‘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 

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