Quebec Premier Jean Charest has had a high profile in politics for a long time. He has won the past three provincial elections in Quebec as leader of that province’s Liberal party. Before joining the provincial Liberals in 1998, he led the federal Progressive Conservative party from its wreckage in the 1993 federal election. (If it seems unusual to you that he would jump from a Conservative to a Liberal party, keep in mind that Quebec has not had a provincial Conservative party for a number of years. The two major parties in Quebec have been the federalist Liberals and the separatist Parti Québécois. A federalist politician may have little option in Quebec but to ally with the Liberals.)
But Charest is facing another election at the beginning of September, and it could be the end of his political career, at least in Quebec. One of the big reasons for this is the question of how much students should have to pay to receive post-secondary education in Quebec.
Quebecers have historically enjoyed some of the lowest tuition rates in the country. Quebec has the lowest percentage of graduating students who are carrying debt, and the lowest average student debt load, in Canada. Ironically, part of the reason Quebec is able to subsidize tuition and other social programs to such a great extent is that it receives transfer payments from the federal government; its own provincial revenue does not sustain this level of service. In other words, Quebec’s tuition is subsidized by the federal tax dollars of people all over the country, including those in other provinces who have to pay more for their tuition.
This spring, Jean Charest’s government proposed a significant increase in tuition: from $2168 to $3793, increased gradually between 2012 and 2017. And students refused. The government proposed extending the bursary program and phasing in the increase over seven years instead of five; student unions refused. Students proposed that the government find alternative methods of financing (such as fewer corporate tax cuts); the government refused.
What ensued from this impasse, in February 2012, was a student strike that ultimately numbered over 300,000 students. After protests continued into May 2012, the government attempted to curtail them by passing “Bill 78”. The bill, nominally intended to allow students not wishing to participate in strikes to continue receiving education, also imposes heavy restrictions and penalties on all those who wish to assemble for a protest of any kind. Constitutional law professors and human rights organizations denounced the law. The public responded to the law in what has been called “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history”: as many as 500,000 people marched in downtown Montreal on May 22, 2012.
No agreement has been reached between the government and student groups at the time this article goes to press. Student protests continue, disrupting classes that have resumed for the fall. There is a great deal of anger on both sides. Those looking on from other provinces tend to wonder why Quebec students, who have had the “best deal” all along, complain about having to pay tuition along the lines of other Canadian students. Protests can be portrayed negatively in the media, with a few fringe elements acting destructively and coloring the perception of those who protest peacefully. Meanwhile, students face a significant increase in the cost of their education. Tuition costs disproportionately more now than it did when the previous generation was in university. It is extremely difficult to put yourself through full-time study and not incur debt unless you earn several scholarships and/or work almost full-time hours at the same time. Students whose parents cannot afford to put them through school face a daunting challenge.
This magazine is not convinced that just because Quebec students face a slightly less dire situation than their counterparts in other provinces, they don’t have the right to protest vehemently. If a situation is bad, it’s bad. It’s up to others to accept or not accept the cost of tuition in their jurisdiction as well.
It’s in this context that Quebec Premier Jean Charest faces the electorate at the beginning of September. His principal opponent, Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois, has reached out to students. They – and their supporters – won’t forget this at the polls. Charest’s popularity has waned to the point where he is now in third place behind Marois and François Legault of the Coalition avenir du Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future). On September 4, he may get schooled.