The red patch

The blood red patch of cloth symbolizing the Quebec student strike against the 75 percent tuition hike is suddenly visible everywhere.

Mixing defiance, joy and anger, the protest movement is becoming a Montreal Spring. This strike is not just about tuition hikes. It’s about deepening unemployment among the young, about suspicions of a corrupt electoral system, about the climate change catastrophe, about banks that take but don’t put much back. The strike is becoming a wake-up robocall.

Some observers think it very strange that the strike is going on so long, for with every passing day, it becomes seemingly tougher for the Charest Liberal government to back down.

But on the other hand, perhaps the striking students are part of the Liberal re-election map. With a general election approaching in Quebec, the Liberals must have poll results showing that among the general populace, support for the student strike action is not robust.

Quebec says it cannot afford to offer the lowest tuition fees in Canada, if not in all of North America. But why not? What a proud boast! What a badge of honour. How very European of us.

Every international study shows that the future belongs to the most educated. By all means come up with more incentives to scale down the alarming high school drop-out rate in Quebec. But making it more expensive to enter college is not an answer. Every nation that puts a premium on teachers and classrooms has a better chance to survive future shock.

The PQ certainly understood that. Pauline Marois, for all her claptrap, understood keenly the value of intelligent child care as a building block for Quebec society. Now Quebec has a daycare system that is the envy of North America. This is where education begins. And this has proven to be a very smart investment, benefiting mothers and fathers who choose to work. The province more than recoups its investment in new tax revenues.

Put Quebec’s investment in education, for example, up against its investment in aluminium over the last five years.

In 2007, the government signed a sweetheart deal with Alcan that in effect gave the aluminium company the benefit of $300,000 a job every year for 35 years. Adding to that subsidy would be cheap electricity from Hydro-Québec.

To create 740 jobs, the government gave up $2.7 billion in tax revenue. Laval economic professors who studied the deal pronounced it a very bad one for the Quebec economy. They argued that investing in roads and other infrastructure would have garnered a higher return.

The ink was not even dry on the Alcan deal when the giant smelting corporation sold out to the mining Godzilla Rio Tinto.

Now Rio Tinto is demanding savage cuts to wages and pensions at the Saguenay smelter. On New Year’s Day they took the ultimate step and locked out 740 workers, all members of the United Steelworkers. Now the company is demanding the right to replace retiring workers at the smelter with contract employees who will be offered pensions and other classic benefits that are vastly reduced. The corporate greed is really something to behold. Those jobs that are subsidized at the rate of $300,000 each for more than 30 years will be savaged.

Meanwhile, skating around Quebec’s anti-scab law, Rio Tinto is using more than 200 "management" personnel to run the plant. Years ago the smelter became famous for the role it played in poisoning the beluga whales that have long played where the Saguenay River intercepts the St-Lawrence. But dying whales and jobless workers so far down river from Montreal are easy to ignore.

It’s tougher to ignore the student protesters. Better to attack them. In The Gazette, Don Macpherson argues that the strike is undemocratic. He cites evidence that a show of hands was all some student leaders needed to head off to the streets. But surely the ultimate measure is how many students they manage to mobilize, and how imaginative their tactics are. Change is always led by the minority. In the streets they surely have everyone’s attention.

Declared one student, Taylor Noakes, in an eloquent cri du coeur (published by The Gazette on Tuesday):
"Don’t lecture us on democracy. We’re fighting for Liberal-progressive democratic values, including the right to a decent education, job opportunities and clean and transparent government.

Don’t talk to us of costs to the economy. The baby boomers ruined the world economy thanks to their collective avarice. [...]

We’re tired of being offered the ‘choice’ of getting an unpaid internship or working for a call centre. We are tired of being told how well we have it by people who have their heads in the sand.

Worst of all, we despise how the establishment, the media, and government treat us as though we have no stake in the future of the province, of the nation.

Instead of scolding us, why not offer to help? Think about who will replace you when you retire. Then ask yourself if we are worth investing in."
What kind of a message does Quebec send when it abandons the Rio Tinto workers in Alma, and stun-guns and pepper-sprays students in Montreal and Quebec City?

© Anne Lagacé Dowson 2011.