Her brother played the riot

Quebec has been awash in demonstrations, protests and riots for the past few months – none of which have anything to do with the NHL playoffs. Students are protesting proposed post-secondary tuition increases that would make the lowest tuition rates in Canada, well, still the lowest tuition rates in Canada. The proposed tuition increases aren’t the only cause of the protests, but they are the rallying point, as the students see these increases as contravening the promises of the Quiet Revolution.

From where I sit, there is little sympathy for the students’ cause among Canadians outside of Quebec. Recently, Margaret Wente articulated many of the objections to the protests in the Globe and Mail:

It’s a little hard for the rest of us to muster sympathy for Quebec’s downtrodden students, who pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America. Even if the government has its way – no sure thing if the Parti Québécois gets back in power – they’ll still have the lowest tuition fees in North America. The total increase would amount to the cost of a daily grande cappuccino.

Students in Quebec are like no others, we’re told. We need to understand that tuition fees are not the real issue. The real issue is social justice. The real issue is the promise made during the Quiet Revolution that universities would eventually be free. The real issue is the fight against the ruling class, the greedy corporations, the tar sands, and the entire capitalist, neo-liberal elite.

Ms. Wente is, up to a point, exactly right. Considering the general economic state of Canada, as well as the fiscal problems most governments (at all levels) are having, a mild increase to artificially-low tuition is not going to strike the average Canadian as a vile, oppressive transgression. Unfortunately, Ms. Wente decides she needs to go a step further – not only denigrating the myriad other causes that the students are championing, but also denigrating the very education that the students desire… and, as author Mike Spry* notes in his op-ed Margaret Wente Hates Herself, the very education Ms. Wente chose:

Wente is an expat American, who holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan and a MA in English from the University of Toronto. She has two degrees (most notably, neither is in Journalism, though that is evident in her writing, a fact that any barista with a BA in Theological Studies or History could recognize) of the exact same ilk as the ones she so joyfully mocks in her column, though she is sure to remove any mention of her English Literature background, instead mocking her Arts and Sciences brethren as if we couldn’t easily discover her hypocrisy.

Mr. Spry notes that there really is much more to the protests than tuition and Israeli apartheid, and it would be useful for all of us to fully understand what is going on:

What’s missing from Wente’s column, besides compassion, understanding, journalistic integrity, and well-researched facts, is what tends to be missing from most of the anti-student sentiment. The students don’t just want a tuition cap, but rather they want the universities to be held more accountable for their spending. If Wente wants to mock or hold accountable those with degrees in “victim-studies” then she should be looking at the administrators and professors who are spending student’s tuition like a drunk 8-year-old at Toys “R” Us with mummy’s credit card. The misuse and misappropriation of budgets in universities is akin to fraud. The amount of pseudo-embezzlement, side deals, overpaid tenured profs, and creative spending is almost as offensive as Wente’s argument. Universities have become legalized money launderers, in a brazen and sanctioned manner that would make the mafia blush.

But, a flaw of Canada’s social democracy that is also seen in healthcare, the arts, and other realms of social funding, is governments are willing to hand over monies without any desire for accountability. And that’s what the students really want, more than jobs, more than capped tuition, more than a life without latte service or daily perusal of Craigslist for cheap bachelor apartments or jobs that 6000 other qualified and educated graduates will apply for, what they really want is accountability. They want the state to make sure that the universities are spending their allowances properly, and not on bubble gum and hockey cards, or in this case six-hour work weeks/six months a year for tenured professors, golden handshakes for ousted administrators, and inflated “travel and research” budgets. Is that too much to ask?

I have other disagreements with Mr. Spry’s op-ed, but this point is rather important. The students aren’t just asking for free stuff. They’re asking for improvements to the provinces universities, and improvements within the Quebec’s government, itself (notable for its degree of corruption).

As a bonus, here’s a track from the late great Montreal band, Destroyalldreamers, Her brother played the riot:

*Interestingly, Mike is yet another writer I went to high school with, whose work I’m only learning about recently.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. six-hour work weeks/six months a year for tenured professors,

    I can say from experience that this is rarely the case. Teaching 6 hours a week is not the same as working 6 hours a week.

    That’s not a critique of the post, though. And certainly not a critique of accountability, which is always good.

  2. I wasn’t sure about that six-hour week thing, either, but Mike knows more about the workings of Quebec universities than I do, so I can’t judge. I will note, though, that I’m quite willing to believe that the demands of a university in Quebec might be quite different than the demands of a university in… I forget… are you in Oregon?

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