Quebec’s Students Revolt
French Canadians demand free education.

Students protest in Victoriaville, Quebec, May 4, 2012.


In Quebec, the students are revolting. This is both surprising and utterly predictable: surprising because college students in French Canada have by far the best financial deal in the country and should thus be the last people to complain, predictable because the Québécois have a long history of being difficult and demonstrate adroitly that, even when surrounded, the French will be the French.

The student protests in the province are now into their third month and, last week in Victoriaville, flared once again into spasmodic violence. Of the 2,000 protesters, 106 were arrested after eleven people — four of them police officers — were injured, and widespread property damage was inflicted. The agitators opted for a mixture of tactics, combining classics such as smashing windows and setting off pyrotechnics with some more creative criminality, such as throwing billiard balls at the cops. Since February, hundreds of riots, blockades, and college sit-ins have sent police-overtime costs soaring, not least because of the growing presence of a “Black Bloc” contingent that has brought with it a harder edge.

Despite their “Human Rights” rhetoric, the students are ultimately angry at economic reality. Unlike Canada’s federal government, Quebec is drowning in debt — the total of which currently stands at $184 billion, or 55.5 percent of its GDP — and, in an effort to address its obligations, the province has suggested raising college fees by 75 percent over seven years. This has upset the mob, which has refused to “compromise” and consequently gone on “strike” — whatever that means; they are students, after all — despite a series of meetings between students and the government that, in the words of the Toronto Sun, are now “right back where they started.”

When one investigates the details of higher-education policy in French Canada, one is left wondering why anyone would so much as complain to a neighbor, let alone start a riot. In a sentence that single-handedly demonstrates the need for Jonah Goldberg’s new book, The Tyranny of Clichés, one student told the Chicago Tribune that “people study a whole diverse host of things, and do social work and community work after they study, and they shouldn’t be beholden to thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt that sometimes they can’t repay.”

No doubt such language cuts the mustard among “social justice” types, but those of us still possessed of our critical faculties might wish to look more closely. Currently, university fees in Quebec are C$2,168 per year — less than half of the Canadian average of $5,336. By the time the proposed increase had been implemented, they would be C$3,700 per annum, which, over four years, comes to about C$15,000. The students argue that education is essential in the modern world and is thus a human right. But it can’t be too valuable — or too good — if it produces a significant number of students who would be incapable of paying back C$15,000 over the course of their lifetimes.

Indeed, given the paradox — the frivolous nature of the complaints sits in stark juxtaposition to the huge numbers involved in the protests, 170,000 by the National Post’s count — some have begun to ask whether this really is a movement that is still led by students at all. Marc-Oliver Fortin, a student at McGill University in Montreal, told Ezra Levant on Sun News’ The Source that the protest had been hijacked by environmental groups, unions, extreme separatist groups such as the Parti Québécois, the Socialist International, and a bunch of garden-variety anarchists, and that they had transformed the protests into a general opposition movement against the government. By way of illustration, the Ottawa Citizen noted that an Earth Day demonstration on April 22 had inexplicably morphed into an anti-government grandstand.

Taking a leaf from Occupy, the tuition protesters have taken to various forums to note that, if nothing else, their demonstrations have spread to other groups and started a “conversation.” Perhaps so, but it is a silly one. By virtue of living in a province that is afforded the opportunity to focus on social policies by an indulgent and cowed federal government, students in La Belle Province continue to enjoy an enviable deal in difficult times. That they are the ones agitating for radical change is indicative of a serious disconnect with reality.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.