Quebec Tuition Fees: A Personal Reflection

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This article is cross-posted with Borealia: Early Canadian History, where it was published on 23 October 2023.

E.A. Heaman

I am very sorry to see Quebec raising the fees on students not from Quebec. A long time ago I was one of those out-of-province students. I grew up in British Columbia and had never been east when I transferred from UVic to McGill University in the fall of 1985, thanks to a Pierre-Trudeau-era program that gave money to Quebec students to study outside Quebec and to non-Quebec students to study in Quebec. I moved to Montreal and completed a BA in history, followed by an MA. Then I left Montreal, just as François Legault says such students do. I completed a PhD in history at the University of Toronto, focusing on nineteenth-century Canada and lending fairly equal attention to Anglophone and Francophone history and sources. That bilingual interest and capacity was a strength that opened many doors. I turned down offers of postdoctoral fellowships and spent the next four years at Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine in London, writing a commissioned history of an English teaching hospital. But I felt I had unfinished business in Canada: there were things I needed to better understand. So I refused permanency in England and returned to Canada on the tenure track, first at Queen’s University, and then McGill, where I was invited to take up a Canada Research Chair in early Canadian history. It’s worth taking a long view in assessing the return on education.

I’ve published several books of Canadian history in recent years, all of them reflecting deep debts to that early invitation to see and hear Quebec and Montreal. One of those books scrutinized early Canadian tax history, from 1867 to 1917 (Confederation to income tax), on the invitation of a historian at Dalhousie, Shirley Tillotson, who assembled a team to write tax history. My contribution, Tax, Order, and Good Government, won several prizes. Shirley’s favourite chapter was about Toronto, but my favourite was the one about Montreal. I had fun arguing that a tax revolt that began in Montreal in the 1880s “inaugurated political modernity in Canada,” that is, the beginnings of modern fiscal sociology. That was an attack on old accusations of an economically and politically “backwards” French Canada. Montrealers measured existing tax transfers to show not a downward but an upward redistribution of wealth and they got those arguments into national political conversations. The old “backwards” arguments were essentially a power-and-wealth grab, tendentious and anti-democratic. I carried the argument into the election of 1917 which, like Jack Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman, I came to understand as not just “deliberately conducted on racist grounds” but also “heavily dependent on corporate contributions from Toronto and Montreal.”

The same questions inflect my recent work. At a symposium on Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine earlier this year, speaking in French, I explored La Fontaine’s campaign platform of 1840, which claimed that French-Canadian political liberties rested on “social equality.” If there’s a Canadian originalism seeking to return to the “original” political principles at the moment Canada achieved effective self-government, then it should look more to the 1840s than the 1860s, and more to the social equality of La Fontaine than the anti-equality austerity project written into the Canadian constitution of 1867 that, as Desmond Morton observed, sought more to conceal than to extend self-government.

In 1841, Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine temporarily relocated from Greater Montreal to Greater Toronto. Notice, 1840, Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, Toronto Public Library.

Currently, I’m writing the biography of a Montreal-born economist: Jacob Viner. Born in 1892 to Romanian Jews who emigrated to Canada in 1886, Viner spent his first two decades in Montreal, and completed a BA at McGill in 1914. Then he left Quebec to do a PhD at Harvard and took out American citizenship that same year. He spent his career teaching first in Chicago, then in Princeton; he also served as an advisor to the Treasury and the State Department during the 1930s and 1940s, that is, the era of the New Deal and Bretton Woods, both of which bore his imprint.

The McGill class of 1914 came from across Canada and beyond. From McGill Yearbook 1914, page 72.

But Viner himself bore the imprint of Montreal: the Montreal that debunked the attack on French-Canadians’ supposed backwardness. He knew Montreal as the city where Anglo-Protestant supremacy had met its match. In Montreal, its self-preening narratives were refuted and it was forced to accept coexistence and social equality. I think Jacob Viner insinuated some of that logic into American domestic relations and international political economy, including his postwar criticism of “trickle-down” developmental economics (he was one of the first to use the phrase). He criticized McGill’s imperialist streak, and in the United States he criticized American economic imperialism, including the neoliberal versions propagated by such colleagues and students as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Viner regularly came back to Canada to visit relations and lend advice to various governments. In the late 1930s, for example, he helped write Manitoba’s brief for the Rowell-Sirois Commission that achieved a kind of New Deal for Canada, reversing the austerity of 1867 and amplifying social equality. And in 1958 he delivered the inaugural Plaunt lecture at Carleton University on the topic “Canada and its giant neighbour.” Viner advised Canadians that their anti-Americanism was overblown; what threat existed was best met in Canada, he argued, by admitting more immigrants and by improving the schools. The advice remains pertinent.

Black and white photograph of five men in academic robes.

Viner came back for an honorary degree from a cosmopolitanizing McGill in 1954. Montreal Gazette, 27 May 1954.

François Legault is weakening historical English schools, colleges, and universities with a slew of bills to restrict admissions and activities and overturn traditions of governance, some of which predate the province itself. Legault says that the attack is necessary in order to preserve the French language in Quebec. But it’s probably not a coincidence that the English schools, colleges, and universities are not just some of the most outspoken but also some of the most effective critics of Legault’s harsher ethno-nationalist projects. Among them: Bill 21, the “Quebec laicity law” passed in June 2019 that prohibits obvious religious symbols amongst civil servants. Many people were dismayed to see the poorest, least paid employees in their schools – such as daycare assistants – lose their jobs. The English Montreal School Board has challenged that bill in the courts and met initial success, based on its historic rights. Indigenous nations have also insisted on their rights, especially in regard to the mandated French instruction of Bill 96. Legault is rashly overturning the institutions and negotiations that helped to create modern Quebec and that enable it to flourish in a diverse and complex world.

Montreal has always been an extraordinarily diverse place and a powerful check on the ugliest anti-diversity projects of Toronto and Quebec City, not to mention Victoria. I fell in love with the place on arrival in 1985, and it was the making of me. Some students, like me, leave then come back; others, like Viner, leave for good but still pay back. Those who learn the important lessons carry on the conversation and benefit everyone. That’s the way education works.

E. A. Heaman teaches history at McGill University

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2 thoughts on “Quebec Tuition Fees: A Personal Reflection

  1. Marguerite Van Die

    Elsbeth Heaman makes a very convincing case, and is the right person to do so. Thank you! May it bear fruit.

  2. Tanya

    Wonderful defense of Montreal and perspectives on Canada. thank you! Just finished William Weintraub’s delightful, gossipy history of Montreal in the 40s and 50s, Unique City.

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