize the students.
- The student movement is part of a much larger emerging global movement of resistance against austerity, neoliberalism, and corrupt power.
1. The issue is debt, not tuition: The most common argument used to dismiss the students, who are striking against a 75 percent increase in the cost of tuition over the next five years, is to point out that Québec students pay the lowest tuition in North America. Therefore, obviously, they should not complain. Québec students pay on average $2,500 per year in tuition, while the rest of Canada's students pay on average $5,000 per year.
Tuition is only part of the numbers game, though. The core issue is debt. With the average tuition at $5,000/year, the average student debt for an undergraduate in Canada is $27,000, while the average debt for an undergraduate in Québec is $13,000. With interest rates expected to increase, in the midst of a hopeless job situation for Canadian youth, Canada's youth face a future of debt that is bankrupting a generation of students. The notion, therefore, that Québec students should not struggle against a bankrupt future is a bankrupt argument.
2. Striking students in Québec are setting an example for youth across the continent: Nearly 60 percent of Canadian students graduate with debt, an average of $27,000 for an undergraduate degree. Total student debt now stands at about $20 billion in Canada ($15 billion from Federal Government loans programs, and the rest from provincial and commercial bank loans). In Québec, the average student debt is $15,000, whereas Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have an average student debt of $35,000, British Columbia at nearly $30,000 and Ontario at nearly $27,000. On average, a four-year degree for a student living at home in Canada costs $55,000, and those costs are expected to increase in coming years at a rate faster than inflation.
Defaults on government student loans are at roughly 14 percent. The Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students warned in June of 2011 that, "We are on the verge of bankrupting a generation before they even enter the workplace." Women, minorities, and other marginalized groups are in an even more disadvantaged position. No wonder so many Canadian students are moving back home and relying more and more upon their parents for support.
An informal Globe and Mail poll in early May of 2012 (surveying 2,200 students), "shows that students across Canada share a similar anxiety over rising tuition fees," as that felt in Québec. Roughly 62 percent of post-secondary students said they would join a similar strike in their own province — 69 percent in Ontario, where tuition is the highest in Canada. A Québec research institution released a report in late March of 2012 warning of a "student debt bubble" akin to the housing bubble in the United States.
The authors of the report from the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-economique explained that, "Since governments underwrite those loans, if students default it could be catastrophic for public finances," and that, "If the bubble explodes, it could be just like the mortgage crisis." In the United States, student debt has reached $1 trillion, becoming an existential threat to the middle class in America. Bankruptcy lawyers in the US are "seeing the telltale signs of a student loan debt bubble." Between 2001 and 2011, "state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally," while "tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent."
3. The student strike was organized through democratic means and with democratic aims: The decision to strike was made through student associations and organizations that operate through a unique direct-democracy system. Among the Francophone schools in Québec, not only are the leaders elected by the students, but decisions are made through general assemblies, debate and discussion, and through the votes of the actual constituents, the members of the student associations — representing a more profound and meaningful working definition of democracy that is lacking across the rest of the country. The Anglophone student associations that went on strike — from Concordia and McGill — did so because, for the first time ever, they began to operate through direct-democracy.
4. Nor is this an exclusively Québecois phenomenon. While it is true that the majority of the students protesting are Francophone, and the majority of the schools on strike are Francophone, the participation in the strike from the Anglophone schools (while a minority within the schools) is unprecedented in Québec history. The band Arcade Fire wore red squares in the band's May 19 appearance on Saturday Night Live with Mick Jagger.
5. Government officials and the media have been openly calling for violence and strongarm tactics to be used against the students. Despite all the focus on student violence at protests — breaking bank windows, throwing rocks at riot police, and other acts of vandalism — student leaders have never called for violence against the government or vandalism against property, and have, in fact, denounced it and spoken out for calm, stating: "The student movement wants to fight alongside the populace and not against it."
In addition to predictable calls for "tough treatment" from National Post columnists such as Michael Den Tandt and Kelly McParland, the French-language papers have advocated extreme tactics. Bernard Guay, (a member of the Québec Liberal Party and head of the tax office in the Municipal Affairs Department) wrote an article for a French-language newspaper in Québec in mid-April including a government official's recommendation for using the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s as an example in how to deal with "leftists" in giving them "their own medicine." He suggested mobilizing students to cross picket lines, and also to confront and assault students who wear the little red square (the symbol of the student strike). This, Guay suggested, would help society "overcome the tyranny of Leftist agitators," no doubt by emulating fascist tyranny. The article was eventually pulled and an apology was issued.
6. Conversely, excessive state violence has been used against the students: Throughout the three months of protests from students in Québec, the violence has almost exclusively been blamed on the students. Images of protesters throwing rocks and breaking bank windows inundate the media.
Meanwhile, the reality of state violence being used against the students far exceeds any of the violent reactions from protesters, but receives far less coverage. Riot police meet students with pepper spray, tear gas, concussion grenades, smoke bombs, beat them with batons, shoot them with rubber bullets, and have even been driving police cars and trucks into groups of students. On May 4, on the 42nd anniversary of the Kent State massacre in which the US National Guard murdered four protesting students, Québec almost experienced its own Kent State, when several students were critically injured by police, shot with rubber bullets in the face. One student lost an eye, and another remains in the hospital with serious head injuries, including a skull fracture and brain contusion.
Roughly 12,000 people in Québec have signed a petition against the police reaction to student protests, stipulating that the police actions have been far too violent. In late April, even before the Québec police almost killed a couple of students, Amnesty International "asked the government to call for a toning down of police measures that… are unduly aggressive and might potentially smother students' right to free expression."
The City of Montréal recently banned masks protests in a new bylaw which City Council voted on without public consultation. Police may continue to wear gas masks while they shoot chemical agents at Québec's youth, but students cannot attempt to protect themselves even meagerly by covering their faces. The federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper is attempting to pass a law that bans masks at protests, which includes a ten-year sentence for "rioters who wear masks." Québec has even established a secretive police unit called the GAMMA squad to monitor "anarchists" and "marginal political groups" in the province, which has already targeted and arrested members of the leading student organization behind the strike. Some political groups have stated this is the government's "declaration of war" against such groups. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE (the largest student group), stated that, "This squad is really a new kind of political police to fight against social movements."
7. Punitive austerity programs would be redundant if the provincial government eliminated the costs of corruption, such as over-paying favoured construction companies two or three the actual value of a contract — usually companies with known Mafia connections. In 2010, Maclean's magazine declared that Québec, under Premier Jean Charest, is "the most corrupt province" in Canada. Benoit Labonte, a former opposition leader at Montréal city hall, admitted he was corrupt but attempted to defend himself by saying that, "the Italian mafia controls about 80 percent of city hall."
La Presse reporters Andre Cedilot and Andre Noel kicked up controversy with their 2010 book, Mafia Inc (Random House published an English translation last fall.) Facts and anecdotes support their contention that the Mafia is a "big player" in the Québec economy, and "is deeply entrenched in city affairs" of Montreal. In the fall of 2011, an internal report written by the former Montreal police chief for the government was leaked, stating, "We have discovered a firmly rooted, clandestine universe on an unexpected scale, harmful to our society on the level of safety and economics and of justice and democracy... If there were to be an intensification of influence-peddling in the political sphere, we would no longer simply be talking about marginal, or even parallel criminal activities: we could suspect an infiltration or even a takeover of certain functions of the state."
After the leaked report, Québec Premier Jean Charest — who had rejected calls for a public inquiry into corruption in the construction industry — was forced to strike a special task force to investigate corruption in certain industries and all levels of government. Canadian Press recently reported that, as the Harper government released hundreds of millions in stimulus spending, the Conservative Party of Canada in Québec received dozens of donations from construction and engineering firm employees at firms now under investigation. Construction firms have also contributed to the federal Liberals, but less generously.
In April of 2012, police made fifteen arrests in Montreal relating to corruption charges involving the Mafia, including one of the biggest names in the construction industry. Among other arrests: a Québec mayor, and two Québec Liberal Party fundraisers, as well as individuals connected to the PQ and the Québec conservative party.
The point is this: government and media commentators like to refer to demonstrations by Québec students as "mob rule," when actually it's other way around. Québec's special task force on corruption has confirmed that the government gives the mob-run construction companies public contracts at double or triple their actual value, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars (if not more). At the same time, students are being asked to pay nearly double their current tuition because of the provincial deficit — an issue that might not even arise in the absence of corruption.
8. Québec's Establishment supports Charest's austerity program, including increased tuition fees. As early as 2007, TD Bank, one of Canada's big five banks, outlined a "plan for prosperity" for the province of Québec, and directly recommended that Québec raise tuition costs for students. Some people might object that the banks would profit from their own recommendation, because they provide student loans and lines of credit, on which they charge interest and make profits. The Royal Bank of Canada has acknowledged that student lines of credit are "very popular products." The fact is, the Québec government is more likely to listen to the banks than to the youth.
In February of 2010, a very similar group of "prominent" (ie, Establishment) Québeckers signed a letter urging the government to increase Québec's tuition costs. Among the signatories were the former Premier of Québec for the Parti Québecois, Lucien Bouchard. They repeated their message again just this May, in a letter to the Editor of the Montréal Gazette which stated that students need to pay more for their education. (Initially, this group of elitists had proposed an increase of $1,000 every year for three years.) The letter then calls for the provincial government "...reinstate order; the students have to return to class..."
The letter was signed by politicians such as Lucien Bouchard (again) and Michel Audet, an economist and former Finance Minister in the first Charest government in Québec. Then there are some who could belong to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (Thomas D'Aquino's group) such as Françoise Bertrand, the President and chief executive officer of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec (The Québec Federation of Chambers of Commerce); Yves-Thomas Dorval, President of the Québec Employers' Council; Pierre Fortin, a professor emeritus at the Université du Québec à Montréal; Michel Gervais, the former rector of Université Laval; Monique Jérôme-Forget, former finance minister of Québec and former president of the Québec Treasury Board, Robert Lacroix, another co-signer, was former rector of the Université de Montréal and is also a fellow at CIRANO; Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montréal; Claude Montmarquette, professor emeritus at the Université de Montréal, who is also a member of the elitist CIRANO think tank, which as a "research institution" has for several years recommended increasing Québec's tuition costs; Marcel Boyer, a Bell Canada Professor of industrial economics at the Université de Montréal, Vice-president and chief economist at the Montréal Economic Institute — but then, this is Québec, where the chancellors of both Concordia and McGill universities serve on the boards of the Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank of Canada, respectively.
Now, here is the conundrum. At the end of April, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that Canadian and US governments provided Canada's banks with a "secret bailout" back in 2008/09, amounting to roughly $114 billion, or $3,400 for every Canadian man, woman, and child (more than the cost of yearly tuition in Québec). The study estimates that at some point during the crisis, three of Canada's banks — CIBC, BMO, and Scotiabank — were completely under water, with government support exceeding the market value of the bank. "Government programs could have just purchased every single share in those banks instead of providing support," said David MacDonald, report author and CCPA economist. Due to government secrecy, the study raises more questions than it answers and calls on the Bank of Canada and CMHC to release the full details of how much support each Canadian bank received, when they received it, what they put up as collateral, and when and how they paid it back.
Flash forward to 2012, and banks are expected to be making very good profits. Yet Canadians are going deeper into debt, and part of that debt is ever-increasing tuition, which feeds the banks' profits. Every single Canadian man, woman, and child supported the banks to the tune of $3,400 apiece when the banks were floundering. Now those banks have bounced back enough to dispatch spokespeople to lobby government to cut back on funds for education and other core government services. Look closer. The students aren't the only ones complaining.
9. As happens so often, the counter demonstrators are winning at least equal time in the media. Take third-year political science major Brendan Steven, co-founder of McGill's Moderate Political Action Committee (ModPAC)/ ModPAC is mobilizing McGill students in opposition to the strike. Steven's organization attacked striking student associations as "illegitimate, unconstitutional shams" and attacked the democratic functioning of other student associations holding general assemblies. Steven complained that the democratic general assemblies "are being invented on a whim." He has published an op-ed in the National Post and been interviewed on CBC. Back in January, Steven wrote an article for the Huffington Post in which he explained that the reason CEOs get paid so much is because "they're worth it."
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente had a bash at the students too, writing "It's a little hard for the rest of us to muster sympathy for Québec's downtrodden students, who pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America." Mind you, Wente also wrote an article entitled, "The poor are doing better than you think," suggesting that it's not so bad for poor people because they have air conditioning, DVD players, and cable TV.
Syndicated columnist Andrew Coyne claimed that, "Québec students know violence works," framing the protest at which police almost killed two students as an action "of general rage the students had promised." With no mention of the student who lost an eye, or the other student who ended up in the hospital with critical head injuries, Coyne talked about a cop who "was beaten savagely" and "lay helpless on the ground."
The Toronto Sun even had an article which claimed that the students have employed tactics of "thuggery" and "violent criminal behaviour." Publications regularly ask their readers if Québec students have "legitimate" grievances, if they are fighting for "social justice," or if they are just "spoiled brats." An article in the Chronicle Herald asked, "What planet are these kids on?" The author then wrote that, "the irony is that these students now want the system to accommodate their desires and for someone else to pay the bill," and that, "students should stop making foolish demands." Other articles claim that students "need a lesson in economics."
To sum up — with few exceptions, the Canadian media have established a consensus in opposition to the student protests, and use techniques of omission, distortion, or outright condemnation in order to promote a distinctly anti-student stance.
10. Québec students aren't alone. In fact, their movement is part of a much larger emerging global movement of resistance against austerity, neoliberalism, and corrupt power. The Guardian, recently ran a Canadian grassroots reporter's op-ed on the spread of the red squares that striking students wear to symbolize going squarely into the red, into debt. Red squares, wrote Martin Lukacs have "become a symbol of the most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent... Forcing students to pay more for education is part of a transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the rich — as with privatization and the state's withdrawal from service-provision, tax breaks for corporations and deep cuts to social programs."
The student movement has linked up with civic groups against a Québec government plan to subsidize mining companies in exploiting the natural resources of Northern Québec (Plan du Nord), taking land from indigenous peoples to give to multibillion dollar corporations. The student strike has thus become a social movement. The protests aim at economic disruption through civil disobedience, and have garnered the support of thousands of protesters, and 200,000 protesters on March 22, and close to 300,000 on April 22.
Protests have blocked entrances to banks, disrupted a conference for the Plan du Nord exploitation, linking the movement with indigenous and environmental groups. It was only when the movement began to align with other social movements and issues that the government even accepted the possibility of speaking to students. Unions have also increasingly been supporting the student strike, including with large financial contributions, although, sometimes, they do bring their own agendas.
Québec is not the only location with student protests taking place. In Chile, a massive student movement has emerged and developed over the past year, changing the politics of the country and challenging the elites and the society they have built for their own benefit. One of the leaders of the Chilean student movement is a 23-year old young woman, Camila Vallejo, who has attained celebrity status. In Québec's student movement, the most visible and vocal leader is 21-year old Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who has also achieved something of celebrity status within the province. Just as in Québec, student protests in Chile are met with state violence. Still, this does not stop tens of thousands of students going out into the streets in Santiago, as recently as late April.
Protests by students have also been emerging elsewhere, often in cooperation and solidarity with the Occupy movement and other anti-austerity protests. Silent protests are emerging at American universities where students are protesting their massive debts, especially in California. Student protests at UC Berkeley ended with 12 citations for trespassing.
Some students in California have even begun a hunger strike against tuition increases. In Brooklyn, New York, police assaulted students protesting against tuition increases, many of them wearing the Québec "red square" symbol. Even high school students in New York have been protesting. Israeli social activists are back on the streets protesting against austerity measures. An Occupy group has resumed protests in London. The Spanish Indignado movement, which began in May of 2011, saw a resurgence on the one year anniversary, with another round of anti-austerity protests in Spain, bringing tens of thousands of protesters, mostly youths, out into the streets of Madrid, and more than 100,000 across the country. Their protest was met with police repression. Increasingly, students, the Occupy movement, and other social groups are uniting in protests against the costs of higher education and the debts of students. This is indeed the context in which the "Maple Spring" — the Québec student movement — should be placed, as part of a much broader global anti-austerity movement.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montréal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People's Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, Empire, Power, and People on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
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