I’ll get back to my series of posts about our grandparents’ methods of education soon. But in the meantime, the student protests in Québec, and the reaction in the English Canadian media to them, have my attention. I have rarely seen such virulent, ignorant, and prejudiced attitudes towards youth as in recent days. The total inability of the English media to understand, or their unwillingness to understand, the situation in Québec is astonishing, and plays into several established memes of prejudice that I find unconscionable. With your permission, I’d like to react to some of the recent events. I’ll start with the background, in case you’re reading this from outside of Canada. In the past few months, hundreds of thousands of students in the province of Québec have taken to the streets in protest against Premier Jean Charest’s government’s proposal to hike tuition costs by 75% over five years. Exacerbating the issue, the government (claiming that civil unrest warranted extraordinary powers for itself) passed a law on May 18th that limited fundamental rights of gathering, protest, and association for the students. The English Canadian media has portrayed all this in such a way as to encourage those outside of the province to regard the protests as childish, selfish, violent, and unreasonable, and the government’s fascist response as entirely warranted. I do not find that the issues have been adequately presented, and I am only saddened, not surprised, at the angry and bitter reaction from English Canada, who cite the comparatively lower costs of tuition in Québec as an argument for the students’ irrational and selfish mindset. Let me try to explain.
Québec’s checkered history in education
Québec, for those of you who are not from here, has a long history of oppression in Canada. After the defeat of Montcalm’s forces at the battle of the Plains of Abraham near Québec City in 1759, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the survival of French Canadian culture under British rule has been a difficult question. British Imperialism was at its height, and historically speaking, their treatment of conquered minorities in the colonies was harsh, with powerful incentives and policies of cultural and linguistic assimilation being the norm worldwide. Colonial education has a very complex and mostly negative effect on these minority groups. The pattern of education in Québec matches that of other postcolonial nations. In such places, education is often used as a weapon of assimilation. At the same time, it is made difficult for the members of the minority to benefit from the process. In Kenya, for example, the colonial English school system, set up to ‘civilize’ the Africans, produced only a paltry number of university graduates, well into our own times. The crisis here at home in Aboriginal education is well documented, including but not limited to the Residential Schools.
During the period of decolonization, attempts at reform to colonial education were made throughout the former British Empire. In Québec, the period of the 1960s brought enormous social change in the form of the Quiet Revolution. The formerly Catholic-church-regulated elite education was challenged, and a more egalitarian model was put forward. Before the Revolution, nearly half of all Québec youth were dropping out of school by age 15. Education levels lagged far behind the rest of privileged, English Canada.
This historical and cultural context is almost entirely ignored in the Canadian press. Former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau recently pointed out the connection, but this was largely unmentioned outside of Québec itself, probably because most of English Canada does not understand or remember the significance of the Quiet Revolution. Instead, the situation is filtered almost entirely through the cultural lens of the English majority outside of la belle province. Students, through this lens, are seen as entitled, spoiled brats who do not understand the value of a dollar, and whose irrational protests are merely an excuse to riot and party in the streets. After all, since the hard-won changes of the Quiet Revolution, tuition fees in the province have been historically lower than in the rest of Canada, where we have let tuition rates creep up over the years, on the idea that education is a commodity, a privilege, something to be bought, not a fundamental right such as we perceive health care to be, funded by taxes, meaning a public investment.
That attitude is not something a minority group can afford. What is the best indicator of whether a child will attend university? Whether his parents went before him. But that ball has to start rolling somewhere. High tuition fees, and the crippling debt that comes with university education, are deterrents to anyone but the privileged, and those who are not faced with an uphill battle in society to begin with. So, during the Quiet Revolution, it was decided that education would be seen as something fundamentally necessary for the advancement of Quebec society — not, as elsewhere, as a “nice to have”, but a right. The corporatization of education is not something that I fundamentally agree with even in Ontario, where I work; resistance to that mindset is both refreshing and hope-inducing.
My real point here is that the socio-historical situation in Québec is fundamentally different than in the rest of the country. You will not be able to understand the reasons behind the protests, or their massive popularity, if you attempt to view them from your own cultural background. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, the English media, and those who read it, are making little or no attempt to understand, but only to denigrate, belittle, and condemn. This makes me sad.
In my next post, I’d like to address some of the misunderstandings that stem from using the English cultural lens to try to understand the protests.