Quebec Premier Jean Charest wavered in the face of 12 weeks of sometimes violent protests that convulsed downtown Montreal, and compromised with students on the tuition increases. But he succeeded in sending a message that Quebec's social entitlements will not last forever.
Those entitlements, from the country's lowest tuition fees by far to subsidized hydro-electricity and pharmaceuticals to $7-a-day daycare, are on a European model that Europe can no longer afford, and that have tipped Quebec's finances dangerously out of balance.
Mr. Charest's proposed increase of $325 a year for five years on the annual tuition of $2,500 may not sound like much outside of Quebec – certainly not in Ontario, where tuition for an arts degree is $6,600 – but it touched on an entitlement as deep as a birthright. The students felt justified in their rock-throwing and window-breaking, in setting cars on fire and in intimidating students who wanted to attend class. The leaders of these protests stayed quiet at times when responsible leaders would have called for discipline and good behaviour.
The Parti Québécois accused Mr. Charest of turning against the province's children, a laughable accusation. The Premier is fighting for a more realistic and ultimately more productive future for his province, which includes those young people. Young people who go to university benefit in increased earnings and it is reasonable that they and their families contribute. And Mr. Charest agreed to kick in millions of dollars to increase bursaries for low- and middle-income students.
There was an Occupy mentality to the sometimes ugly protests, the idea that a takeover of public space merits a takeover of public policy. Mr. Charest finally met the students partway, making a tentative deal for a $254-a-year increase over seven years, while students will be part of committees looking for equivalent savings in university expenses, so that ancillary fees can be cut. (The students believe research dollars should be cut because their benefits may go to corporations.) But he made his point: Quebec's entitlements are not sacred.