Quiet Revolution's old dreams fuel Quebec protests

Associated Press + More

By PHIL COUVRETTE and ROB GILLIES, Associated Press

MONTREAL (AP) — Quebec's generous social services date back to sweeping reforms in the 1960s, a period of intense nationalism. Yet many Quebecers look back at the "Quiet Revolution" with regret over one unfulfilled promise: free higher education.

That sentiment is fueling Canada's most sustained student demonstrations ever. It has been anything but quiet.

Some 150,000 students in more than a dozen Quebec colleges and universities have been on strike since February to protest the provincial government's plan to raise tuition fees. Street protests in Montreal have ended in clashes with police and mass arrests.

A strict new law designed to stop the demonstrations has only broadened the movement to include separatists and Occupy protesters, and triggered a wider debate over public freedoms. The students are threatening to persevere through the summer, just when the city traditionally awakens from its dark and frigid winter for jazz and comedy festivals that draw in millions of dollars in tourist revenue.

The French-speaking province's average undergraduate tuition — $2,519 a year — is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike— $254 per year over seven years — is tiny by U.S. standards. But opponents consider the raise an affront to the philosophy of the 1960s reforms that set Quebec apart not only from its U.S. neighbor but from the rest of Canada.

"The whole consensus around education was built around the Quiet Revolution," said Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the Universite de Montreal. "That consensus would tend toward a tuition-free model in the future. That was a promise."

As a result, he said, Quebecers don't compare their tuition rates to those in the U.S. or English-speaking Canada, but to those in European countries where higher education is free.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who has vowed to shake up the debt-ridden province's finances since he was elected nearly a decade ago, has refused to cave.

More than 2,500 students have been arrested since the demonstrations began more than 100 days ago, including nearly 700 this past Wednesday alone. The total is five times the arrests during a period in the 1970s when soldiers were deployed to the streets in Quebec because of a spate of terrorism by a group demanding independence from Canada.

The tuition hike is part of a broader effort to shift Quebec's fiscal burden away from taxpayers — the province has some of the steepest personal income taxes in North America and the highest per-capita debt in Canada— and onto the shoulders of each person who uses a service.

"Every citizen has to do their part," Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "This is the 21st century."

Bachand said the students want more money in their pocket to the detriment of others. He noted that the government has expanded student grants so that middle and lower income students can more easily afford the increase.

"We're talking about 50 cents a day so basically it's moved from a question of tuition fees to a question of a social movement like you've seen in other parts of the world," Bachand said. "We're not used to this as Canadians. We're used to sitting down, disagreeing, negotiating and coming to an agreement."

In an effort to restore peace, Charest's government passed emergency legislation on May 18 restricting protests and closing striking campuses until August. The law requires that police be informed eight hours before a protest begins, including details on the route of any demonstration of 50 or more people. It also prohibits demonstrations within 50 meters (165 feet) of a college and declares that anyone who incites or helps another person break the new protest regulations can be fined. 

The new law has "changed the discourse now and introduced a new element into the debate, and that is the question of rights," said Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at Concordia University. The students have challenged the law in court.

Provincial Public Safety Minister Robert Dutil said Quebec cities are simply joining others that already have tough rules for organizing protests, including Los Angeles and New York.

"Law 78" has inspired a particularly cacophonous form of protest: from 8 p.m. to 8:15 p.m., people around Quebec emerge onto sidewalks and balconies to bang pots and pans.

Anne Claude, a 23-year-old computer student banging pots with a friend one evening in the heart of Montreal's Latin Quarter, said the law has only increased her resolve to be heard.

"The new law limits our ability to demonstrate," Claude shouted over the noise.

Across the street, pizza parlor owner Naeem Ahmed shook his head when he recalled the sight of an open fire hydrant gushing water into his business and a bonfire lit dangerously close by.

Ahmed, 37, has had a front row seat to more than 30 straight nights of protests. Confrontations between helmeted police and students have scared customers away. Students sometimes seek shelter in his establishment to escape police sweeps.

"For businesses it has been really, really horrible," Ahmed said, taking a break with some of his employees to look at cellphone footage of a recent protest. One of his employees joined the pot-bangers, clanging two trash lids together.

"Police come and ask everybody to leave," he said.

Still, he sympathizes with the students. "If you go to any country, when the students hit the streets, you have to listen to them," he said. "When they come out you have to accept it."

The student groups and the government have announced their intention to return to negotiations in the next days, with Quebec Education Minister Michelle Courchesne saying she expects a "very, very important" session following positive discussions over the phone.

But the two sides seem far apart. Student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois wants to propose a long-term plan that would essentially fulfill the promise of the Quiet Revolution: scrapping university tuition fees altogether within five years and funding that by increasing taxes on financial institutions.

That is the opposite of what the government wants.

"Sacred cows only exist in India," the finance minister has repeatedly said.

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Gillies reported from Toronto.

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