When the Students Push Back

If you’re reading this from Montreal, you won’t be surprised at the subject. If you’re anywhere else in the country—you’d better sit down. It seems that life in Canada’s second largest metropolis is on pause right now, as the city is embroiled in bitter protests. On the surface, the protests are about university tuition fees, but the issues run deeper, to money, politics and fairness—much deeper, in fact, than most people realize.

Although not nearly as prominent in the national news cycle as some would expect, Montreal has been gripped by a series of student demonstrations this week. Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in the nation, a status heavily subsidized by the provincial government. Students in the province pay, on average, between one-quarter and one-third of what students in neighboring Ontario pay for tuition. The cash-strapped provincial government wants to change that, and phase in a 75% increase over five years. The result has been astonishing, at times even violent.

Despite the relative indifference of most Canadians outside Quebec, the strikes are gaining international intention, as they spur on a dialogue that runs deeper than mere tuition hikes; people everywhere are starting to examine the social and economic inequalities that are fuelling countless protests like these in recent years. Everywhere, it seems, except the rest of Canada.

Within Quebec, the public is leaning away from the students’ position, and much of the small subset of the national population that is paying attention seems to be of the same mind: “You don’t pay much as it is, so don’t complain about a bit more.” However, it’s worth proposing that the problem may not be that Quebec students pay less and are outraged at being asked for more, but that other Canadian students pay so much more and never ask why they shouldn’t be paying less.

Rather than being indifferent or outright condemning the students’ motives (the violence is, of course, unacceptable), we should be concerned about why similar motives aren’t a factor in the rest of the country. The argument for high tuition—that inflation means tuition must get more expensive over time, just like a cup of coffee—don’t bear fruit in light of the economic talking points hammered into us by successive governments.

Politicians like to say that students should pay more because the cost of education is rising, yet it is those very same young adults who are to become the educated, tax-paying, voting masses of tomorrow. As the talking heads chatter on about encouraging young workers and growing new jobs, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for young people to acquire the skills—that is, the higher education—to fill those positions that are so desperately needed and will become ever more in demand.

Further, it’s ludicrous to claim that there “just isn’t enough money” when we watch successive governments fritter tax dollars away on overpriced jets or protracted ethical scandals.

It’s incredibly demoralizing to work for four or five years (often much longer) and come out with nothing to show for it beyond massive debt and terrible job prospects. If that sounds dramatic, well, it is. Young people are increasingly desperate—the bills roll in every month, while newspaper headlines outline dim job numbers and prevaricating politicians. Often, it seems like there’s no real solution in sight, let alone a stable, sensible fix to the deeply intertwined problems of expensive education and high unemployment.

In light of the fact that previous generations enjoyed relatively better economic conditions and much more affordable costs, the sense of betrayal can grow ever sharper in view. Quite frankly, it feels exceptionally unfair that merely because of timing and circumstance, students today must struggle financially in ways their predecessors did not.

These protests have deeper roots and are affecting more people than you may think. Just imagine how the young NDP MPs from Quebec are affected; as Stephanie Levitz pointed out in the Canadian Press, these are people who, if not for their surprise parliamentary wins last year, would likely be out among the protesters. They’ve had to toe the party line on the matter and maintain near silence, although they almost certainly have opinions. Like many others, they’re probably finding it hard to reconcile their belief in what the protests demand at their core—accessible higher education—with condemnation of the rising violence.

Nobody is going to win any hearts or minds with violence—that much is obvious. However, the core message here, that higher education should be a right and not a privilege of the wealthy elite, rings deep and strong. Rising public opinion against the protesters risks taking their quite serious issue and diluting it into nothing more than a political pawn in an ever-volatile electoral game. The people of Quebec, and the rest of the country, should be paying heed to what these students are saying. Conversely, we as young, tuition- and tax-paying adults, should be just as concerned. The central injustice sits as heavily on our shoulders as those of our brothers and sisters in Montreal. We, like all Canadians, should be fighting the good fight: accessible, affordable higher education should be a right.

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