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Quebec students spur long-overdue ideological debate

A protesters wears a Guy Fawkes mask during a demonstration against tuition hikes and Bill 78 in Montreal on June 2, 2012.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

After half century of political discourse restricted to the confines of Quebec's sovereignty, the province is beginning to have a long-overdue discussion about its future that is unencumbered by the yoke of the sovereignist-federalist debate.

The ongoing student crisis is the first major fissure to appear in Quebec society – at least since the October Crisis of 1970 – that is not centered on the question of the province's independence. While this is a major development in its political evolution, the current charade demonstrates how unaccustomed we are to a political dialogue divorced from the passion of the sovereignty debate as this same fervor has carried over into what should be a routine public-policy dispute.

As the tuition question morphed into a greater social movement, it highlighted deep political divisions within Quebec that are now coming to the surface. As a result, the province's entrenched culture of entitlement is finally being met with the ire of many who are tired of Quebec willfully living on its knees. For too long, government handouts and a cradle-to-grave welfare state that serves as the opiate of Quebeckers have gone unchallenged, hidden for years behind the sovereignty question.

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With the student movement and its supporters being the offspring of a generation whose existence has been sustained at the government-funded trough, is it any wonder they seek to further turn Quebeckers into collective wards of the state?

Yet by removing the Damoclean sword of sovereignty, the ideological bankruptcy and fiscal impracticality of Quebec's socialism is being revealed. Although this debate has always been present, it has traditionally been confined to the ranks of the intelligentsia. But Quebeckers at large are now beginning to question the overall political and economic makeup of our province in a way that was almost unimaginable some years ago.

Perhaps a crisis of this magnitude was required to shake Quebeckers from their slumber in order to properly discuss the critical question of what type of future we want for our province, free from the spectre of independence. Regardless of the difficult circumstances in which the debate is currently framed, it is a positive step that Quebeckers are moving away from the sovereignty question and are (albeit in rather disorderly fashion) addressing more important ideological concerns.

Although I hesitate to commend the students, it must be said they were the unintentional initiators of this impromptu congress among Quebeckers. Unwaveringly committed as they are to rejecting the government's proposals to end the crisis and blackmailing Quebeckers into bowing to their demands, they have successfully prolonged the debate. Yet while they have ignited this flame, their petty tuition dispute will be one of its first victims since Quebeckers are tired of being terrorized by misguided, self-empowered charlatans masquerading as agents of change.

The student leaders and those who support them are not revolutionaries as there is quite frankly nothing revolutionary in their tired ideas. Rather, they are like the naïve idealists in first year political-science who just read Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and now take it as gospel. Enchanted in their self-deception, they view themselves as the new lumpenproletariat (ignoring, of course, that some are former private-schoolers) fighting against an evil government and exploitative corporations.

Although some of their grievances are justified, the general fallacy of their stand is coming to light. The longer they damage our cities and the more they cripple our economy, the more they expose the vapidity and selfishness of their cause. This is particularly the case since it has been shown that, rather than limiting access to education, the tuition increase would in fact help more low-income Quebeckers attend university through generous loans and bursaries.

But the movement has snowballed into a general airing of grievances for Quebec's disenchanted and tuition is barely mentioned anymore. In a perverse reversal of roles, the students and their collaborators fighting for democracy and justice have become our oppressors. In their eyes, democracy and the rule of law are inconveniences to be ignored as they impose a tyranny of the minority on a seemingly helpless province.

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However, the majority of Quebec has no patience for this incoherent vision and no desire to see our nearly insolvent province led down the path to ruin by furthering a broken model.

After decades of being held hostage by the ubiquitous issue of Quebec's independence, we have been given the chance to move beyond this anachronistic question and break free from the ideological prison in which we have been confined for decades.

Quebec must now harness this tumult and use it to create a truly progressive state, free from the shackles of the socialist-sovereignist dogmas that have held us back for a generation.

Sandy White is studying law Laval University in Quebec City

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