It makes for a heady mix: Take a group of charismatic student leaders, add a call for accessible education, stir in street protests and campus turmoil.
These ingredients have roiled Quebec for months and ushered in a season of deep social unrest. They also happen to be the same potent forces that shook the province during the transformative 1960s.
These days, student leaders Léo Bureau-Blouin, Martine Desjardins and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois have become household names in Quebec, their near daily pronouncements given the same weight as that of Quebec cabinet ministers.
As the province awakened during the Quiet Revolution, campus leaders also grabbed the spotlight and put heat on the political class. Their names were Bernard Landry, Jean Doré, Gilles Duceppe, Louise Harel and Claude Charron. In time, each went from one side of the barricades to the other – shaping the province's and by extension, Canada's political agenda.
These former campus rabble-rousers produced such luminaries as a Quebec premier (Mr. Landry), a Montreal mayor (Mr. Doré), a House of Commons party leader (Mr. Duceppe) and two Quebec cabinet ministers (Mr. Charron and Ms. Harel, who is also now opposition leader at Montreal city hall).
They cut their political teeth in the Union générale des étudiants du Québec (the General Union of Quebec Students, or UGEQ), which was born after Quebec students split with their pan-Canadian group and formed a powerhouse organization that united university and college students across the province.
“It was almost this microcosm, this hothouse and frenzy of political activity,” says Victor Rabinovitch, then a student at McGill University.
“In many ways, it was a prologue of what would happen over the next 30 years in Canada,” adds the former UGEQ vice-president (1967-68), who later became a federal mandarin and spent 11 years as president of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corp., which is also responsible for the Canadian War Museum.
The movement found inspiration in youth revolts from Berkeley to Paris, but its goals also were Quebec-centric: reforming education, the flagship of the Quiet Revolution, to make room for a new generation of francophones pouring into university classrooms. One demand would haunt Quebec premiers for decades: free tuition.
“We felt that education was a right for everyone,” recalls Mr. Duceppe, a vice-president at UGEQ in 1968 who had become head of Canada's official opposition as leader of the Bloc Québécois. “It's like health. Canadians never stop saying that free health care is part of their identity. If that's true, why not education?”
Still, the freebie idea in those days came with a price: Free tuition would be accompanied by a year of civic service, along the lines of the U.S. Peace Corps, Mr. Duceppe says. “You have to be coherent,” he explains. “One doesn't only have rights, one also has duties.”
Although the UGEQ fell apart by 1969, it left a legacy. As successive premiers would learn, students were a force to be reckoned with in Quebec. The 1968 student strike, which sparked the occupation of several newly created CEGEPs (postsecondary colleges), didn't make education free but did help to usher in a second French-language university network, the Université du Québec.
And the battle that has kept Quebec tuition the lowest on the continent never stopped. The current conflict sets a record for duration, but is Quebec's ninth such strike since the sixties. The result: Students here pay lower tuition, adjusted for inflation, now than their predecessors did in 1968.
It's a lesson that Premier Jean Charest – a student politician himself in his day – may have failed to grasp.
Ingrid Peritz is a member of The Globe and Mail's Montreal bureau.