The Political Philosophy of the “Printemps Érable”
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The Political Philosophy of the “Printemps Érable”

As spring has given way to the dog-days of summer, it might seem to the casual observer as if the energies and passions that marked our “Printemps Érable” have finally subsided. Though the nightly protests no longer draw quite the crowds they did only a few weeks ago, it seems clear that what we are experiencing is a hiatus rather than a conclusion. In a few weeks, the winter term will resume, and the real intent behind Bill 78 will become apparent. Student associations whose leaders recommend strike actions will risk seeing their funding cut, and those leaders themselves will face draconian legal reprisals. Instructors will be required to teach, whatever the circumstances, in violation of the principle of academic freedom, which includes the right to determine when conditions are propitious to teaching and to learning, and when they are not.

All this will most likely be occurring in the context of an election campaign. The Liberal Party, which has been in power for almost ten years, and which did not have many political cards to play before the protests began, mired as it has been in an apparently endless string of corruption scandals, is hoping that it will be able to eke out a victory on the backs of the students. Democracies are not immune to the lure of the mano dura, and it is not impossible that, given the perversities to which our first-past-the-post electoral system is prone, and the fact that the political opposition is hopelessly divided, Jean Charest will manage to pull it off.

One of the claims that the Liberals and their supporters in the punditocracy have been making is that they are not just imposing order through their uses of special legislation and of a carte blanche seemingly granted to security forces to visit all manner of brutality upon protesters. They are also the supporters of the rule of law and of democracy, against student protesters who would reduce Quebec society to anarchy. In other words, the Liberals are claiming to be acting on the basis of a superior political philosophy. I want in this short paper to put that claim to the test. I hope to make clear that that claim is quite fragile indeed. Whatever the real motivation behind the Charest government’s actions in the last few months, the commitment to ensuring that Quebec’s political and legal institutions are underpinned by philosophically defensible conceptions of democracy, justice, and the rule of law, is not one of them.

I

Let’s begin with the claim that after all lies at the historical origins of the conflicts that erupted in Quebec over the course of the last few months. That claim, to recall, is that a 75% increase in tuition fees for university students (later revised to 82% over 7 years) is justified, because only in this way would students be paying “their rightful share” (leur “juste part”) of the total cost of higher education in Quebec.

Students are not claiming that they should not be paying for higher education. They are claiming that they should not be paying through an increase in tuition fees. Students understand full well that they will one day become taxpayers (indeed, those who have to work in order to support themselves already are), and that as graduates they may very well pay more tax than those who have not gone on to university studies. So far from asking for a free ride, they are making the claim that it makes more sense for university studies to be funded through taxes (their own taxes included!) rather than through an increase in tuition fees that would increase their debt burden upon entering the work force, and that would risk having a deleterious impact on the ability of certain less privileged segments of society being able to access university in the first place. What’s more, they are claiming that university studies should not be seen purely as an individual benefit that students confer upon themselves in order to secure a competitive advantage upon entering the labour market. Rather, it is a collective benefit that...