After more than 100 days of striking, Quebec students have backed the provincial government into a corner. An election that will surely bring it down seems the only solution to quell unprecedented, and sometimes violent, protests taking over Montreal night after night.
Short of call in the Avengers, Quebec’s Liberal government appears to be stuffed - in the political sense of course.
It has fallen prey to students. Tens and tens of thousands of angry, determined protesting students.
Trouble is Quebec Premier Jean Charest has seriously underestimated the province’s budding academics and instead of negotiating with them in good faith, he’s poured a large cauldron of legal/political oil onto the fire.
The students have been ‘striking’ for more than 100 days.
They are angry at proposed tuition hikes. Some vow to stop only when education is ‘free’ - totally paid for by the taxpayer.
They now hold downtown Montreal, and to a lesser extent Quebec city, to ransom night after night as huge protests wind their way through the streets, blocking traffic and causing local businesses to fret about the fast approaching summer festival season - the jewel in Montreal’s tourism crown beginning in two weeks with the Grand Prix, then the fabled Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just Pour Rire (Comedy) festival.
Sometimes - well quite a few times actually - the protests have turned ugly and bricks have been hurled through windows and at riot police, cars have been damaged, fires have been set in the middle of the streets.
Such incidents in themselves are not so alarming when the numbers involved in these now nightly protests are considered. The intensity is nothing like the riots in Britain nearly a year ago. Student protests are part of growing up, developing political ideologies, social awareness and all that.
However what also needs to be considered are the reasons for the protests in the first place against the now obvious hijacking of the student movement by those who are using it to unabashedly force ‘regime‘ change in Quebec.
Perspective:- Quebec tuition fees are the lowest in Canada. They are way, way lower than New Zealand student fees. The proposed hikes are $254 more in tuition annually over the next seven years. Quebec is the most highly taxed yet indebted province in Canada. Students who do the math will realise that the semester they are in danger of forfeiting will mean an extra semester they have to pay for on the other end of their degrees in order to graduate. Students who come from families earning less than $100,000 a year will not be affected by the fee hike.
But none of the above are the point. Its the principle of where higher education fits in our societies, and it should be afforded a respected position. Like trades of all kinds, education benefits society.
In a political move worthy of the “I-am-a-hammer-and-everything-is-a-nail” school of action, Premier Charest brought in emergency legislation that cracked down on all protests, irrespective of the protesters.
The now infamous Bill 78 hit a raw nerve in Quebec.
Instead of just students protesting, Quebecers of all walks of life hit the streets - Tuesday’s demo attracted up to 150,000 - the third in three months to spill over the 100,000 mark in one go. That’s a lot of people unhappy with the government and convinced the government is now infringing on the civil rights of all.
Constitutional lawyers are analyzing every aspect of the new legislation which the Quebec Bar Association has condemned. Civil rights lawyers are already planning action to challenge the law which they believe contravenes Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The main effect of the Bill is to force those who want to demonstrate in numbers of 50 or more, to give the police 8 hours notice of the march and its route. If they fail to do that, the police have the right to declare as illegal the march and shut it down.
In the few days since Bill 78 has been on the books, the police have given protesters significant leeway. However now the arrests are starting in earnest - Wednesday night 450 in downtown Montreal, 170 in Quebec. There will be plenty more to come as students have vowed to continue their monster protests.
The sheer defiance of the students is astonishing. They seem to have no problem staring down riot squads, tear gas, sound cannons, mounted police. They just don’t seem intimidated.
They come back night after night in massive numbers.
They are also infiltrated - and for some, funded - by unions and those politically aligned in opposition to the government. No surprise, and no crime there.
Those who throw molotov cocktails and bricks are a tiny minority.
The danger for Quebec as a whole is wider than broken windows and an overworked and exhausted police force - although the latter could have ramifications on the streets in the not too distant future.
The bigger picture is that the demonstrations manifest a definite francophone/anglophone divide in that none of the English universities and colleges have voted for, or if they did originally, maintained, the ‘strike’. English students are few and far between in the seas of red (chosen protest colour) that snake through the streets.
When Quebec has an French/English divide the question of sovereignty is always there.
Attempts by the sovereignists to secede from Canada in the past have been defeated by only the most slim margins.
Now the pressure is mounting on the Liberal Premier because he has been very deftly backed in to a corner.
Even local bookies have put odds on his future and the outcome of the protests.
What Next? is THE question...and only the students seem to have an answer - what you see is the new Quebec until they get what they want.
Premier Charest was hoping to have a quick little (re)-election in the upcoming Fall.
He’s now so unpopular (again) that even he knows that would be political suicide.
However, the choice may no longer be his as calls are mounting for him to put to the vote his handling of the student protests and his ham-fisted emergency legislation which protesters are intent on defying night after night.
Where the students have done the numbers, is calculating the chaos for the police and court system if they all challenge their fines.
All that said an election in Quebec would not be a bad thing - but for other reasons. Charest’s government has been fighting allegations of corruption on massive scales for some time now. The mafia seems to have its tentacles in all sorts of areas - from the pockets of high ranked bureaucrats to a stunning infiltration of the highly lucrative construction industry.
In that respect the students may be doing all a favour in forcing Charest’s hand.
But as always, be careful what you wish for.
The Parti Québécois will be a shoe-in unless it self destructs (which is not impossible at any time).
The Parti would no doubt overturn Bill 78.
But, what if it can’t offer free tuition?
What if it can’t even freeze tuition levels?
What if the stench of corruption and/or political ineptitude still hangs in the Quebec air?
All highly likely.
It could be quite a summer in my (temporary) adopted city.