Thursday, May 3, 2012

Will the Quebec Spring Migrate South?

Students in Quebec have been boycotting classes for more than eighty days in protest of the provincial government's decision to raise university tuition fees 75% over the next five years. Images from the sometime violent demonstrations have been picked up by media sources around the world.

In the latest round, students have ignored court injunctions and maintained their picket lines, barring students and teaching staff from entering the colleges and universities affected by the boycott.

The battle lines have been drawn and neither side gives any indication that they will budge.

Over and above the question of whether the increase in tuition fees is justifiable, Quebec students pay the lowest tuition fees in North America, two larger interrelated issues are driving the conflict: the legitimacy of the government in place and the question of intergenerational social justice as the baby boomer generation offloads its fiscal disaster onto future generations.

Arguably, the entire Quebec political system is giant kick back scheme. After almost two years of constant public pressure, a judicial commission has been set up and seventeen investigations are now under the way, probably to no avail since the Premier Jean Charest appears to call a general election before the commission can begin its work in earnest.

Moreover, while colluding with the business class to milk the public purse, the government mismanaged the province's pension funds, loosing $40 billion from the value of the portfolios in one year alone, and are unable to control ever rising public health care expenditures, which are soon to comprise 50% of Quebec's budget.

In other words, faced with a dysfunctional political system that is being used to inflate government contracts for private gain and channels the lion's share of discretionary public spending to secure the quality of life for the aging segment of the population that has been quietly going along for the ride, a large group of educated, articulate, socially connected students refuse to have any part of the social contract that increases their debt load and subsequent tax burden.

Sound familiar? A similar social context brought about the Occupy movement in the US.

Looking at the prospect of the US Congress doubling interest rates on student loans in July, levels of student debt that surpass the nation's credit card debt, the inability to discharge any of the debt through bankruptcy, and unemployment/underemployment rates for recent graduates approaching 50%, it appears that America is prepared to sentence an entire generation to the status of wage slaves in order to pay down its massive accumulated debt.

In response, we may soon see the square red patch of cloth worn symbolically by a younger generation that engages in coordinated civil disobedience south of our border.

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