Tuition, Protest and Bill 78: A View from Quebec

Photo by Gerry Lauzon

At the end of last week, the Quebec government tabled Bill 78 in an effort to end the months of protest over planned hikes to university tuition. The bill sets restrictions on the freedom of assembly and expression, requiring those in protests over 50 people to ascertain that the protest has been officially sanctioned by police and government officials.  The bill also holds student associations, unions and their leaders accountable for the actions of their membership. The biggest problem with the law, like most draconian measures, is that it is vague in its definition of illegal activity and harsh on punishment.  Not surprisingly, countless groups – including some that disagree with the tuition-based protest – have voiced their opposition to it, culminating in a mass demonstration on Tuesday in Montreal.  Below is a translated version of an open letter, written by many of Quebec’s leading historians in reaction to the government’s bill.  It is followed by brief summaries of the posts related to this issue published by our francophone partner site, HistoireEngagee.ca.

Here is the letter:

“In the silence of rejection, the chains of the slave and the voice of the whistleblower are no longer heard.  All tremble before the tyrant.  It is as dangerous to encourage their favour as merit their disgrace.  The historian is charged with the people’s vengeance.  It is in vain that Nero prospers, for Tacitus has already been born into the empire.” – François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe.

As professors and historians who, alongside others, have documented Quebec’s political history, we affirm that we have rarely seen the government commit as blatant an assault on the fundamental rights underpinning Quebec society.

The rights to free expression, to protest, and to assemble are at the heart of our democracy.  These civil and political rights determine our belonging and participation within the life of our political community.  From the struggle of the Patriots during the 1830s to that of the union movement during the Quiet Revolution, these rights were at the heart of our province’s historical transformation; they were central to the fights of women, Aboriginal people and others for political recognition. Our political regime cannot fully claim to be a democracy without the rights enshrined in the Charters.  Democracy requires that citizens have the capacity to exercise their rights.  This is the foundation of law in this country and the primary objective of political struggles since the beginning of the parliamentary system.

The student movement, by its actions over the past three months, has merely taken up the mantle of this democratic heritage. It is unbearable to watch a government using undemocratic practices in response to these protests. The principal function of a democratic state is to guarantee its citizens their rights and freedoms.

Worst of all is the government’s more recent act, Bill 78.  According to the President of the Quebec Bar, this act calls into question the primacy of the rule of law in conflict resolution.  Indeed, in its current form, Bill 78 clearly limits the right of all citizens to peaceful protest. It severely curtails the academic freedoms within the university.  It suspends legitimate legal recourse and reverses the burden of proof by making student associations and unions responsible for the acts committed by others. Finally, it severely penalizes citizens, student associations and unions who do not comply with the provisions of this exceptional law.

In its current form, Bill 78 is a wicked and infamous law.  We call on all those in this country who care about our fundamental political freedoms to mobilize against this aggressive act against our rights and liberties.

This letter has been translated for the benefit of English readers.  I have tried to stick as closely to the original intent of the letter.  To see the original visit: http://histoireengagee.ca/lactualite-en-debat-une-loi-scelerate-et-une-infamie/

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Histoire Engagée has covered these protests in fairly thorough detail.  Below is a brief summary of each of their posts.

Why World Class Universities? And who are they for? By Martin Lavallée (May 2)

  • In this post Martin Lavallée asks what the Charest government means when it states that tuition must be increased in order for Quebec to have ‘world class’ universities. Finding this term poorly defined in government discourse, he sets out to establish how the government defines this term. Referring to a 2009 World Bank report, Lavallée suggests that the ‘world class’ university is one that targets research that usefully fuels a knowledge economy rather than humanist development.  By the terms set out by the World Bank, universities that are truly world class are primarily English language institutions that focus on technical and technological knowledge. The question underlying these debates is whether les Quebecois support this shift in emphasis.

The Three Braves and the 1958 Student Strike: An Interview with Francine Laurendeau. By Maurice Demers, Annie Poulin, and Pascal Scallon-Chouinard (May 1)

  • Daughter of the well-known intellectual and politician André Laurendeau, Francine Laurendeau had a prolific career as a journalist, host and director with Radio-Canada.  Along with Bruno Meloche and Jean-Pierre Goyer, she played an important role in the 1958 student strike, the first student strike in the history of Quebec. For months, those Three Braves had the audacity to aspire to meet with Premier Maurice Duplessis in order to deliver a report written by the striking students. The Premier never acquiesced to meet with “children”. They are the subject of the National Film Board’s L’histoire des Trois.  In this interview she discusses the events in 1958, their impact on her life and Quebec society, as well as their relationship to the current student strike in Quebec.

The Student Strike in the Middle Ages and the Emancipation of the Universities. By Anthony Oddo (April 9)

  • Oddo presents an interesting post on the struggle over the intellectual, social and cultural nature of education in 13th century Paris.  The university, he argues, was formed based on a covenant between the tutor and their students. This privileged relationship often caused tension between scholars, the public, ecclesiastic and royal authorities, leading to both students and faculty boycotting their universities. Although the historical context was radically different, Oddo’s piece demonstrates that the defense of university autonomy, the bond between students and professors and a focus on the common good have been recurring tensions over the centuries.

On Tuition… Again: When one strike hides another. By Louise Bienvenue and Pierre Hébert (April 6)

  • Here Bienvenue and Hébert look at Quebec’s recent past, suggesting that the roots of the current situation can be found in a chain of events that began with cutbacks in 1995.  A series of reductions in the university sector led to both government and corporate intervention in university administration. Increased attention to management and performance – demanded by these two broad influences – has led to division between teaching and research, as well as a giant ballooning of university bureaucracy (promotion, development and recruitment). They suggest that these are the central issues that must be discussed in order to properly address the current situation.

A Statement from the Masters and Doctoral students at the University of Sherbrooke about the Debate over Tuition Fee Increases. (April 3)

  • This statement from the graduate students at the University of Sherbrooke suggests that the strike represents a debate over the role of education in Quebec society.  They express their support for the strike, suggesting that accessibility to higher education has a direct link to the health and vitality of Quebec society.

Student Free Speech, a Victory Threatened. By Karine Hébert and Julien Goyette (April 2)

  • This post looks at student societies from the end of 19th century until the present.  It notes that up until the Second World War, university students (mostly men) were perceived by both themselves and others as the elite, focused on maintaining the status quo. But by mid-century, due to World Wars and the Great Depression, this group began to conceive of itself as a specific generation and social class that situated itself within a broader provincial and global context, focusing on issues such as liberalism, feminism and socialism. This latter vision of youth culture, the authors argue, was responsible for setting the agenda of the student movement since the 1950s. Today that student voice risks being overwhelmed by the noises of individualism and economics, allowing the government to ignore the student movement and refuse to negotiate.  This path risks a return to the earlier period.

A Brief Look at the History of the Quebec Student Movement to Enrich the Debate over the Student Strike. By Mauricio Correa (March 29)

  • In this post Correa draws parallels between the current student strike and the debates that took place over similar issues in the 1950s and 1960s. The piece situates the current strikes in the context of the gains students made in the mid-twentieth century. He argues that current government proposals threaten to reverse the changes brought about by these earlier protests.  Like the striking students in Chile and Colombia, the student movement wants to assure that Quebec’s universities remain autonomous, accessible and state financed. He also compares student action during both events and warns that the students were more united in the 1950s and 1960s.  Although the current student strike has the potential of being very successful, disunity within the student movement risks compromising their goals.

Marching and Angry: The Mobilization of Students and Access to Higher Education in Quebec, 1958 to 2012.  By Martin Paquet

  • This is a lecture recorded in February 2012 at Laval University.  Here Paquet discusses the stakes, successes, failures and impact of the student movement in Quebec.

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