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Gérard Bouchard. Professor, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi 12 June 2012
Original French Text: http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/352179/au-dela-de-la-crise-retrouver-les-voies-du-quebec
For the last few months, Quebec has been living through a social crisis which, in terms of its length, its intensity, its depth, and the variety of what is at stake, has few precedents in the history of the province. However, as often happens, nobody was able to predict it, and it will take time and perspective before we are able to map all of its dimensions. The following reflection is therefore intended to be preliminary and partial.
How Did We Get Here?
From a controversy over tuition fees between the students and the ministry of education, we have arrived at a conflict with multiple dimensions, one which reveals a profound discontent in our society, and which calls into question the [provincial] government’s entire record: its lack of transparency, its failure to curb corruption, its collusion with big capital, its democratic deficit, its insensitivity to the most legitimate expectations of Quebeckers, its passiveness on constitutional matters, its serious incompetence in the management of natural resources and environmental protection, its lack of will in defending the French language, and its inaction or improvisation in many other areas.
We know the scenario of the last few months: a government which seemed not to take seriously the student movement and allowed the situation to degenerate; which waited far too long (until the end of May) to offer any real compromise, allowing anger to build up, the movement to become radicalised, and polarization to set in; a head of state who, having “burnt” one minister, should have taken the matter in hand himself, but who chose instead to make use of the judicial arm (with the disastrous effects that we have seen) in order to resolve a problem which was clearly a matter of politics.
The student movement itself is not without fault. Having firmly established their leverage, the students could have accepted the government’s most recent offers (which included some important concessions) — which would have allowed all parties to save face, and brought calm to the streets, whilst allowing the debate to be taken up again later. As a result [of the students’ refusal to accept the government’s offers], we now see the public gradually withdrawing its support for the students, and turning towards the State, not out of sympathy for the government, but out of fear of social disorder.
Was the withdrawal from the negotiations worth it, given what we are seeing today? We can see a strange paradox emerging: because of their rejection of a compromise, the student movement might be contributing to the re-election of the party that they have been fighting so passionately for months.
Whether this is true or not, it is lamentably clear that the students bear a part of the responsibility for the disturbances that are now rocking Quebec, and for what might now follow on from them.
A Way Out of the Crisis
Where things are now, courageous decisions need to be taken. Beyond the question of tuition fees, the question of social order needs to be prioritized. The special law (law 78), an ill-conceived initiative, should be abrogated. A moratorium should be declared on the matter of tuition fees, as well.
Beyond that, given the broad range of dissatisfaction and the diversity of complaints against the party in power [the Liberal Party of Quebec], an election should be called as soon as possible, after which there should be a thorough investigation of the entire university system (which, it is true, suffers from serious under-funding).
Quebec today is suffering from a generalised crisis of confidence in its elites and its institutions. It is essential to remedy this.
At a deeper level: Quebec needs to return to the balanced system which was the backbone of what used to be called the “Quebec model” — essentially, a body of policies which managed to balance economic imperatives with social goals. It is this delicate balance which has been broken, over the last ten years, because of an overly aggressive neoliberal philosophy which erodes the social fabric and directly attacks the traditions and values of Quebeckers.
By means of its enlightened policies (both from the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois), Quebec in the period 1970-2000 managed not only to maintain but even to renew its social fabric, even while adopting certain neoliberal policies and maintaining economic growth. Quebec even managed in this period to reduce the rate of both poverty and inequality. Quebec therefore proved that social welfare programmes do not impoverish states.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, has made this one of his principal ideas. In a recent text, he showed, for example, that the European states which are currently in the best economic health are also the ones that have the most generous social policies. These two goals are therefore not incompatible.
That said, the formula which worked so well for Quebec before 2000 should of course be re-evaluated and adapted. But this exercise in re-invention should be carried out following the same philosophy, marked by rigor, fairness, democratic dialogue, and the concern for balance.
The Shadow of Globalization
The current crisis clearly has roots that go deeper than the Quebec context. It is no surprise that the controversy went beyond the limits of the tuition-fee question, whilst the growing flood of protesters became more diverse, and gained recruits from beyond the student bodies. Globalization, under the effects of the neoliberalism which it helped put in power, is almost everywhere accompanied by an increase in social inequalities and by an alienation of the citizen, who loses the sense of having any influence on events.
A new form of newly “savage” capitalism has emerged, the centre of which is no longer localisable. It is answerable to no one, and it dominates (excessively) the state, as well as the unions and community organisations which traditionally served as counterweights to the state. As a result, a few powerful businesses impose their conditions on governments, often in secret agreements. Multinationals can close factories or impose lockouts at will (as we can see now at the Rio Tinto factory in Alma, Quebec, in the Lac-Saint-Jean region). What results from this is a general climate of insecurity, and a growing sense of alienation.
Against these realities, the Québécois people have very little recourse, and they feel impotent: which explains the great malaise which fuels, no doubt, the current protest movement. We can also see that the students are expressing concerns and raising questions which go well beyond their immediate interests and far beyond Quebec itself: you don’t need to be a prophet of doom to imagine that democratic societies will not tolerate for much longer the iniquitous regime imposed by the new globalized capitalism and the very unfair power-balance which supports it.
The True Face of Quebec
Like any society, Quebec lives by its roots and its dreams. The tensions here are only apparent ones, for its roots reach down to old dreams which have been pursued doggedly, whether it be on the scale of the family, the community, the school, or the nation: a desire for liberty and autonomy, a profound aversion towards dependance, a quest for equality, for social justice and democracy, a collective will to affirmation in solidarity, an acute sense of decency and dignity, all thanks to a search for balance, in self-respect and with respect of others. Of course, like any society, Quebec has not always lived up to this program. It has known its dark moments, but it has never given up on this program, and has always returned to it.
What we are witnessing today, because of the erosion of the party in power, is exactly one of these moments in which Quebec goes astray, goes adrift: a moment that brings dishonour on us, and which projects an image of Quebeckers which diminishes them, which is not true to them. We will have to be grateful to those who have led the crisis, if, out of it, the real face of Quebec re-emerges: the face of a Quebec which gives meaning to dignity, inspires pride and instills the desire to advance a society that we love.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.