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Margin Notes

The two solitudes reflected in the Quebec student protests

You want more coverage of the protests in English Canada? Be careful what you wish for.


Canadian social activist Judy Rebick, writing on her blog last month about Quebec’s student protests, said, “It is incredible that there has been almost no coverage of this extraordinary uprising of young people in Quebec in English Canada.” I don’t happen to share that view – I think the protests have been fairly well covered in the English media. Regardless, I would caution her and other supporters of the Quebec students to be careful of what they wish for. I have found that, generally, there has been a tone of skepticism, even incredulity, in the English-Canadian media about the student uprising.

Up to 170,000 Quebec university and college students are currently boycotting their classes to protest against the Quebec government’s plan to increase tuition by $350 a year for five years starting this fall, a 75-percent hike. Some of these students have been on strike for 11 weeks now.

Many columnists and commentators in English Canada have been unsupportive. Paul Schniedereit, editorial writer for the Chronicle Herald, asked rhetorically, “What planet are these kids from?” and chided the students for thinking that education is free. “Too often,” he writes, “there’s a disconnect between what people want government to do and how they think government pays for what it does. One wonders whether such basic economic concepts were ever taught in school.”

A Calgary Herald editorial flunks the student protesters for their actions and calls the situation “a worrying lesson of what happens when entitlement trumps common sense and respect for the rights of others.” L. Ian MacDonald, in the Montreal Gazette, asks, “What is it about Quebec university students that, from one cohort to the next, they don’t know how good they have it?” and then posits, “At some level, the Western provinces are subsidizing cheap tuition in Quebec, while their own students pay twice as much. In terms of a united federation, the effects are potentially corrosive.”

An interesting side note to the protests in Quebec is that many commerce and science students, as well as those in professional programs, voted not to boycott their classes. The most support for a boycott has come generally from students in the arts, social sciences and humanities, prompting a Gazette reporter to speculate about “two different solitudes” within the Quebec student movement. That may be, but I think the more traditional, and important, two solitudes of language are also at play.

The students’ union at Bishop’s University, for instance, decided to stay out of the tuition fight. At the province’s two largest English-language universities, McGill and Concordia, there has been some support for the student actions and the occasional skirmish on campus, but generally classes and final exams have proceeded as planned with few students boycotting.

Most English media reports are quick to point out that, even after Quebec tuition fees rise as planned, Quebec students will still be paying among the lowest fees in the country (around $3,800 a year by 2017). Commentators have also pointed to studies that indicate that higher tuition does not seem to be a barrier for students from middle- and high-income families. Higher tuition may be a difficulty for students from lower-income families, but the government plans to increase bursaries for these students, with the net effect that they will be paying no more than they currently do for their degree.

But – and I think here’s where the two solitudes really kick in – many French commentators dismiss the whole premise of that argument. What many English Canadians may not realize is that, for at least some Quebecers, this debate has morphed from one about mere tuition hikes to a larger struggle about corporatization, “neo-liberalism” and what they believe is the threat to the Quebec “social consensus” on generous government-supported social programs.

I asked my father-in-law what he thought of the student protests. A retired high-school teacher in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he heartily endorsed them, likening them to the Occupy Wall Street movement and even the Arab Spring uprisings. (Some in Quebec have dubbed the student protests the Printemps Érable, or “maple spring.”)

Many Quebec university professors also support the students. An open letter signed by more than 500 Quebec professors, including some well-known Quebec intellectuals, praised the students. “Thanks to them,” they write, “a space for reflection has opened up, and crucial questions about teaching, culture, the economy and the role of the State are being debated in the public sphere.”

At the risk of overgeneralizing – there is, after all, no single monolithic English-Canadian point of view – I think many in the rest of Canada would be puzzled by such sentiments. Of course, there is no single monolithic French-Canadian point of view either. Le Soleil editorialist Brigitte Breton recently wrote: “It’s true that the extra effort demanded of students is significant. A 75-percent hike can make your teeth grind, but one also needs to keep in mind that, even with the increase, our tuition fees are still among the lowest in the country. Quebecers also enjoy a good system of student financial assistance. Not bad for a province that isn’t paved with gold and which has more generous social programs than the other [provinces].”

As well, surveys show that the majority of Quebecers support the tuition increases, and what support there is for the students has fallen since the eruption of vandalism and violence that rocked the protests late last week.

Thankfully, as I write this, Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp has been meeting with the student groups, who in turn have agreed to a 48-hour truce in their protests and the unrest the demonstrations have caused. I have no idea how the discussions will end up, but it’s a welcome start.

Postscript, April 26:

As anyone following this issue will likely have already heard, the talks between the students and the Quebec government broke down yesterday, leading to more protests. The Montreal Gazette has extensive coverage here

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Pascal Lapointe / April 25, 2012 at 13:22

    One side note: the distance between social science students (allegedly for the strike) and science students (allegedly against), was true at the beginning, two months ago, but not anymore.

  2. Nora Loreto / April 25, 2012 at 13:26

    At the risk of undergeneralizing, this article wouldn’t be so laughably off base had it included a students’ perspective from English Canada. Not only can you not lump everyone into a monolithic English Canada POV, you can’t lump a bunch of newspaper columnists into having an opinion that in any way reflects ROC students, in class, on the ground. You can however lump Quebec and ROC administrators into a category, professors into a category and journalists into a category that would all be more accurate than what you’ve attempted above.

    In case you want to balance this post out, feel free to add this:

    “Nora Loreto asked her father, an English Ontarian and English high school teacher, if he supported the strike in Quebec. His short answer was, ‘yes, absolutely”. You don’t even have to cite me.


  3. mariette hardin / April 25, 2012 at 15:54

    The tuition hikes in Quebec will be coming soon to Western Canada. Education funding is constrained in BC — about 5% less this year after inflation and salary increases are factored in. The students in Quebec are responding to the ideological base of globalization that requires resource deprivation of public-good institutions like education and health so they are forced to entrepreneurial and look to private sources for funding. This is a great off-loading of wealth to private interests.

  4. Chris Frazer / May 4, 2012 at 10:15

    This professor from “English” Canada unequivocally supports the student strike in Quebec. Media coverage outside of Quebec has been appalling, pitched more to the reactionary politics of division (divide English Canada from Quebec; divide students within Quebec) than to seriously examining the ideological roots of education policies provincially and federally.