Irony is Dead

These two men are protesting the same thing.
These two men are protesting the same thing.

I’m not sure who snapped this photo from a student anti-austerity demo a few days back, but in any case, chapeau Monsieur, whoever you are, for capturing the innate irony and hypocrisy of protest in Quebec.

The cop and the student with his hands up are essentially protesting the exact same thing – cuts to government services.

In the case of the cop, government’s desire to increase fiscal efficiency has manifested as proposed pension reform.

In the case of the student, government cuts to education and proposed increases to the cost of tuition are two parts of the same issue – government is transferring debt onto the backs of students, asking them to pay more for the accreditation and training only universities can provide and that are fundamental to entering and competing in our local job market.

In both cases you can argue the government’s efforts to get back in the green are being done in a manner which is unfair to civil servants and students alike. It’s unfair to ask police, firefighters and other municipal workers to contribute vastly more to their own pensions than was previously the case because at one point in time pensions were mismanaged. Moreover, almost by necessity municipal pensions should focus more on a defined benefit rather than a defined contribution. That’s always been the trade-off for the civil workforce, what you don’t get in pay you make up for afterwards with a generous pension.

This photograph is striking to me because it shows two people who should be united in a common cause, yet one is permitted to protest and the other is not.

Perhaps it’s an indication of what we as a society are willing to tolerate, but that leaves even more questions.

Why is it okay for police and firefighters to play dress up and vandalize public property (let’s call it for what it is) and not okay for students to assemble in public and demonstrate?

Why do we assume students will be violent when time and time again it’s the police that instigate violence?

Why do we give the police carte-blanche to disrupt student demonstrations when they themselves are actively demonstrating their opposition to austerity measures?

And if the students were to adopt the tactics of the police, firefighters and transit employees – such as vandalizing public property with propaganda, dressing in camouflage, starting fires in front of City Hall and then ransacking a city council meeting (etc) – would we tolerate that?

I think not.

Frankly, if the students were to apply any of the tactics used by municipal employees, we’d likely have P-6 amendments to limit the wearing of camouflage in public.

And any effort by the students to congregate in front of City Hall, let alone entering the building, would be resisted with force by the same people who allowed their firefighter friends to do just that.

It’s hypocritical, unfair, illogical and many other things too, but the bottom line is this – as a society, we tolerate strikes and various protest actions by established unions with actual political clout, and do the exact opposite with regards to students.

So with that in mind the students need to change their tactics. They have no hope of repeating the Printemps Erable, and shouldn’t want to go down that route anyways. While protests did allow for a maintenance of the tuition freeze, it did not result in any major changes to benefit the provincial economy, nor did it do much of anything to get austerity measures off the table. Jean Charest did not lose the 2012 election because of how he handled the student strike, but more because of the perceived corruption of his administration. In the end a PQ minority government was formed that lasted about 18 months and ended with the Quebec Liberals returning to power, albeit with a majority government and a presumed mandate to do what was necessary to get Quebec back in the green. The Marois administration did nothing of consequence for Quebec, and after a year and a half of gaffes and poorly thought-out social policies were thrown out of office.

Hope and change may have been the ideal of 2012, but it was far from reality.

Fast forward to today and the students have an even greater battle before them. Couillard is premier until 2018 and doesn’t have the Charbonneau Commission into corruption and collusion in the construction industry dogging him. People don’t want to pay any more taxes and increasingly view the students as entitled if not hopelessly unrealistic.

I don’t necessarily share this view, and personally believe the cost of education should be lower than it is today by a considerable margin. I also believe education access, standards and funding should be nationalized and not an issue of provincial control.

That said, the case needs to be made in a different way. Street battles with police do not and will not change public perception in favour of the students.

Whereas once upon a time a photo like the one above would shock people out of their stupor and propel societal change, the videos and photos of police brutality are now shrugged at. Too many people in this province applaud the police for ‘teaching the brats a lesson’. Too many people in this city see street protests as an inexcusable inconvenience. And too many students seem to believe Paris ’68 is a fait accomplit, waiting just around the corner to happen here.

Dare I say it, it seems too many Quebec students are beginning to view protesting as a legitimate component of the student experience, something no university education is complete without.

Obviously this should not be the case; street protests should be a last resort, not the only card to be played.

I would welcome news from the student associations that they’ll make their case in a different way, one that doesn’t resort to the same tired tactics that basically boil down to disorganized street theatre and opportunities to deploy a ludicrously expensive riot squad. By protesting, students are actively adding to provincial and municipal debt – all those cops on the riot squad are paid bonuses, overtime, danger pay etc.

And they most definitely will be paid. Their unions are stronger than the student unions by a considerable margin.

As was the case in 2012, the students’ grievance is not self-evident and there seems to be a lack of cohesive planning and purpose. If the public doesn’t even understand why students are protesting, or what they’re proposing in lieu of austerity, there’s no hope the students will ever be able to change public opinion in their favour.

The few people who will change their minds after seeing a photo like the one above won’t make waves and won’t result in societal change. If there’s a case to be made against austerity (and there is), it should be clear, concise and to the point.

It also shouldn’t prevent students from attending class.

When trying to educate the public about an alternative way forward, it seems remarkably foolish to me to begin by making enemies first on campus (by disrupting classes, such as we witnessed at Concordia this week) and then with logical potential allies.

How much do you want to bet ASSÉ never reached out to the SPVM or their union?

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