“Lessons from Quebec’s Student Protests”

They pay less than BC’s post-secondary crowd, yet the revolt is unlikely to spread west. Here’s why.

Students demonstrate April 29 in front of Quebec's National Assembly. Sign reads: "THE WAKEUP BELL HAS RUNG!!! QUEBECERS, ON YOUR FEET!!!"

This article originally appeared on The Tyee. 

Quebec and British Columbia could well be described as sister provinces. Both siblings are photogenic and outdoorsy, with more than a hint of estrangement from the ROC (“Rest Of Canada”).

Politically, both provinces feature socially progressive urban centres, routinely mocked by those outside the big cities. Both are governed by unpopular Liberal premiers: Jean Charest, an ex-Tory, and Christy Clark, who has started recruiting federal Conservative staffers at an impressive rate.

Charest and Clark are each caught between a resurgent, traditional social-democratic opposition and an upstart right-of-centre party. With elections looming, both premiers appear to be tacking to the right, trying to squeeze out their business-friendly opponents — John Cummins in B.C. and François Legault in Quebec.

In Quebec, this shift has crystallized in the decision to hike tuition fees by 75 per cent over the next seven years. At an average of $1,625 per student, the savings for government would be modest, but symbolic.

Backed by roughly half the population, the government has faced down 175,000 striking post-secondary students, refusing to reinstate a tuition freeze. Electorally, the Liberals’ tough stance appears to be working. Last week the Quebec Liberal Party squeezed out a first-place finish in a CROP poll conducted for La Presse, leading to speculation that Charest is polishing his campaign buses with little red felt squares.

That ubiquitous red square, by the way, is a play on the phrase “carrément dans le rouge,” or “squarely in the red.” I’ve pinned one to my jacket to show my philosophical support for the students, even if I think some groups’ tactics are counterproductive. My involvement is not totally abstract: I am one of many young people from B.C. to have been lured away at one time by Quebec’s excellent and affordable universities.

During my undergrad, B.C. had the fastest-growing tuition fees in the country. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011/2012 undergrads in B.C. paid an average of $4,852 a year, up from $2,527 a decade earlier. That’s a 92 per cent increase. (Inflation over the same period was 23 per cent.) In comparison, Quebec looks rather attractive: $2,519 this year versus $1,843 ten years earlier, for a hike of 37 per cent.

The cost of living in Vancouver is also ridiculous. In The Economist’s 2012 worldwide cost of living survey, Vancouver is listed as the most expensive city in North America. In Demographia’s 2012 housing affordability survey, Vancouver ranked second from the bottom. Montreal ranked 70th.

These numbers raise two interesting questions. If B.C. and Quebec are otherwise comparable, but Quebec students pay half the tuition (and less for rent) — why have they been protesting for 12 straight weeks? And if Montreal students can get 200,000 marchers to hit the streets (double Vancouver’s estimated Game 7 crowd last year), why can’t progressives in B.C. muster anything close?

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