I’ve been watching the Quebec student protests with some interest. I’m very impressed with the persistence and resilience of the student movement, both its grassroots and its leadership. Whether the unified movement continues or not, and with oppressive legislation about to be introduced the unity shown could very well be weakened, it has been a wonderful example of how to sustain a public political initative. It struck home, though, how hard they have to fight for what should be normal access to the political system. Good governments respond positively to a major petition drive and lobbying effort to change policy and programmes. Governments should be open to negotiation when organised opposition shows public support. When doors to elected officials are closed, while people have an expectation that governments are responsive to popular will, militant action fills in the gap.
The demands of the Quebec students are not revolutionary. The major demand is to freeze tuition at the current level, with the midterm objective being an end to tuition for post-secondary education. My older siblings had to pay tuition to complete grades 11 and 12 as the senior grades of the public high school system up to the end of the 1950s were not covered the local school board taxes. In more recent times the senior grades of the separate school boards of Ontario became covered through the tax base. It took persistent political pressure for secondary school education to be truly a right. Those parents, teachers and students who achieved the goal of universal access to secondary education, education paid for though the tax base, did so without having to face state repression. They were welcomed participants in the political system.
As post secondary education is now essential for entry to the job market, and thus fuller participation in society, tuition free access to post-secondary education has become a social and economic necessity. It should be achievable through discussion, debate, petitioning and lobbying. It should not be necessary for students to risk plastic bullets, pepper spray and batons for there to be effective negotiations in regards to a relatively minor change in government policy. Yet access to government decision makers has become so hard to achieve that the types of action and risks that historically have lead to regime change are being used to achieve the minimal expectations of response from elected officials.
Governments that are out of touch with those they serve is not a new phenomena. In the liberal democracies, though, even if individual elected officials are not responsive, historically most politicians took responsiveness to the electorate seriously. They would present petitions from their constituents in the legislature that they personally disagreed with in order to fulfil some of their obligations. They would listen to representatives of contrary constituent groups in order to become more fully informed. Seeking ways to improve the delivery of services for the benefit of all motivated politicians from across the political spectrum. With pressure from the CCF and NDP, national health care programmes under the Liberals and affordable housing programmes under Tories arose as a result of fairly conventional political activism. More militant actions occurred primarily in times of crisis, such as the draft in WW 1 or the use of strike breakers.
Seeking to having universal access to institutions that teach the skills and provide the credentials that the marketplace expects employees to have should not require hospitalisation of protestors, the arrests of protestors, repeated mass rallies that endure police assaults. If conservative forces don’t want militant protests to occur, all they need to do is ensure access by all to the decision making process. Issues can be embraced with passion but responding to passionate individuals can be done calmly, peacefully and effectively by elected officials who actually want to meet the needs of the community they are a part of.
If people are going to engage in militant action, perhaps they should have more extensive demands. Those willing to take a great deal of risk for small scale social change perhaps should consider taking such risks towards building a truly just society. Occupying factories or stores that are threatening to close in response to union demands, interfering with equipment that will be used to clear cut an old growth forest, preventing the turning of farmland into condominiums, squatting unused buildings and converting them to affordable housing; mass protests that prevent business as usual in the central business district—direct action and militant action that promote alternative social visions are essential for real social change to occur. In Quebec such strategies and tactics are being called upon for a significant period to achieve conventional political demands; in other times and in other places substantive and permanent political change has occurred as a result of the use of similar strategies and tactics. Other movements have started to weave themselves into the Quebec student movement, linking environmental, global solidarity and labour struggles to what has occurred on college and university campuses. The more that this occurs the more likely a better world for all can occur. As a minimum, one can hope that the political powers that be will become more open to listening to their communities so that a conversation will be listened to as readily as months of blockades and protests.