Gordon Lefebvre, retired instructor; Éric Martin, professor of philosophy at Collège Édouard-Montpetit 23 May 2012
For the first time, we are taking pen in hand in Quebec with the fear that this could bring reprisals against us. Despite that, there are things that must be said and written when significant crises burst out that threaten to shake the very foundations of democracy.
Since the beginning of the student conflict, the government has presented the tuition hikes as a purely budgetary decision based on good sense and proper administration. However, despite its initial appearance as an accounting measure, it is in fact a squarely political measure, part of a neoliberal project to transform the relationship between youth and knowledge, institutions, and society in general.
Indeed, in his speech presenting the emergency law, Jean Charest described the reform of university funding as a “founding act”: “What the government has done is a founding act; it is a matter of the future of our universities and colleges, and therefore of our children; the funding of institutions that are pivotal for the future of our people.” This refounding must be understood as a break from the values cultivated in our society since the Quiet Revolution: universality, equality, and the public nature of education.
From now on, education will be understood as a good for individual consumption that competing clients grab for. This transformation pushes students to internalize, under duress, the ideas and behaviours that businesses and the capitalist economy expect of them. Students are not the only ones upon whom the culture of “user-payer” is being imposed. This vision is being spread throughout society and throughout all public services.
This is the meaning of the “cultural revolution” that Finance Minister Raymond Bachand is talking about. If the government wants so badly to break the young people’s resistance, it is because it wants the mass transition to go docilely.
To avoid a thorough debate on the aims of its policies, the government has done everything to move the discussion on to real but secondary issues. For example, one can bring out plenty of skilful statistics on access to student loans, but this does nothing to resolve the fundamental debate on free education, a demand painted from the beginning as utopian and unrealistic.
Before getting to the stage of decreeing the special law, the government tried to wear out the student movement. Then it pretended to be open to negotiations even as it was in the midst of preparing bill 78.
This bill threatens fundamental freedoms and breaks away from the founding principles of democracy. For example, under section 9, “The Minister of Education[…] may take all necessary measures[…] including specifying certain legislative and regulatory provisions as not applicable and prescribing any other necessary modification to this Act and to any other Act…” These provisions open the door to subjecting all laws to the discretionary and arbitrary power of a single minister. Is the intent really to calm down the situation, as Mr. Charest claims? Must we go so far as to understand, as certain lawyers say, that we should be calling it a “constitutional coup d’état” that only lacks a “padlock law”?*
The Darkness ahead
For the baby boom generation, the Grande Noirceur [Great Darkness, trad. n.] may be behind them, with the memory of Duplessis. But for the youth, who are now in the streets and have been since 2001, 2005, and the Toronto G20, the Great Darkness is straight ahead: Charest in Quebec City, Harper in Ottawa. In both cases, the budget is a weapon of mass destruction of social policies.
Against this, for weeks, youth have persisted, to introduce into the public debate a concept of the relationship to knowledge and a worldview that are opposed to the current neoliberal policies. They are setting for us an example of resistance to the policies of Charest and Harper through their combativeness, tenacity, resilience, and solidarity. If we abandon the youth to police truncheons and “truncheon laws” [lois matraque, i.e. Bill 78, trad. n.], we will have let the story be that this was simply a corporatist struggle or a generational conflict.
In fact, this is a struggle that concerns all of society and its future. We are choosing today the face of tomorrow’s Quebec. Will it be a collection of individual entrepreneurs in a competition war, or a society built around humanist values of social justice and respect for ecology? To prevent neoliberal barbarism from taking root, we have to make firm commitments to our youth and join in their struggle.
The student movement in Quebec is about so much more than tuition — it’s about contesting the inevitability of the neoliberal approach to politics. What’s ins