De-Mything Quebec’s Maple Spring
Why the student protest should not be compared to the Arab Spring.
Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
As a professor in Montreal with some stakes in the game, I have been writing quite a lot on my blog about student protests in Quebec. I did not write anything for the Canadian International Council on this because I did not think it was as relevant to Canada’s international relations as Afghanistan, the Arctic, and the variety of defence issues I have addressed over the past several months here. But now that international outlets are covering (or mis-covering) the contretemps in Quebec, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticized the Quebec response to the protests, I feel it is time to address the myths and realities of the so-called Maple Spring.
The only similarity between the Maple Spring and the events in the Middle East that began last year is that young people were mobilized to protest. Other than that, there is nothing in common. There are, however, a number of key differences.
For one thing, the stakes are entirely different – by orders of magnitude. The people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere have been seeking to overthrow dictators. The students in Quebec want a tuition freeze.
Second, the governments in the Middle East used force early, often, and disproportionately. While Montreal police have unfortunately been responsible for some abuses, those abuses have been the exception, rather than the rule.
The Quebec protests also differ greatly from the Arab Spring in that the democratic/representative credentials of the student protesters are actually rather weak:
- The three major student groups that are protesting represent only one-third of Quebec’s students. Most other students seek to continue their education without interruption.
- Furthermore, these three groups are hardly unified. In fact, they take advantage of their disunity to disavow any responsibility for the acts taken by others that border on terrorism (such as the smoke bombs that were released in the Metro system).
- In addition, more than a few of the votes taken by student groups were less than what we expect in an advanced democracy (public shows of hands, questionable quorums, etc.).
- For the most part, these groups have seemed to maintain that their rights are the only ones that matter. They have even violated injunctions aimed at allowing other students to continue to go to class. Last time I checked, rule of law was a defining characteristic of democracy.
- Members of the general public have been on the other side, as they do not want Quebec’s already comparatively high taxes to be raised yet again.
In addressing the conflict, the Quebec government’s responses have been more flexible than those of the students. The Government of Quebec, which I scorn on a daily basis, did agree to change the tuition increase of $325 per year for five years to a bit less over seven years. The goal was to move tuition from $2,168 per year to $3,793, which would still leave it among the lowest tuition rates in all of North America, to compensate for more than a decade of tuition freezes followed by very modest increases. The government also promised to provide loans and credits so that the burden of the increase would fall only on a small percentage of students – those with the ability to cover these increased costs.
The student groups, on the other hand, did not offer any compromises in the bargaining sessions – only schemes that would have kept the tuition freeze in place and put the burden of increased fees somewhere else in Quebec.
After months of protests that disrupted traffic, among other things, the Quebec government put forth Bill 78. This bill is a political mistake, but not a legal disaster. I am not a lawyer or legal scholar, but it seems to me that the government’s insistence that protests involving more than 50 people (the original 10-person limit was beyond stupid and quickly revised) register with the police is not far outside the norm for democracies. That Montreal and Quebec seemed to have no rules beforehand for managing, not squelching, dissent seemed most problematic.
Most importantly, the government has not frequently implemented the more onerous parts of this bill. Protests have continued with much police presence and some arrests, but dissent via assembly and speech continue in Quebec.
It seems clear that the bill was an overreaction. What was needed was better enforcement of existing injunctions, not new emergency legislation.
We desperately need some perspective. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, put Quebec’s responses to student protests in the same sentence as the killing of journalists in Latin America, discrimination against the LGBT community in the former Soviet Union, and the demise of democracy in Hungary. Please. I am all for comparing things, even apples and oranges, but this is a case of apples and chairs. These events are hardly similar, and are entirely unrelated.
Perhaps Pillay felt a need to throw a token western country under the bus so that she would not seem to be imperialist. If that is the case, then she should have picked from a list of real human-rights problems in the West, such as how Canada treats its First Nations, how the U.S. treats its Native Americans, how Europe treats its Roma population (including France trying to expel them), and so on. Indeed, why not focus on the rising tide of xenophobia aimed at immigrants, especially at a time when such people are trying escape Libya, Syria, and so on?
As an American scholar living in Canada, I have no problem criticizing Canada and the U.S., but one needs to choose better targets where rights actually are being significantly infringed, and where humans are at risk. Comparing Quebec’s season of discontent with real, significant, and enduring violations of human rights only serves to make the UN Human Rights Commission look ridiculous, perhaps even more so than when it had Qaddafi’s Libya as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.
Photo courtesy of Reuters