Quebec Democracy and Education in Flux

On the date of writing, it was announced that the Parti Quebecois, forming the new minority government of Quebec with 54 of 125 seats, has repealed the tuition increases announced by former Liberal Premier Jean Charest which took effect September 1st, 2012. Pauline Marois, the new premier of Quebec, repeatedly sided with protestors and bore the Carré Rouge, their emblem over what some term the Maple Spring. The protests, which began in the fall of 2011, surged and became most apparent on March 22nd, and caused the delaying of semesters effective May 18 at the Université de Montréal and the Université de Québec á Montréal, are seemingly over.

The net result of boisterous, violent, and disruptive action among tens of thousands of students in forcing an election issue (although Jean Charest likely would have called an election before the province’s inquiry into corruption anyway) is the status quo. Tuition for Quebec residents and French citizens will be maintained at $2,168 per year, the lowest in Canada. The president of the more moderate university federation (FEUQ), Martine Desjardins, immediately tweeted “Victoire! La hausse et la loi sont annulées.” The protestors, apparently, have won. Or have they?

The solution of Quebec’s new government is to take an executive cabinet decision and eliminate the tuition hikes via an order-in-council. This option is hardly democratic. It means that a party winning slightly more than the barest minority of seats required to form a government (54 vs. 50 seats), with only a single percentage point of the popular vote more than its next closest competitor (the Liberal Party of Quebec) determines an issue that can be called controversial at its best and destructive at its worst. The decision takes away the purpose of the legislature of Quebec – as an arbiter of legislation – and completely annuls all other facts of the September 4 election, save for that the PQ got at least 1 more representative than the PLQ.

Given the critiques of the federal Conservative government’s executive action through cabinet decisions and that the legitimacy of their 54% majority in the House of Commons is disputed since it was won with only 39.6% of the national vote, one might expect similar critiques for the Parti Quebecois. The PQ received 31.95% of the vote and 43.20% of legislative seats, while the next party, the Parti Libéral du Quebec, received 31.20% of the vote and 40% of the legislative seats. The effect of an executive decision of such magnitude in Quebec, especially among students, is huge and legitimizes a spring and summer of violence.

Further, the inherent contradiction for Quebec students to support this action by Marois and her cabinet is in the nature of their own “student federations”. The organizing basis for FECQ, FEUQ, and CLASSÉ is a form of direct democracy which consistently requires voting to extend boycotts. Too, one must remember that one of the “leaders” of the strike movement was not a “leader” of the striking coalition at all. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of  CLASSÉ  was a “co-porte-parole” or “spokesperson”. Each leader held no executive authority and each decision had to be approved by the larger federations. When Jean Charest’s government met with the negotiators from each of these organizations on May 5th, and signed a tentative deal which stretched the tuition increases over a longer, 7-year period, these bodies still had to approve the decision by referendum (and they did not). If Quebec students want to reform their society and government, and CLASSÉ certainly has these intentions, then it must not compromise its ideal of direct democracy by accepting an executive decision over which the people of Quebec still strongly disagree.

Too, one must still consider the position of Universities in Quebec: underfunded. Each university relies on a balance of money to pay for instructors, auditorium and library facilities, tutoring and advising services, the maintenance of deteriorating buildings, and the apparatus which manages the whole affair. Despite the ‘public’ designation, they are little more than private entities receiving some distribution of public funds and user fees to enhance both the potential of the individual as well as society at large. Universities have their own budgets – and like governments, businesses, and individuals – may run annual deficits and debts. The reduction in the funds a University will receive (or will expect to receive) in its planned budget, simultaneously reduces the services it can provide.

The Globe and Mail’s Jeffery Simpson reports a $600 million dollar funding gap between Quebec universities and those in other provinces. McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Heather Munroe-Blum, reports this figure to be even higher, at $750 million. Her university expected the 2012-2013 academic year to result in a deficit of $7 million dollars, after the tuition hikes were applied. Without them, the total cumulative loss of revenue by 2018 will be $90 million for McGill alone. Adding this to the total accumulated debt during 2011-2012 of $275 million provokes more concern, since it means a large amount of money which might otherwise go to the aforementioned services is being spent on interest payments.

These losses in revenue, taken with the above analysis of university funding, result in a loss to the forgotten item in the Quebec Tuition Hikes debate: quality. While university may or may not be (in the protestor’s own words) “accessible”, the benefit one gains from university is likely to decline. Of the 15 Canadian universities in the top 400 of the 2012 QS World University Rankings, only 3 are from Quebec: McGill at 18th (and 1st in Canada), Université de Montréal at 114, and Laval at 324. The Times Higher Education figures from May list 16 Canadian schools in the top 350, of which only McGill and UdeM place from Quebec. These rankings confirm that the overall quality of Quebec education is hardly comparable on the international stage to the rest of Canada, and are reflective of the large funding gap – which would have been bridged by the tuition increase.

If they relish in their “victory” students must realize two consequences: (1) they have supported the undemocratic action of a hardly stable minority government and (2) they will receive an overall lower quality education when compared to their provincial peers. These are not the goals which should propel Quebec into the future, they are regressive and the PQ still can’t repeal Bill 78 by executive decision.

-McKenzie Kibler

3 thoughts on “Quebec Democracy and Education in Flux

  1. Excellent article McKenzie, well written, well done.

    Some comments, as always:

    As far as the PQ minority, we all have to realize that this is the way Canadian democracy works, at the federal and provincial level. I think you do realize this. Don’t forget that the conservatives minority in 2008 was only 37% of the vote. Not to different from this election. Regardless, the PQ has the minority, which means they get to steer the direction of Quebec politics. Also important to remember, the PQ has at least a 6-12 month window where they will have the support of the legislature – the Liberals are without a leader and the CAQ has no money. The last thing either will do is go for a vote of non-confidence and force an election. No one is prepared. Anyway, just some thoughts.

    Can you explain why the repealing is ‘undemocratic’? I just don’t understand, sorry hahaha. Surely they have used a procedure that is part of the democratic process of Quebec? Maybe you are arguing that the method they did use is somewhat undemocratic, and you are trying to highlight that the student groups are ‘supporting’ this now they have their way. I guess it is a fair enough argument.

    One interesting point, the PQ and CAQ received almost 60% of the vote. Whilst the CAQ had a platform of implementing some tuition hikes, the amount was less than the Liberals. It also shows that the liberals where not supported by the majority of Quebecers. Should this not be a sign that perhaps Charest made some unpopular decisions in the past months? Does 60% of the vote not in the favor of the Liberals constitute a ‘win’ for the students? Maybe. Obviously the student movement made a large impact on the election results. I would guess that Charest lost support on the simple fact he was not able to resolve the situation, regardless of the outcome. This hits at one of your first sentence: “The net result of boisterous, violent, and disruptive action among tens of thousands of students in forcing an election issue.” That sentence could also have read something like ‘The net result of a party that is unable to negotiate with student groups, uses police as a tool of suppressing opinion and abusing their power in legislating undemocratic laws, forced an election.’ I guess it depends on ones opinion 😛

    You raise the issue of University underfunding. This is going to be an issue, of course. However, maybe the people of quebec have decided they would rather pay again higher taxes to fund the universities, than put the burden on students. The money will have to come from somewhere. I also do question why McGill planned ONLY with the tuition increases in mind. Surely they must of thought a backup plan with the scenario that the student movement actually did ‘win’ this round would have been sensible? McGill has enough problems with financial mismanagement though, thats another debate (for reference, Citadelle has now cost over $45 million in renovations. They budgeted for $6-7. How no one has lost their job over this I don’t know).

    I am not sure how well your argument works for University funding and comparing Canadian Schools on the international stage. Quebec has three out of fifteen. 20% isn’t bad. Alberta only has two, out of the (at least) 6 universities I can think of, and Alberta fits the economic and political model that is exactly opposite of Quebec. Is this model any better then? It would be hard to argue so. Another important point, McGill and U de M ranked in the top 150, and were two of only five Canadian Schools to do so. We can’t be doing too badly?

    Anyway, again, a great read, well done.

  2. I believe as far as McKenzie’s comments go, the remarks on the executive order are regarding the democratic spirit of a minority government avoiding the rest of the house on an issue that would otherwise merit discussion. While it works fine and is completely legal in practice, if one were to step back and evaluate it without the current government structure, it would be important to question the inherent value of the move.

  3. This really is a great article though McKenzie, and I really did enjoy the read. Well done mate!

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