Striking students of Quebec, There’s been a lot of news about you recently. Across the country, we’ve watched your situation unfold with a certain disquiet, an unease about what’s been happening. As Canadians, we’ve always acknowledged Québécois’ occasionally different way of doing things as a part of the province’s unique and interesting position within Canada. Over the past few months, though, we have looked on and debated, as you, the students of Quebec, have carried out large protests unlike anything we’ve seen in a generation—certainly not in English Canada, anyway. The government wants to raise your tuition. This is frustrating, of course—in a world where student debts are only getting higher and employment prospects dimmer, the idea that already strained students should be asked to take on more debt is a bitter pill to swallow. Your frustration is shared across the country and around the world.
The argument that Quebec already pays the lowest tuition in North America has hindered the protests, but at the same time given rise to a vocal opposition asking why students elsewhere aren’t also demanding more affordable, accessible education. You’re right to be angry—our entire generation is, to some extent. While world leaders are chauffeured between meetings, from one five-star hotel and private jet to the next, most of us are struggling under heavy loan repayments and credit card bills. It’s hard to save for a condo or house when every meager cent you earn goes to paying off your student loans—don’t even start on the costs of getting married or having a family. But you also need money to be social, go on dates, enjoy life. It’s simply not fair that one generation had it so much easier and now expects you to take the lumps of their fiscal mismanagement so they can cushion their own impending retirement. Unfortunately, all your righteous anger, all your frustration and self-assertion are undermined with every smashed window and violent outburst. The moment that first Molotov cocktail flew through the crisp spring air in downtown Montreal, you ceded your moral high ground. Many have condemned the swift legal response from the government as an infringement upon your right to assemble and argue your cause.
However, as one Globe and Mail columnist pointed out, in Canada we have the right to peaceful assembly, a key distinction from many other nations. The notion, enshrined in constitutional law, that we can petition the government of our grievances, provided we maintain public order, applies to everyone in Canada—even idealistic young Québécois. Although the general public has not necessarily looked kindly upon your strike until now, there was a growing sense of sympathy (if only fuelled by an even stronger disdain for the current provincial government). Tragically, the protests turned riotous and what fleeting support you had is now gone. Your cause is just, and certainly relatable. Whether from Quebec or Ontario, Spain or the United Kingdom, our generation is feeling the pinch everywhere. In Spain, youth unemployment is nearing a catastrophic 50%. Back home in Canada, most students are graduating from college or university with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and futile job opportunities. Here’s a young graduate living in Toronto, scrambling to find work, any work, that will pay the rent; there’s a young woman in Vancouver with an finance degree that can’t get even get a job as a bank teller. We feel your pain and desire for change—but letting your anger turn to violence is a dead end. Democracy, peace and order cannot be sacrificed because we’ve been unfairly dealt a bad hand. Interrupting and vandalizing classes that continue is madness. As Margaret Wente pointed out in the Globe, “shutting down Montreal’s subway system with smoke bombs [isn’t] a legitimate tactic.” Protests against this type of enforced austerity aren’t over, far from it. Democratic elections in Europe, fuelled by large voter turnout among young people, have rejected austerity programs of the type the Quebec and Canadian governments are trying to impose. Unfortunately for you, the striking students here at home, the game is over. You lost it in a hail of thrown bricks and tear gas canisters.
Voters don’t like violence, not here in the land of peace, order and good government. The support for emergency government legislation to end your strike has massive support. Any hope of gaining the sympathy of the general public en masse is out the window—and that was the only hope you had of success. If there’s to be any chance of salvaging your protest to stop tuition hikes (let alone your dignity or what’s left of the spring semester), you’d better calm down before you lose what little sympathy you still have out there.