We are victims, hear us roar

May 25, 2012

So they’re smashing windows in downtown Montreal, and the rest of us are left standing around, scratching our heads.

It is a rich irony that students in Quebec pay the lowest tuition fees in Canada – an average of about $2,500, or less than half what their counterparts in Ontario and six other provinces pay.

And yet when Quebec says it needs to raise those tuition fees to reign in a bloated budget, thousands of students take to the streets and rage against riot police.

Quebec wants to hike tuition $1,780 over seven years – an admittedly sharp increase, but not without reason. The province, crippled by a record-high $183.7-billion debt, is simply going broke, spending far more money than it can afford to.

Students in Quebec have had it so good for so long they’re not prepared to share in the tough times affecting their province. Cheap tuition, they argue, is their God-given right – so they’re exempt from the economic reality forcing cutbacks elsewhere, they say.

Even after the annual $325 fee increases, Quebec’s university students will still enjoy the lowest post-secondary education in the country. The provincial government says it simply can’t afford to keep those fees that low anymore, and students have to start bearing a greater share of the costs of their degree.

Students in Guelph, and the rest of Ontario, have a far more understandable right to be angry about rising tuition costs. Tuition fees in this province have increased from an average of $5,388 to $6,640 in the past four years – a 23 per cent hike for the more than 700,000 full-time post-secondary students.

And yet, there’s hardly a peep here. No marching in the street. No smoke bombs going off in subways. No mass arrests and clashes with police.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, they’re locked into the longest student strike in the province’s history, a battle that shows few signs of ending any time soon. The students have been protesting for so long, the fight seems to have morphed from unrest over increased tuition fees to general dissatisfaction with Premier Jean Charest’s nine-year-old Liberal government.

It’s become as much about promoting anarchy and fighting with the police as much as it is about making education more affordable.

This whole tuition battle in the streets of Montreal is not entirely surprising. But don’t believe people who say it’s just a case of Quebec students being more militant than their counterparts elsewhere.

Entitlement is not a uniquely Quebecois phenomenon. Neither is victimhood – there are people everywhere in this country who have an incredible capacity for both. Plenty of people are skilled at blocking out reality, ignoring the facts and focusing exclusively on the injustice inflicted on their poor selves.

Case in point: In Kitchener this week, angry protestors took to the streets demanding ‘justice’ in the death John James. James, a 19-year-old immigrant from South Sudan, was killed while trying to rob a smaller teenager and a girl at a park.

Never mind that James, a large man with a violent criminal record, was carrying a fake handgun and threatening to kill the pair, according to police. Never mind that police say the younger teen who killed him was only acting in self defence when he pulled a knife out of his backpack.

No sir, none of that seemed to matter to these protestors. What matters to them is that an injustice has been done, and must be rectified – even if the facts suggest otherwise. Sound familiar?

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears every third Saturday. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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