June 2012

‘They’re a bunch of whiners’, a friend remarked as we had a discussion about the student protesters in Quebec. ‘Their tuition is less than a third of what everyone else pays – what are they complaining about?’ he continued. The sentiments he expressed echo the general opinion held my most people I’ve spoken to outside Quebec.

I too viewed these protesters as privileged ingrates who are complaining about a tuition hike which is peanuts compared to what everyone else pays. However, after visiting Quebec and witnessing these protests, I’ve been forced to reconsider my opinions; I strongly believe that other Canadians should too, and here’s why.

Imagine the following. Due to financial constraints our government has had to take some desperate measures. Starting next week, every Canadian will now have to pay a flat fee of $10 for every consultation with a doctor and about $ 200 for surgeries. It’s a small affordable fee that would help offset the financial strain on the government. Yes, our much cherished healthcare system is no longer free.

As one can imagine, there will be uproar in our society at the announcement of such news. How dare the government charge us for healthcare?! We will go out into the streets and will protest all night long. We will not stop until our demands our met. No way am I paying 10 bucks to visit a doctor! And as we lead mass rallies to protest these unjust measures, the Americans will look to us and say, ‘What a bunch of whiners! What are they complaining about? They pay nothing compared to what we have to pay’.

That analogy might have a few shortcomings, but it’s the same idea. You see, it’s not just the small fee and potential future hikes that we would be protesting. It’s the principle. We expect our government to provide universal healthcare; much like secondary education, library services and access to highways. Failure to do so results in uproar. We’ve worked hard to get our society to a point where we can enjoy these benefits; any attempt to jeopardize our access to these services is unacceptable.

Quebeckers view post-secondary education in the same light as the services I mentioned earlier. Yes, it’s not free but it was pretty close to it. The student movement has been working towards achieving universal access to post-secondary education; Quebec was perhaps the only hope of that dream being realized. A tuition hike of any sort, let alone one that increases tuition almost two fold, is a step backwards and squashes any chances of ever achieving full publicly funded universities.

As Rick Salutin pointed out, when society has a whole recognizes a service as fundamental priority, the excuses go out the door and the money gets found. This was the case for secondary education and universal healthcare. It’s not always feasible, but in order to get there, we as a society first need to collectively voice our expectations. We need to make it clear to our governments that higher education should be made accessible to all and not just the privileged few; that tuition hikes are not an acceptable of way dealing with budgetary restraints.

That is the message Quebecois students are sending to our government. We need to stand along with them and join hands in giving our support to this message. Our collective silence is a tacit approval to tuition hikes; we are saying that we are okay with such measures. Our indifference to the issue serves as precedence for tuition rises in other provinces and gives politicians the impression that they can simply get away with it.

In addition, the demonstrations are not just about a tuition increase. The students are protesting corruption, financial mismanagement and the lack of transparency on the government’s part. The newly introduced Bill 78, which puts many restrictions on the freedom of assembly, has given more reason to support the protests. However, support of the movement should not be blind and uncritical. Striking part way into the school year is an example of an imprudent move which resulted hundreds of students being unable to graduate.

Protesting every single night for weeks on end demonstrates a level of commitment unheard of in recent Canadian history. As I walked through the streets of Quebec City, I realized these protests were much more than just some students complaining. I saw old women in their 70’s cheering on the sidewalks, I saw a five year old girl marching with her mother; I saw people in their balconies clanging their pots and pans to express support.

While apathy and heedlessness are often used to describe young people, these students defy any such categorization. Their dedication to the cause, conviction in their beliefs and commitment to making a difference is inspirational by all accounts. That alone is enough merit to extend these students our support.

Also published in The Silhouette 


On May 26th, the world woke to the horrors of the Houla Massacre committed in Syria by pro-Assad militias. This barbaric crime was harsh reminder to the terrors of this now 15- month conflict. Between 10,000 to 13,000 lives have been lost since the conflict started; the numbers are only going to increase the country slowly propels towards civil war.

The UN reports that 108 people were killed in the massacre. In particular, it was the brutal murder of 49 children and 34 women that outraged the world. One could not have expected the barbarism and savagery to reach levels this ruthless. Gunmen attacked the most vulnerable people to terrorize the population, attacking them at close range and sparing no one.

11-year old Ali El-Sayed’s family was exterminated before him. He survived to tell the story by pretending to be dead, being soaked in the blood of his six year old brother, while gunmen went on their murderous rampage. His is just one of thousands of unimaginable horror stories; most of which we will never get to hear. Some media outlets went as far as publishing images of corpses of the dead children, with hopes of ‘shocking us’ as one editor explained. With the world falling deaf to the screams of Syrian victims, perhaps such measures are necessary to wake us all up.

It is perhaps to the credit of these journalists that international reaction to the massacre was swift and loud. Syrian diplomats have since been expelled from numerous Western nations including the US, UK and Canada. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the Syrian government; China and Russia agreeing on a resolution to the conflict for the first time. Even Syria’s long time supporters felt embarrassed standing by the tyrannical regime for once. Though, both nations continue to oppose tougher sanctions against Syria.

The world has expressed its disgust with the atrocious crime that took place. But will Bahar al-Assad face any repercussions? Robert Fisk thinks he will get away. Assad got away with Deraa and Homs; and he will get away with Houla too. Fisk argues that the Middle-East is littered with a hundred Houlas with ‘their dead children piled among the statistics, with knives and ropes as well as guns among the murder weapons’. It was Bashar’s Uncle Rafat’s Special Forces that carried out the massacre of insurgents in Hama in 1982. Today, the he lives between London and Paris – what is to say Assad would be in any different a position?

The Future of Syria

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the worsening situation in Syria; what exactly, no body’s sure. The UN special convoy’s peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan in March has ended in catastrophic failure with none of its conditions being met. It echoes the failure of similar plans in Bosnia and Rwanda; it has actually given political cover to a regime that continues its brutality without fail. As Philip Gourevitch explains, Annan’s plan ‘is another soap bubble, and the U.N. military observers who are supposed to monitor it are useless—or worse: when the butchery began in Houla, the regime told the U.N. monitors to stay away, which they did, bringing back bad memories, from the mid-nineties, of the false promises of protection that were extended, under the U.N. flag, to the people of Bosnia and Rwanda before they were abandoned to their killers’.

Congressman Keith Ellison too feels the UN peace plan has failed. He called for the international community to establish a ‘safe zone’ in Turkey that would protect fleeing Syrians; even if it means having to proceed without support from China and Russia. This safe zone will be protected by military forces, including those of the US, and would strike back if faced with regression from Syrian forces. The UN Security Council can play a much stronger role but its arms are paralyzed by Russian and China. Vladimir Putin’s minster stated that there would be no mingling with Syria’s internal affairs and that any military intervention would be premature.

Washington Post called for a stronger US leadership in mitigating the conflict. They too called for establishment of safe zones along or inside Syria’s border – which are to be guarded with the help of Turkish forces. So far the States has acted like a helpless player and has continued to pin the blame on Russia and China. With two on going conflicts in the Middle-East and an upcoming presidential election, a US led military intervention is unlikely. Nor is there any reason to assume they would be welcomed by the Arabs or hailed as liberators if any positive outcome ensues. A situation like that in Afghanistan is more likely to immerge in the case of such an intervention.

Turkey, along with Arab allies, who have a more favourable position in the region need to step up and play a more active role in stabilizing the conflict. Instead of waiting for the West to play its political and bureaucratic games, it is time for them take on leadership of that region and answer the call of the Syrian people. These initiatives need to be backed by Western powers and supported by any means possible. It is unlikely that such an initiative will take place, but it is one that would be likely welcomed.

The savagery demonstrated in Houla Massacre sends the message that nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred and nothing remains inviolable. It is this type of ruthlessness and disregard for divinely ordained sanctity that every tyrant has an eventual downfall. It will not be long before Bashar Assad will be humiliated and ousted – the question is how and when. Let us hope that those in power can learn from history and prevent catastrophes of the past from reoccurring. For the rest of us, dua is our main weapon. Please keep the people of Syria in your prayers.

First published June 1st