What had to happen happened. Thursday in Quebec City, another round of negotiations between the Liberal government and student representatives reached an impasse. Again.
After more than 110 days of strike/boycott by a sizable and pugnacious minority of Quebec students, no agreement is in sight. Tens of thousands of students, including mine, are at risk of losing their term and, in spite of Bill 78’s draconian measures, I don’t yet see how classes can be taught in the fall in an atmosphere conducive to learning. Moreover, as we reach 40 consecutive nights of massive demonstrations, the conflict is having a real economic impact, which will be felt during next weekend’s Montreal Grand Prix.
Can we make sense of this situation? What next?
What this last bout of negotiations revealed is the simple fact that the gap between the student and government positions is, for all practical purposes, unbridgeable.
Since 2003, Jean Charest’s Liberal government has favoured lower taxes and an increased reliance on user fees for government services. In higher education, its approach leans toward a market-oriented, individualistic perspective that sees post-secondary studies as a personal investment in “human capital.”
The student leaders are defending a model of universal access, based on a vision of education as a collective good for society. Their position is in line with the legacy of the Quiet Revolution, but even if most Quebecers identify with this historic turn in the definition of their society, the “consensus” the students purport to represent is far from monolithic.
Indeed, among political parties, only the Parti Québécois and the left-fringe Québec Solidaire share the central tenets of the students’ philosophy, while the Liberals and François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec identify with the market model.
Hard choices have to be made, but they should be made at the polls after a reasoned debate, not at a negotiating table after a dialogue of the deaf marked by threats and injunctions.
The student leaders have not brought the government to its knees, but they and their cause have made significant gains nonetheless.
First, with poise and determination, they have given a voice to their generation and forced their elders to listen and include them as full-fledged participants in broad societal debates.
They benefited from a fortuitous turn of events. Notably, the Charest government’s attempt to quell protests backfired. Negative reactions to the perceived harshness of Bill 78, along with the government’s dismal popularity ratings, put new wind into the sails of popular protest across Quebec and defused the violence that had discredited the students’ cause.
What also changed the dynamics of the situation was the brilliant idea to channel protesters’ energy into hitting pots and pans rather than persons or property. By giving the street back to peaceful demonstrators rather than leaving it to violent troublemakers, this spontaneous movement allowed the students to gain the sympathy of large numbers of citizens.
The noisy and festive demonstrations that ensued expressed the broad exasperation with the Charest government, heavily burdened with the fatigue of nine years in power. Incidentally, they also provided a powerful symbolic instrument for protesters to express themselves peacefully on a range of issues across Quebec and increasingly elsewhere in Canada, and even abroad.
To have a lasting effect, however, this movement will need to translate the power of the street into the power of ballots in an election that is expected in the fall. That will be a challenge.
First, the students were able to extract real concessions. If public opinion forgets its distaste for the government long enough to focus on that fact, the students might lose some of their support. It is still unclear to me why they didn’t take these concessions and wait for an election to confront the government while their political capital in the form of public sympathy was highest.
Of course, if violence returns to the forefront and other unfortunate tragedies mar the protests, that capital might simply evaporate.
Also, young people will need to realize that participating in countless demonstrations will mean little if they fail to turn out to vote.
Then there is the division of the vote. By siding with the students, the PQ has alienated some of its more moderate or right-of-centre supporters. The biggest winner from a strong protest movement could be the more radical Québec Solidaire, which could lead to an unpredictable election result.
Stay tuned. The summer should be long and hot, and the pots may not just be making noise. They might also be boiling.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal. He is currently in the middle of his longest midterm break ever.
Hot summer ahead in Québec
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Pierre Martin49 articles
Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécuri...
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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)