I think if I was ever really hard up for cash, I could make a pretty decent living as a conservative columnist. It would actually be pretty easy – all I’d have to do is learn to stop thinking things through and rely on ‘common sense’ to justify all of my boneheaded, reductive, stereotypical leaps to whatever conclusion was sure to resonate with those who hadn’t bothered to learn anything about an issue. I could have made a killing opining on the Montreal protests – it was the first time most Canadians (myself included) were paying any attention to Quebec’s provincial political scene. All I’d have to do is denigrate this group or that group (maybe blame it on immigrants to boot), and collect my cheque.
Unfortunately, I am a liberal, and a skeptic liberal at that. I just don’t have it in me to pass off simplistic pseudo-explanations as statements of fact – not for money, anyway. Since announcing my intention to travel to Montreal (and a number of times since returning – and once while I was still there), I’ve had many conversations about the protests, and managed to get my counterpoints down to pretty concise talking points.
“They just want a government handout. I flipped burgers/shoveled coal/wrestled dinosaurs to pay for my degree. If I did it, so can they!”
The cost of university education has been steadily increasing over the years, while the value of a university degree has been dropping. Students are graduating with an average of $27,000 of debt*. If you go back for a graduate or professional degree (often necessary if you want to earn an income that will allow you to pay that sum off), that number grows even larger. Most people I knew in undergraduate worked in addition to going to school. Many worked full-time hours over the summer (as did I) to pay for living expenses, tuition and books. Most of those did not earn enough to graduate without still having massive debt.
This view of school as something that you can afford on a dishwasher’s salary is absolute nonsense that bears little resemblance to reality. Especially now, with youth unemployment hovering around 15%, the prospect of earning enough to pay for school while you’re in school (or even working for a few years after high school to save up) is a relic of a past in which education was heavily subsidized. Under those circumstances, and facing a work world that won’t even look twice at them without a degree (and even then, just barely if you only have the one), it is not at all unreasonable to expect help.
“Quebeckers have nothing to complain about! Their tuition is the lowest in the country!”
Well gee, genius, let’s maybe take a look at why Quebec’s tuition rates are so low – it’s because they fought for it. It didn’t happen because governments are benevolent – it’s because they were forced to do it by passionate people who made it an issue. That is exactly what the students are doing. The high tuitions you see in other provinces are not the result of this latest financial crisis – in nearly every other province they have been increasing steadily, both in times of lean and in times of plenty. Students in Quebec should not be subjected to contempt simply because students in other provinces haven’t figured out that they have a say in the matter of their education.
“Banging pots and pans is for two year-olds! No wonder everyone thinks they’re a bunch of brats!”
Well there are a number of reasons why people like to demonize popular protest, but it almost never has anything to do with the method of demonstration. In this case, the ‘manifs casseroles’ are part of a tradition that extends back a surprisingly long way:
With their use of pots and pans, the Quebec demonstrators are taking part in the tradition of charivari, which in earlier times would see noisy demonstrations calling attention to a breach of community standards in the village or neighbourhood. The English called it “rough music,” and there were versions of it all over Europe and its colonies. Disguising themselves, young men would bang on pots and pans and ring cow bells in front of the house of, say, a widow or widower who was remarrying someone much too young. The youths were the voice of the community, given licence by their elders to restore order. The charivari was an alternative to violent exclusion, instead shaming its target into compensation or reparation. This was often a payment of money that allowed everyone to go down to the local inn for a festive drink or meal.
The charivari evolved into a form of political protest, and from the 16th century on, there are many such examples. Older working men and sometimes women might join with the youth, clanging pots and pans against unjust officials and their policies. In 1576 in Dijon, the noise was directed against the king’s master of forests, not just for beating his wife but for cutting down the trees he was supposed to preserve for the people’s use. In 17th-century France, charivaris targeted royal tax collectors oppressing the families of peasants and artisans.
So yes, while ignorance is a lot easier than research, it’s also far less interesting, and makes for pretty poor argument.
“You should have to pay for your education. Expecting it to be free is ridiculous.”
Ignoring for the moment that there are lots of places that offer free university, this argument fails to understand how subsidized tuition works. The money comes from taxation. The students, once they graduate, will be in the working world and earning salaries of some kind. Unless they decide to vacate the province en masse once they have the certificate in their hands (which is particularly difficult for those who are not fluent English speakers), they will be working (and paying taxes) in Quebec. All the student organizations are saying is “let us pay later rather than going into debt now”.
Think about it this way – what is better for growing an economy: a work force who is paying higher taxation rates to pay down 100% of the cost of their education, or a work force paying 100+prime+5% in student loans? People paying back debt cannot use that money to purchase consumer goods, which is what drives small business growth. It’s not complicated economics – it’s just a matter of breaking out of this “hurr durr handouts” mentality that seems to dominate the political discourse.
“Lower tuition is not a panacaea. It benefits the wealthy far more than the poor.”
This is more or less true – you get better return for your investment if you spend money on bursaries and scholarships rather than free tuition. Expecting those who can afford to pay to chip in more so that those who deserve to be there but can’t afford it is far more progressive than free tuition. If it were an either/or prospect, this would be a valid argument. But it isn’t. All budgets are lists of priorities, and to suggest that Quebec simply cannot afford to subsidize tuition and provide bursaries is silly; it’s that they have other things they’d rather subsidize. Well, the students disagree, and they finally have the government’s attention.
Besides, this movement isn’t necessarily about helping the poor – it’s about the direction in which people want to see their country move. Do we want to simply yield to what we are told is a necessary condition – education becoming ever more expensive until the situation is as bad in Quebec as it is in other places? Or do we believe that we can force the political system to change – to use our collective political power to demand changes in an unsatisfactory system? This issue, I believe, goes far deeper than simply the question of tuition rates – it is an existential question about the nature of government and the role of the people in public life. We don’t have to adjust our expectations to fit this party platform or that one – we can agitate and force the platforms to fit our needs.
There is no end to the number of arguments deployed against the protesters, and the fact that the refutations are this easy to produce tells you pretty much all you need to know about how sound they are.
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*Jean rightly points out that the national average is misleading when we are talking about Quebec specifically. More accurate figures are available here.