Quebec is in a fragile state, but Premier Jean Charest is not in a position to fix or heal it overnight. Conflict resolution – including mediation and arbitration – is wonderful in theory, but it doesn't happen unless both sides are ready and willing. The students are not.
They haven't lost anything yet. They haven't lost their academic year. They haven't lost money. They haven't lost friends. Far from it. Since the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 78 last Friday night, drawing a line between legitimate, peaceful assembly and the other kind seen so often of late in Montreal – others have joined them in their protests, including outsiders such as the Ontario union leader Sid Ryan. Suddenly they have allies. And they feel that they've gained the upper hand.
Just what have they gained? Riot police on the streets of Montreal each night. Helicopters overhead. Windows broken, the ever-present threat of violence. Hotels and restaurants losing business. Now the prospect that Montreal's famed jazz festival or Grand Prix could be ruined. In sum, they've shown that a mob willing to maraud into classrooms to intimidate students and teachers can gain leverage in a public dispute. It's a ruthless civics lesson, but the state needs to keep its head and respond with restraint.
And the issue remains – Quebeckers are entitled to a quality education competitive with that provided in the rest of Canada. Their universities need to fulfill their potential, as former premier Lucien Bouchard and other Quebec luminaries from across party lines said in calling for the province to raise tuitions $1,000 a year for five years. Mr. Charest did not go nearly that far. Quebec has the lowest tuitions in Canada – less than half of Ontario's – yet he proposed a much more modest increase of $325 a year for five years, adding a promise to increase bursaries for low-income students. He later compromised, reducing the increase by spreading it out over seven years, and granting students a way to neutralize those increases by opening the university books and forcing equivalent cuts. Even then, the students slapped him down.
Bill 78's power has been exaggerated. It is far from the War Measures Act. In its main thrust, requiring notice to police of protest routes, and setting fines for blocking school entrances, it is hardly unreasonable in a free society. Until protesters and leaders feel the law's bite, it is hard to see how talks will lead anywhere but to a capitulation that will harm the universities and the province's long-term interest in resisting mob rule.