Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Helicopters and Peep Shows

So, I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, and as soon as I was unmentionably underclothed, outside my second storey apartment window there let up a monstrous roaring cheer.  And let me tell you, my clothes flew on all by themselves, from hat to spats.

And then I realized, no, my curtains are closed.  Not only that, but if it wasn't for the fire escape, there's nothing between that window and an impossibly narrow alley strew with torn bits of apartment building stuff.

I laughed it off, but the cheering wouldn't stop.  As a matter of fact, it got louder.  They were chanting.

Then came the helicopters, and suddenly it wasn't funny anymore.  I held my breath and waited for the bullets.

For the last 101 days, there have been protests downtown Montreal.  I'm in a central but very residential area.  The most impressive building we have on my street is the retirement home kitty corner from here.  And yet, these protests had migrated this far afield.

At nearly midnight, when you're least expecting to hear one, a mob is a very frightening thing indeed.  I stayed dressed for a while, because I was terrified - justly or not - that someone was going to lob a Molotov cocktail through one of the ground floor windows.  

Don't laugh - earlier this week, someone set fire to the building's garbage pail.  It shouldn't be such a comic stretch to believe a committed pyro or prankster wouldn't hide in a "peaceful" protest when tempers are already running high, and identities are obscured by masks and nightfall.

I barely slept that night.  It took a long time to fall asleep, even after the protesters had moved on.  I had my first nightmare at 2:00 in the morning, and my second at 5:00 - each of them worthy of blog posts of their own.  Somewhere between those two nightmares, I woke up with a bad case of sleep paralysis, a flashing light in my eyes (thunderstorm in progress), and a hallucination that some scary, pixelated face was staring down at me.  I was in a total fog the day after.


I'm no expert.  I can't even claim to make sense of what's going on.  But I ran out of time when I was trying to explain it to Tobin, so I thought maybe I should just write it down.  And then I thought, maybe instead of being afraid of what's going on, I should really make a point of understanding it.

Feel free to add your commentary below, but remember:  I'm just trying to get my head wrapped around all that's going on - and I'm trying not to pick a side, because I know I don't have all the information.  If I missed a point, it's only because I haven't read every article and website, and I haven't interviewed anyone involved in the goings-on downtown.  I'll try citing as many opposing views as possible - including from those sources I don't even like - but I'm bound to miss something.  It's not on purpose, I swear.

So, let's start at the beginning.

The Cause

(For a really good run down of the timeline of events, check out this CBC webpage.)

Once upon a time (March 2011), somebody in the Quebec provincial government decided that tuition fees needed to go up for all university and CÉGEP students across Quebec.  Up to that point, there'd been pretty much a tuition freeze.  I've read different articles that site different increases, but - my understanding is university tuition was going to raise by about $325 a year over a period of five years starting the 2012 fall term), and tuition would increase from $2,168 to $3,793.

Now, as somebody coming from Ontario, I don't understand this, so bear with me:  I went to a public high school, and from there, I went to university.  I didn't have to pay for my education until I got to university.

Here, there's primary school, high school, CEGEP, and then post-secondary.  The first two are compulsory; the other two ain't.  But what I understand of CEGEP, it's like High School Plus or College Light.  Back in my day, we had OACs (Ontario Academic Credits) which you took as a preparation for post-secondary education, and we didn't have to pay for them.  So now I think that CEGEP is voluntary, but it's not free.  Therefore, tuition raise = uncomfortable and/or not feasible for a lot of people.

Also, again because I'm coming in from Ontario, I chose my career path and school based on the cost, as well as the quality of the courses.  One school didn't cost the same as the other; and each program cost different from the other.  One year in an undergrad program for law at UoT will cost considerably more than a year in an engineering undergrad program at UofT, which costs more than a year in the bachelor of arts and sciences program at UoT.  And a BSc program from U of T is considerably more expensive than U of Wo, even though it's pretty much the same thing.

So, unless I'm missing something:  in Quebec, tuition is tuition, across the board, regardless of the program, regardless of the school.  That's why newspapers are able to quote specific numbers, instead of a range.  Someone, please correct me if I'm wrong.  But if prices are fixed and low across Quebec, I'm going to go back to 1996 and kick myself for not having gone to Bishops University when I had the chance.

Okay, so bottom line:  tuition is rising.  Rising tuition costs = more debt.  Those in lower income families will be saddled with greater debt.

The Tough Love

In 1996, I was paying upwards of $3200 per year for a BSc in Psychology, and I was staying on residence.  That was sixteen years ago.  I came from the lower income family in question.  I worked my way through the last two and a half years of my program, and over the next ten years, I managed to pay off my entire student debt.  One year in the same program at the same school now costs $5613.  (For the record, my daytime cell phone rate at the time was $1.95/minute.)

The self-made graduate in me is full of "suck it up, princess."  I'm sorry, I can't help it, that's just the way I am.

And then the business person / tax payer / wage earner in me thinks:  Why are we raising tuition fees in the first place?  Is it maybe because teachers are underpaid or because faculty is understaffed?  Is it because computers need to be replaced?  Material and fuel costs on the rise?  Is it because voters have been asking for tax cuts, and as a result there's not as much subsidization happening?

I lay this out, not because it's wrong or right to protest the tuition rates.  I say this because I'm from Ontario, because I'm a university grad, because I came from a low income family and graduated and paid off my debts in full within 10 years of graduation, and because this is what goes through my head each and every time I see the student protests.  Based on this alone, the students have not gained my sympathy.

Before anyone bites me, I recommend reading on, first.

The Players

One thing I will say about the protests that have been really in the public eye since the beginning of the year:  this is not just between the students and the cops.

This is the cast of characters, as best as I understand them.  Remember, I'm not a journalist.  I'm still researching this myself.

The students
A) those in favour of the strike, including:
     a) student unions - moderate student leaders who advocate a peaceful demonstration
     b) Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (C.L.A.S.S.E. ); "radical" is a bit strong of a word for it, but they have been a lot more vocal about the need for a full, united demonstration - whether other students want it or not.  It's important to note that their symbol is a red square, which evokes terms like "the red bloc", and in my own head, another "red" square.
          1) Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is currently the leader of this coalition.  And he seems to be having some financial and leadership problems close to home.
     c) the Black Bloc style anarchists
B) those who just want to get through the school year

Unions and other groups
A) labour unions - including teachers associations - are providing visible and financial support, especially since May 18 (more on this in a moment)
B) And Others:  including Arcade Fire, Michael Moore, Strike Everywhere, and Occupy Wall Street.
A) both municipal and provincial police have been called in.  Some claim that police are being assaulted; some claim police brutality; some claim that the police are doing their best to stop property damage; some claim that the police are causing the property damage.  There are some officers who are overreacting.  That doesn't necessarily mean the police are out of control.  I can't emphasize enough the importance of seeing the whole clip, including the preceding minutes, including multiple angles wherever possible, including both video and sound, unedited and unbroken.

A) Former Education Minister Line Beauchamp - who resigned her post in early May after talks fell apart.  Well, if that doesn't say pessimism, I don't know what does.
B) Education Minister Michelle Courchesne - who has openly invited student unions, including CLASSE, back to the negotiation table.  I don't know what she's doing tonight, but I suspect it might have something to do with a bubble bath and a strong beer. I wouldn't blame her.
C) Provincial Premier Jean Charest (leader of the Quebec Liberal Party).  He lives in Westmount.  Monday night, the protesters had marched toward his house, but had been blocked by the police.  They weren't cheering for my striptease.  They were calling on the Premier.  More on him in a moment.

A) pro law and order (strong focus on municipal impact, lost income, inconvenience, property damage; use of words like "radical group"; photos of how police are being assaulted by students)
B) pro student (strongest claims of police brutality, strong focus on how students are or will be affected by the tuition hikes)
C) anti Bill 78 - somewhere in the middle, depending on the bent of the newspaper as a whole.
D) blogs, youtube, Facebook, local media outlets (i.e. the Montreal Gazette), national media outlets (like the CBC), and media outlets outside of Quebec from both sides of the argument (i.e. the Toronto Star vs. the Toronto Sun).
 E) Some ghostly form that seems bent on preventing one video from staying online - something to do with Montreal police officers allegedly breaking storefront windows during and/or near one of the protests.  Is it some archgovernment that's preventing this from staying online?  I dunno.  What's in the video?  I dunno - every time I see someone's posted the video, by the time I get there, it's gone again.  It's very 1984.
     - Context is everything, no matter which side your on, or what's your media source.  Video oneVideo Two.  I wasn't there, so I don't know who threw the first punch or who said what, so I'm not commenting one way or the other.  In fact, if I was there in person, I  would have been so confused and angry and frightened that I wouldn't have known who did what; I would have just been angry at everyone and everything.

Montrealers and Quebeckers at Large
A) those in favour of the students
B) those opposed to Bill 78 (more on that in a moment)
C) those affected by the student protests, either through inconvenience (also here), property damage, lost income, or worse, regardless of which side they're taking - or if they're taking a side at all.

The Protests, the Demonstrations, and the Damage

Today marks Day 101 of the protests and student strikes.  Most of the protests have been done at night, but there are a few that stand out in my mind: 

Blocking a bridgeTwice. VandalismA lot of vandalism. Blockading schoolsWhether other students approve or not. Leading Jean Charest to suspend the rest of the semester.  But those are the ugly spots.  remember, there have been 101 days of this so far; not every day has been bad.  Some days are bad, and some days are rainy.

The Situation, as far as I can see it.

Montreal is where we riot when the Habs win, and where we riot when the Habs lose. 

But, the "we" must here be defined:  I don't know who is actually doing the riots.  I actually heard a story about some people from "out of town" who wore knock-off jerseys immediately before looting shops downtown after a game. 

So are Habs fans the problem?  Are semi-professional hooligans the problem?  I dunno.  I'm not an investigator, and I wasn't there.  Is it possible that looters are infiltrating peaceful demonstrations?  Absolutely.

The same question is applicable here:  obviously, there are some people - not all, but some - who are causing property damage (fires, blockades, vandalism).  Are these incorrigibles students?  Dropouts?  Ruffians?  Undercover cops?  I don't know.  Is it possible that peaceful assemblies are being infiltrated by idiots and fearmongers?  Absolutely.

Here's what we do know:  vandalism has occurred.  Pepper has been sprayed.  Rocks have been thrown.  People have been arrested.  Bill 78 was penned and stamped into effect.

Here's what else we know:  people (like me) are avoiding downtown, tempers are flaring, and there are some known and unknown individuals who are fanning the flames.

Bottom line:  the protests have now become the focus of attention, not the underlying reason for those protests.  So, for now, let's get back to the actual issue at hand.

The Stakes, a.k.a. The Money Question

Now, I could just be spitballing here, but this is what I'm seeing, from a strictly financial perspective.  After all, the initial problem was around finances, and then it (d)evolved into an argument over the nature of freedom of assembly.

1)  Tourism has decreased, people avoiding going downtown:  lost income.  Lost income = lower taxes paid.  Lower taxes paid = less subsidization against tuition.  Oh, that can't be good.

2)  Semester has been suspended unexpectedly early, only to resume again in August, immediately before the fall session.  That means students are thrust out into the workforce earlier than planned (summer jobs aren't available yet), and it means that they're going to fall out of the workforce earlier than planned.  In other words, they're not going to be able to work as long as they would have otherwise.  Shorter summer employment = less student income = greater student debt.  Well, nuts.

3)  No tuition increase = staff and faculty wages frozen, though the cost of living will increase.  Staff cutbacks and wage freezes = high quality professors will seek out other centres of education - outside of Quebec, maybe outside of Canada - in order to find a more competitive employer, 'cause people like being paaaaaaid.  That means Quebec students are stuck with the bargain basement professors.  And that sounds dull.

4)  No tuition increase, part two = lower budgets for building maintenance, hardware and software upgrades, limited hours of operation in libraries and other student resource centres, and cutbacks to extra-curricular programs.  Well, okay...if you want it that way.

5)  Tuition increases have a negative impact on lower income families.  Yes!  I totally and one hundred percent agree with this.  I put myself through university, thank you very much; and I paid off my massive student debt all by my lonesome too.  You know why?  Because a degree helps you to get a better paying job; it's helps to continually advance my career too!  Much of the reason why I was able to pay off my student loan is because, over time, my income increased.  Not only is it because I was able to find a job in a competitive market, one that tries to keep up with or ahead of the increase in cost of living, but, I was also able to advance from one post to a higher position no less than nine times in the last ten years.  Take that, Bainbridge Scholars!

6) Post-secondary education should be free.  You know what?  High school's free.  Not many people want to be there.  In fact, they'll go out of their way to tell you how much they don't want to be there.  And you know what?  University isn't free, and people don't want to go there either.  Once upon a time, I got up in the middle of a lecture, walked in front of the professor, up the middle aisle, leaned across four women, poked my finger at a guy's nose and told him, "You have two choices.  Shut up, or get out of my class."  He paid just as much as I did - paid, mind you - and still, he made no use of his time there.  Therefore, I have to argue:  if post-secondary education was free, would it be put to good use by all who took it?

7)  Post-secondary education should be free, part 2.  There is no such thing.  People, professors included, like getting paid.  It helps with things like housing, and laundry money.  So the money comes from somewhere.  Students, ask your future, employed selves:  how much do you think your taxes will increase, if you're helping to pay for the post-secondary education of every student in your city, as well as for all the sanitation and road infrastructure repairs, health-care, legal institutions, etc. etc.?  Hate to say it, but communism didn't work, and we're too North American to be Sweden (where their general tax rate is about 51.1% - so basically, for every $100 you make, $51 goes to the government.  The other $49 has to cover your rent, electricity, food, insurance, clothing, entertainment, iPhone and bicycle - I'll bet that's no fun if you're a parent).

I'm going to leave the money stuff there for now, because I'm getting sarcastic.

Where Things Went Stupid

Okay, so:  on one side, you've got students who do not want tuition hikes.  On the other hand, you've got the Quebec government, who do want tuition hikes.  Let's skip all the details of both sides of that argument, because we all know, there are points for and against on each side, and it's complicated.

Now, on one hand, you have people actively protesting the tuition hikes, and I say, okay, that's your right.  And I say "people", because we can't assume that they're all students (there are grads and others who support the students too), and on the flip side, we can't assume that all students are in unanimous agreement with what these "people" are doing.

On the other hand, you've got the QC government who is at the table, making offers to spread out the tuition hikes over seven years instead of five, who are making offers of increased bursaries and changes to loan processes, but who are adamant about removing the tuition increases altogether.  And who write silly things like Law 78.

I don't know what's happening behind closed doors, but I do know that student leaders are back to the table with the current education minister.  This is good!  I don't know if there are any discussions about why tuition hikes are proposed to be so high, I don't know what arguments have been made for or against.  I don't know if there's miscommunication going on, or just plain old-fashioned stubbornness on both sides of the table. 

Either way, I don't know where we're at with the tuition thing.  Like I said, the focus has shifted in the public eye from the tuition increases to the protests themselves - and Bill or Law 78.

Law 78 was a bad idea.

Law 78 is an emergency law enacted by the provincial government, once it was accepted by a majority vote.  It does not prevent the assembly of 50 or more people.  Read the provisions here:  (Wikipedia, I love you.)  In short:  it specifies where these assemblies of 50 or more are unwanted (near CEGEPs and Universities); it outlines which schools are suspended and for how long; it issues a back to work order for education employees; and it outlaws any assembly of 50 or more, unless the police have been notified of and approve of the locations and routes of those assemblies.

This was put into effect ostensibly to curb the behaviours of a handful of ruffians, to protect property and civilian safety, and to prevent things like...more bridge closures or rolling highway blockades during rush hour traffic, which only makes Montrealers into worse drivers than they already are - trust me, that is no small feat.

Insert tired, sarcastic laugh here.

Good.  Now for the fun stuff.

1)  This law was put in place in order to create a safe zone for students who want to return to school, guaranteeing their right to enter and attend without threat of harassment.  Great...Except...Well, that doesn't really make any sense, if you're going to go ahead and suspend classes anyhow.  So I'm still scratching my head about that one.

2)  Law 78 outlaws any assembly of 50 or more - no matter who is assembling or why - unless the locations and routes have been approved of by the police. 

Wow, do we have problems here.

2a) That kinda goes against a certain piece of paper we like to call The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  In fact, this provincial emergency law goes against oh...I dunno, "(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication," and uh... "(c) freedom of peaceful assembly" and um... "(d) freedom of association."  The key word here is:  "freedom of peaceful assembly".  So we are not guaranteed the "freedom of violent assembly" or the "freedom of chuck-a-Molotov assembly".  There are already laws in place protecting the rest of us from violence and mobbery.  It's called the Criminal Code of Canada.

2b) This also goes against what little I know about government in Canada, namely, that federal law (like the Charter, or like the Criminal Code of Canada) overrules pretty much anything else at the provincial or municipal level.  So...why is a provincial governor attempting to supplement and/or overrule federal law?

2c) Moreover, since when does municipal police get the right to approve or disapprove of an assembly?  Think about that for a second:  you have to submit your itinerary in advance.  If the police approve, the assembly goes ahead, great.  Traffic news is alerted, and we can all curse and swear and find alternate routes.  Swell.  But, if the police don't approve...they've just revoked your legal right to freedom of assembly.  The police...can now revoke your legal right to freedom of assembly.

2d) And, this is no longer a law about "student protests."  The vagueness of that provision doesn't specify the nature of the assembly, or the composition of the group of 50.  That means the police are now enabled to walk up to a peaceful and legal strike, count the number of heads and declare a picket illegal. 

The Charest government has now expanded the fight.  This is no longer about Longhairs versus The Man.  This is The Man against Those Folks Who Voted Him In.  This is The Man against The Unions.  In terms of political blunders, this falls somewhere between Waterloo and Pearl Harbour.  He has awoken the giant.

Did I mention the sympathetic demonstrations in places like...New York, Paris, Toronto...

3)  We riot when the Habs win.  We riot when the Habs lose.  Strikers and their supporters have been livid about how the police have been hemming them in, arresting them, pepper spraying them, etc. - and that was before Bill 78 was put into place.  Montrealers - and Quebecers at large - are, if anything, a vocal bunch of people.  We like being vocal.  It's our guaranteed right in a free and democratic society, and dang it, we're gonna benefit from it.  And we do it so well we don't even restrict ourselves to one language.

So who in his right mind thought that a bill like this, which was designed to curb, restrict and/or outlaw loud people, was actually going to make them more quiet?

This is a law designed to invite civil disobedience. It's like frickin' legal reverse psychology!

4)  How is this supposed to be enforced?  Let's say you get 10,000 people all marching relatively in one peaceful direction.  What's to prevent 200-ish pods of 50 people from spinning off in multiple directions?  How are police supposed to disperse 200 "illegal" assemblies? 

Now what if we're dealing with 200,000 protesters?

5)  Wow, what bad timing.  Now the Bloc Quebecois (those primarily in favour of the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada) are saying that they've been siding with the students all along, and that they're opposed to Charest, his government and to Bill 78.  Did I mention we're coming up on an election soon?

Closing thoughts

1)  The students did not have my support for three main reasons:  a) I'm not convinced that the tuition increases are unwarranted, nor that they're draconian, though I do sympathize and agree that they suck.  b) Sticking me in traffic for four hours on a bridge when I'm already late for work - this does not make me very open-minded and sympathetic to your plight.  Lucky for all of us, I work from home.  c) I'm not convinced students are going to accept any deal short of "no tuition hikes", nor that they're serious about negotiating with the intent to stop the protests.

2)  I am against Law 78, 'cause it's just all sorts of wrong.  It's un-Quebecly, it's un-Canadian, it's unconstitutional, and it's just plain old unhelpful.  As a matter of fact, the only thing this law has been good at is encouraging people to break it.

3)  There are miscreants among those who have the right - and need - to protest.  There's no sure-fire way of pulling the miscreants out without someone getting elbowed in the face - unless those in favour of peaceful demonstrations simply point at the miscreant, shout "cooties!" and make way for the police to arrest the actual bad guys.

4)  The rest of us aren't helping (We are the Media).  It's really, really hard to get a full picture.  Pick up one paper, and the police are the victims; pick up the other, and the police are beating the snot out of some granny.  Both are equally convincing. Which means the media is being divisive.  I want the full story, because I want to make an informed opinion of the tuition hikes themselves - and I cannot do that right now.  There's nothing I can say that hasn't been said before; the best I can hope to do is try to pull all the threads together into a coherent, well-balanced presentation, and I don't think I'm succeeding even there.

5)  The government is not helping.  I think I've already made my point.

6)  What harm is there in the government itemizing the tuition hikes and/or negotiating a lower overall tuition hike?  Really, what is gained, what is lost, if both sides bend and lower the total tuition increase?

7)  What harm is there in the QC leadership in saying "You know what?  You spoke, we listened, we are acting democratically, and we are revoking Law 78?"  I think there's more honour in saying "Oops, here, we're fixing it" than there is in saying "We're not backing down from this, even if it means alienating our voters".  I think in the next election, if there's going to be a dramatic swing in favour of "Not Liberal", it's going to be because of Bill 78.

8)  While I am against Law 78, and while I feel for students who may or may not be affected by the tuition hikes, I will not wear a red square or wave a red flag.  Yes, democracy (as it is right now in Canada) is badly flawed; yes, capitalism really has its bad points; but I don't support communism simply because of all the other connotations that goes along with it.  People, do your research:  if you don't like Bill 78, if you don't like partisan politics, you won't like what that red square stands for.

9)  I just really want this to go away.  Students sitting down with the Education Minister, both parties talking and listening, the provincial government acting on mutually agreed-to proposals, tearing up Bill 78, and going out for another long weekend out on the terrasse, without any fear of flying chairs, beer bottles, rocks, batons, pepper spray or Molotov cocktails.

So, Tobin - because really, I wrote this for you - I hope this helps to give you a better idea of what's happening out here.

Because it's been working wonders for me.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I have a pretty good idea of what's going on out there now. The rock is on one side, the hard place is on the other, and the regular people are stuck in the middle, as usual.

    I've never understood how politicians can believe they can legislate themselves out of hot water.

    On the other hand, I've also never understood how common people can believe that destruction of property, yelling and generally pissing others off will help their cause.

    Unfortunately, we see it over and over again. It has to simmer, boil, explode, splatter innocents, and then, if we're lucky, then cooler minds prevail and everyone sits down and finally acts like adults.

    It's a sad world we live in, isn't it?