President's Commentary: Quebec student strike: It's about values, democracy and fundamental freedoms | National Union of Public and General Employees

President's Commentary: Quebec student strike: It's about values, democracy and fundamental freedoms

In fighting the dramatic tuition fee hikes, the student movement is defending the values of equality and solidarity which underpin this social contract.

 

By James Clancy
National President
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

Ottawa (30  May 2012) - There has been a lot said and written about the student strike in Quebec since it began over 100 days ago.

Sadly, most of the mainstream media coverage has focused on the unruly tactics of a small minority of fringe troublemakers.

Very little has been said, particularly outside Quebec, regarding what this dispute is really all about.

The protests are focused on the Charest government's policy to increase tuition fees by more than 80 per cent.

The students argue that the fee hikes threaten the accessibility of education and will harm Quebec's long-term economic prosperity.

But the strike is also about something much broader than the policy debate over tuition fees.

It's about values, democracy and fundamental freedoms.

The Charest government unilaterally decided to change what is in effect a social contract.

Education has mostly been funded from the public purse on the grounds that accessible education enriches the whole economy and society of Quebec and everyone benefits as a result.

Under this social contract, there is also an implicit belief that all citizens should have an opportunity to reach their full potential no matter what their income is.

This social contract has manifested itself in other ways such as universal health care, generous family allowances and low cost but high quality child care.

In fighting the dramatic tuition fee hikes, the student movement is defending the values of equality and solidarity which underpin this social contract.

Mr. Charest mistakenly believes he can diminish this social contract without any democratic deliberation.

From the beginning, he has refused to consult with students or use the traditional means of mediation in a representative democracy.

When Mr. Charest couldn't get his way by simply disregarding and dismissing the will of students, he rammed Bill 78 through the National Assembly.

This repressive law sets strict regulations governing public protests and student groups that organize them, including heavy financial penalties (up to $125,000) for violations.

It's a direct attack on freedom of speech, association and assembly.

The message to students, and all Quebecers, is clear: “Agree with us or we will legislate, arrest, jail and bankrupt you into submission.”

Mr. Charest's strategy to subvert democracy, create a climate of fear and silence dissenting voices has not worked.

Instead, it has created more polarization and prolonged the strike.

That's because people in Quebec know what is at stake.

They will not stand idly by while the Charest government threatens their value system and runs roughshod over their democracy and fundamental freedoms.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) supports the student and civil society movement in Quebec.

We call on the Charest government to rescind Bill 78 and agree to help from an independent mediator to resolve the dispute.

We call on the federal government to pass legislation (a Canada Post-Secondary Education Act) to establish criteria which would ensure the affordability, accessibility, quality, accountability and public administration of post-secondary education across the country.

James Clancy
National President

NUPGE

James Clancy is the National President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE