Given sufficient patience, it would be possible to float down the St. Lawrence River from my home on Wolfe Island to the Island of Montreal. This spring, though, the short trip by train in early May seemed like a passage to a different world altogether. Staying overnight near Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, I wondered what this trip into the distinct society would bring. What would be the atmosphere of the nightly student protests, enormous in number, which at first seemed rather exotic, and then ominous as they turned toward violence and threats of same? In the end, the streets were as peaceful as the pews in the cathedral, not a peep to be heard, not a protester to be seen. The next morning I discovered that the nightly protest had been temporarily shifted to nearby Victoriaville, where the governing Liberal Party had hastily transferred its conference, fleeing downtown Montreal in fear of the protesters. Like so much the Charest government has done on this file, that decision came to grief as the protesters simply decamped to Victoriaville, stormed the conference site and staged a violent riot. While the rioting was going on, the government struck a compromise deal with the student leadership. The deal was summarily rejected by the students as a whole. The government responded by passing an emergency law putting conditions on the protests. That scheme, too, came to grief, as the protests only grew more numerous, attracting support from other civil society groups on democratic liberty grounds. The mass protests resulted in mass arrests and no apparent progress toward a solution. To the contrary, the nature of the problem to be solved became even more ambiguous.
It is hard not to take a harsh view of the protests. The supposed grievance was hardly civilization threatening: a modest annual increase of $325 in university tuition over a five-year period (later spread over seven), after which Quebec students would still be paying the lowest university tuition in North America. In fact, they would be paying, after the seven years of increases, roughly what Quebec students were paying in the glorious year of 1968, in inflation-adjusted terms. Hence the protests seemed driven by equal parts melodrama and self-indulgence. The harassment of class-attending students and the violence on the streets earned widespread and deserved condemnation outside of Quebec, and rather restrained criticism within Quebec.
On the other hand, melodrama and self-indulgence seem insufficient causes to explain thousands of young people on the streets, night after night, for more than one hundred nights. A generation marked by the short attention spans, lack of enduring commitments and passive entertainments of the digital age would be rather incapable of sustained social action absent some deep motivation. Nihilism and indolence may capture many souls, but they hardly fill the streets. The night of the Victoriaville riot, an agreement was actually reached between the education minister and the student leadership. Within days that agreement lay in tatters, the education minister resigned, and the protesters marched on in the name of social solidarity, the Quebec consensus, anti-capitalism, economic equality, higher taxes for corporations, and other sundry causes. Sometimes they marched clad only in their unmentionables, a silent objection to the hegemony of clothes. Sometimes they banged pots and pans, a noisy objection to . . . what exactly? Comparisons were made with the Occupy Wall Street movement and its ancillaries or the anti-austerity protests in Athens and other European capitals. But it all served to muddy the waters further. The question frustratingly remained—what then is being protested?
A general dissatisfaction with The Ways Things Are and with those responsible for bringing about this state of affairs is clear enough. But who are those responsible? An earlier generation that enjoyed lavish social services but refused to pay for them, leaving a legacy of constraining debt? The students' parents, who ought to have demanded higher tuition in the 1970s? Generations of Quebecers who, though paying the highest taxes in Canada, did not pay still more? The federal government, whose flood of equalization booty to Quebec should become a tsunami instead? The global financiers whose recklessness brought on the financial crisis? The International Monetary Fund, which, preoccupied with bailing out Greece and Spain, has neglected Quebec? It is hard to sustain that any of the above are responsible for the "crisis" of Quebec students paying marginally more for their own education.
Something though has unleashed a great moral energy on the streets of Montreal. Moral fervour is often admirable, but not always so. Moral energies, like all energy, natural and supernatural, can wreak havoc unless channelled properly. A crackling fire in the hearth is a good thing; one that burns down the house is not. The protests in Montreal are fuelled by a deep sense of unfairness and injustice, for which the tuition increases were merely the ignition. There is righteous anger among the protesters and their allies. (There is unrighteous anger, too, but better to attribute good motives when possible.) Somehow the world is taking a turn away from how things ought to be. An old order is passing away in favour of a new order, unlovely and undesired.
What is being protested is the future itself. Quebec society has lived in the present for a long time—consuming for today and leaving the bills until tomorrow. The demographic crisis is part of this; Quebecers were so busy enjoying the pleasures of today that they opted not to accept the responsibility of making Quebecers for the future. Indulgent and undisciplined public policy and personal finance can extend the present moment, even as adolescence can be extended well into adulthood. But the future cannot be suspended indefinitely. The party can continue well into the next day, but eventually dawn breaks and the morning after is no longer after; it has arrived.
When I was studying to be an economist some 20 years ago, it was common to note that certain trends were unsustainable, particularly in regard to deficit spending. At some point present trends would have to bend to future reality. When the future would arrive was never quite sure, and there were always those who sang the seductive song that the future could be held at bay. The song can't be sung anymore. The future has now arrived. The argument on the streets of Quebec is between those who recognize that the future is really the new present and those who do not believe that the past is really past. That is why some student leaders argue not only against the tuition increases but also in favour of free tuition altogether. Those were arguments advanced in 1968, and if the past is not really past, why shouldn't the grandchildren try to live their grandparents' dream? There is something odd about the young revolting against the future in favour of a past that reigned before they were even born. The young in Quebec want the future to look more like the past, and seem willing to sacrifice their present education to make it so.
The student protesters in Quebec do not just favour the status quo. They are marching for the status quo ante—the way things used to be. It is easier to understand that Montreal's marchers are not just anti the present, as most marchers are, but that they are also pro the ante. They would hardly be pleased to be called nostalgic reactionaries, given that they are nostalgic for a time that prevailed before they were born. Yet they are just that, nostalgic and angry, insisting the future be more like the past.
It is tricky ground to stand on. Literally. The protesters marching on Sherbrooke had to be careful the day an enormous sinkhole opened in the road. That doesn't happen on Yonge Street or Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street, but it does happen in Montreal, and it seems somehow unremarkable, perhaps because it is less spectacular than the usual hazard of debris from an overpass crashing down on the traffic below. It is hard to find a better metaphor than that. The protesters stand their ground on ground that is unable to sustain those who stand upon it. It remains true that things that are unsustainable cannot be sustained indefinitely. The future will come. Young Quebecers simply assert that they don't want it to come today. All of which bodes ill for Quebec's future. After all, what prospects are there for a province where the most youthful and vigorous energies are directed toward rebuilding the past? If the protesters prevail, the future of Quebec will resemble that sinkhole on Sherbrooke—the legacy of the past swallowing up the present.
If you are reading Convivium in the proper order, you will have already been delighted by the writers we assembled to commemorate the 10th anniversary of World Youth Day in Toronto—the largest single religious event in Canadian history. World Youth Day was the inspired genius of Blessed John Paul II, who thought it would be a grand idea to invite the youth of the world to meet with him in order to pray, learn about the faith, experience the mercy of God in sacramental confession, adore the Lord in the Eucharist, and camp overnight, keeping vigil for a massive outdoor papal Mass. His advisers back in the mid-1980s were aghast. What if the Pope invited the young, and nobody came? . . . . . . .
France has a new president. Not Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who would have been the Socialist candidate had his candidacy not crashed amidst chambermaids and prostitutes. The French pride themselves on being indulgent about such matters, but some standards have to be kept . . . . . . .
The full text of this article is available only in Convivium's hard-copy print issue, Volume 1, No. 2.|
Become a member now to receive your copy: click here.