Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Quebec Protests: To be a student is not to be dumb.

Over the past two months the media eye has fixed its gaze upon student protests in Quebec. Most of the activities have taken place in Montreal. Students living in this university hub have occupied highways, major roads, and flooded the downtown core as protests against tuition hikes tabled by the provincial government escalate.

Fact base: The current Quebecois provincial government in power is the Quebec Liberal Party, led by premier Jean Charest. His is a federalist party currently nearing the end of its third term, having now governed Quebec for 8 years.
The party is intending to increase university tuition in Quebec by 75% over the next 5 years, implementing gradual increases of $325 a year to eventually bring tuition to a total of $3 793 per year. Charest and media sources have been quick to point out they will still have the lowest tuition rates in Canada.

The Quebec Federations of Professors, which represents 5 000 profs working in the province, has passed a majority vote to back the protesting students.
Currently, students on strike have, in many cases, not attended classes or exams for weeks, threatening the successful passing of their academic year. The Charest government has put forward a couple efforts to quell the protests but no compromise has been reached. Offers include an extension of the period over which gradual hikes will occur, as well as giving more attention to financial aid programs but the government is not backing down on its intent to increase tuition to close to $4 000.

I have been following this story for many weeks and have yet to take a side on the issue. It is not the protest itself that I wish to call attention to, nor the violent actions which have been committed by a few participants. However, what has perturbed me are some of the arguments being leveled against the students by the media and citizen commentators, championing the political disempowerment of these youths.

Many of those covering the events have attempted to discredit the youth, from questioning their choice of majors to their intellect and maturity readers and writers alike have found cause to diminish the youths’ voice. There are many comments on the stories calling the striking students “spoiled brats” who don’t deserve any tax money. This is a major issue because, as legal adults and citizens, the students have the right to peacefully protest against the government. The question is, is this right being transgressed if popular opinion seeks to use the youths’ educational and age status to silence them?

As with student protests in the 1960’s, the student voice has been called into question. If they are not yet members of the workforce and if they are profiting from tax money, do they have the right to oppose? As youth with less life experience, are their arguments even valid?

It appears students in Quebec are labouring under a similar paradox faced by children. It’s the Peter Pan problem; Wendy’s parents request that she behaves more like a grown up but they frequently diempower her because “she is only a child”. The student problem is quite similar.

For example, it is ironic that one of the top stories during the last federal election was the alarming level of political apathy amongst youth. Yet wherever students have attempted to show political interest they have been booed off the stage by media and citizens alike.

Take the vote mobs for example. Flash mobs inspired by Rick Mercer’s challenge to encourage more youth to exercise their right to vote were met with indignant cries from some members of older demographics who went so far as to write letters to the editor denying the youths’ capability of logical thinking suitable to casting a well-informed ballot. 

There is a complicated dialogue in our society addressing youth which seems to declare both that “youth aren’t capable of making well-informed decisions” and “youth today care about nothing” simultaneously. What a headache for anyone faced with such conflicting criticism! You almost cannot blame them if they scream out in frustration, or if they, like Wendy, run off to Neverland where the massive tides of youth culture bundle them up safely and lull them into a careless slumber.

At the age of 18 an individual is considered legally to be an adult.  To be told you are an adult who must act as the steward of your own life and that you must contribute to the world in which you live through some kind of employment, but then to be informed that you have no power to affect the structures influencing your life would be frustrating to anyone.

The backlash toward the student protests represents the very same issue; political involvement of youth.  I cannot be convinced these protests are simply a meaningless temper-tantrum given that 1) this is the longest student protest in Canadian history, that 2) students are knowingly risking their financial and academic year to protest this issue, and that 3) this protest was supported by a majority vote by the 5,000 members of the Quebec Federation of Professors. This to me is an obvious signal that there is a larger issue at work here.
During the 1964-65 protests at Berkley college, students expressed a feeling they were being told that they should be seen and not heard. One must question the kind of message being conveyed to them when they are being educated on global issues and the like, but are being discouraged from doing anything about it.

The question still remains; when, by society’s standards, should people be allowed to think and act for themselves without being limited by their age?

And while we’re at it, what do we want from our democracy? Do we want the right to protest? To speak for ourselves instead of having the media narrate on our behalf? If you were to protest something important to you, would you want to be able to do that and to be heard?

What if no one listened?  

As you can probably tell, I'm pretty riled up at this moment. I will be writing more on this issue once I figure out how I'm going to phrase it. It's pretty frustrating to be told you cannot have a valid opinion because you're a B.A. student. Actually, it's elitist and insulting. But I digress.

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