On Wednesday, a masked enforcement squad swept through the campus at the Université du Québec à Montréal, hunting for students who had dared to show up for class. Wherever they found a class in session, they broke in and shouted “Scab!” in the students’ faces. The enforcement squad was defying a court injunction that ordered the university to open. They jumped on desks and tables and spray-painted slogans on the classroom walls. They grabbed two female students by the arm and told them to get out. The intimidated professors fled. Later, as law student Christina Macedo tried to explain to reporters what had happened, they drowned her out. “Scab! Scab! Scab!” they shrieked.
These masked young men and women are the children of the celebrated Quebec model, which shares a certain mindset with the not-so-celebrated Greek model. The state owes us everything, and if we don’t get it, we’ll riot in the streets!
Actually, I feel much sorrier for the Greeks than I do for the protesting students. Sure, Greece cheated its way into the European Union, but everybody else enabled them. No one told the Greeks that their pensions, their humongously inflated state payrolls and their early retirement for people in hazardous occupations (such as hairdressers and pastry chefs) were being obtained through fraud. Their leaders lied to them and the EU lied to them, and now they will be plunged into grinding poverty for a generation. If I were them, I’d be rioting too.
The rioting Quebec students face no such fate. They are the children of affluence – overwhelmingly middle- to upper-middle class. The government subsidizes their tuition costs by $60,000 to $75,000 over the course of their undergraduate careers, according to Carleton University’s Archibald Ritter. Few will ever have to stint on mochaccinos, or work with their hands. I’d feel sorry for them if unemployment among young adults was 50 per cent, as it is in Spain. In fact, their job prospects are among the best in the world.
The Quebec model promises that the state will literally take care of you from cradle to grave, from $7-a-day daycare to your dying breath. Quebeckers pay the highest taxes in the country for this privilege, and they’re proud of it. There’s just one problem. This model maxed out a while ago. In France, which many Quebeckers feel more connected to than they do with the rest of Canada, growth has stalled and generous entitlements have far outrun the government’s ability to pay. The same has happened in Quebec. But it gets a helping hand from the rest of Canada in the form of equalization payments, which will amount to $7.3-billion this year. A great deal of this money comes from the booming resource economy of Alberta, whose social and economic model is despised by millions of Quebeckers – especially the protesting students. If they had their way, they’d shut Alberta down.
To be fair, it’s important to point out that only a third of Quebec’s students are protesting – around 155,000 of them – and that public opinion has swung sharply against them. Most people do not believe that shutting down Montreal’s subway system with smoke bombs is a legitimate protest tactic.
Even so, around a third of the Quebec public is solidly onside. The PQ has refused to condemn the protests, and Radio-Canada has been sympathetic. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has barely made a sound. He’s been way too busy blasting Alberta for spreading the Dutch disease.
There are also plenty of adults who’ve joined the students in the streets. Some are professors (whose tenured, state-paid jobs are not in jeopardy). Some are parents, and some belong to union groups. They blame the violence on the government.
People in the rest of Canada simply cannot understand why so many students would get so worked up over such moderate tuition hikes, which would still leave them with the lowest tuition in North America. Part of the answer is the entitlement mentality. But to the protesters, tuition hikes are just a small part of the enormous oppression and injustice inflicted by the rapacious capitalist state. As one student told journalist Marianne Ackerman, “Governments are completely saturated by neo-liberal ideology, disconnected from the public interest. These protests – like others around the world – are about showing there’s a limit to how far the state can go to protect capitalist interests at the expense of the people.”
Of course, caving in to pressure from the people for entitlements the state could not afford was what got Europe into trouble in the first place. And now, Jean Charest is in trouble too. He must have been delusional to legitimize the protest leaders by trying to negotiate with them. What he offered was a deal that would have made the lunatics the co-directors of the asylum. Thankfully, the lunatics turned him down because the deal wasn’t good enough. How he extricates himself from this mess is anybody’s guess.
Meantime, the rest of Canada looks on, appalled. If this is an example of Quebec’s distinct society, we want no part of it. We sort of sympathize with the Germans, who are fed up with the Greeks because the Greeks strike them as totally irresponsible. The Greeks want to have it both ways. They want to stay inside the EU, but they refuse to play by the EU’s rules. They want the Germans to send them money forever and ever, and no matter how much the Germans send, they’ll keep demanding more. The student protesters are the Greeks of Canada. And we’ve had it.