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The tuition protesters' fellow travellers

Mix together a generation of kids used to having their way at home with various groups of adults carrying their own political agendas, and the cocktail you get is the longest and wildest student revolt in Canada's history.

This so-called "strike" would never have lasted so long if it hadn't been supported by adult fellow travellers from political parties, labour unions and pressure groups determined to strike a mortal blow to Jean Charest's Liberal government. The increase in university tuition, a relatively minor issue, served as a pretext for a ferocious political fight that would eventually gather a grab bag of protesters, from environmentalists to sovereigntists to ordinary citizens angry at the alleged government corruption.

A key element was the Parti Québécois's shameless support for the student boycott, with leader Pauline Marois and her MNAs sporting the red square emblem of the rebellion at their public appearances. In an amazing show of demagoguery, the PQ spent much more time denouncing the government's "bad management" of the crisis than condemning the endless series of illegal actions of its student protégés, from "strike votes" obtained by intimidation to riots where masked protesters armed with sticks, bricks, picks, billiard balls and smoke bombs wreaked havoc in Montreal. Very soon indeed, the movement was taken over by the most radical students, including militants from extreme-left fringe groups.

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Ms. Marois, who in her long political career changed her mind several times on the issue of tuition (last year, she was in favour of a hike) promised she would cancel the increase if she became premier and pleaded for a "moratorium" – a truce that would push the proposed reform down the road until the next election. In other words, Quebec's Official Opposition wanted a duly elected government to surrender to mob rule.

(This stand will hurt the PQ, though: According to successive CROP polls, the party has lost nine points in voter support over the past two months.)

The province's large labour federations financed the student rebels by handing them more than $60,000 – as if all unionized workers were on the side of the privileged kids aiming for the high end of the job market.

Many parents, even grandparents, were very vocal supporters of the strike, either because they would rather not have to pay more for their children's education or because they were trying to recapture their youth or because they were motivated by political convictions. Some even joined hands with stick-wielding masked militants to form picket lines around colleges and terrorize the students who had obtained a court order allowing them to continue their courses.

The most disturbing thing was the substantial number of teachers who sided with the radical students, ignoring their other students who were against the strike. Some teachers refused to teach the students who had obtained an injunction and some even accused them of being "selfish individualists."

Predictably, several groups of artists chimed in and waxed romantic about "Quebec's beautiful youth" parading in the streets – never mind that the demonstrators never were more than a tiny fraction of Quebec's youth. Despite the media hype and the street theatre, two-thirds of Quebec students didn't participate in the boycott, and the protesters made up less than 11 per cent of Quebeckers between 16 and 29.

The conflict is not finished, though. It remains to be seen whether the special law passed by the government will eventually bring peace or more chaos.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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