100 Days of Blame

I am, by most accounts, a horrible partner, and I have the exes to prove it. I am self-involved, self-indulgent, and more often than not underemployed. I suffer from tunnel vision and insomnia. I enjoy adult beverages, some times too much. I write poetry. I listen to a lot of alt-country. A lot. This is why I am 35 and my folks still ask about the absence of grandchildren and RRSPs. This is why my LinkedIn profile notes that I am a freelancer, but follows the claim with a question mark. This is why my relationships last three months, and typically end in a furious and graceless blaze of glory. But despite my poetic endings and disappointed parents, I’ve always been good at admitting blame, of recognizing my faults, and celebrating my flaws. One day I plan on learning from them. During the 100 days of the Quebec student strike, all sides, all entities involved, have been unwilling to admit any fault, to believe that they may have made mistakes, to admit that they should not have come home three days late smelling of perfume and whiskey. So, as Montreal prepares for an important day and joins the protest century club, I’m taking the time to consider how to share some blame.

The Mainstream Media

The CBC, CTV, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, et al. have failed miserably in their coverage of this event, and rest assured it is an event. The journalistic coverage has been if not lazy than perhaps complicit. Over the weekend “a” Molotov cocktail became pluralized very quickly in many reports. All entities continually refer to the “students” protesting and marching, while in reality the students are on strike but much of the rest of Quebec are on the streets. They quote tired facts about tuition costs, but are guilty in omitting from the discourse what non-residents and international students pay. The images and arguments have been ones of violence, and all too willing to ignore the moving and inspirational story of the rise of an important social movement. Their coverage has the appearance of writing from afar, written on desks in Toronto and Calgary.

(Admittedly, I have written most of my op-eds from Toronto, Ottawa, and Portland, Ontario. But, as before, I’m nothing if not transparent.)

The other fashion in which the mainstream media has failed is in their lack of understanding of the world as it exists in 2012. With the advent of social media, smartphones, and alternative media, the story can be told as it is, without being subjected to the filter of a biased media, whose interests are seen through a corporate lens. Fortunately, community-based media like OpenFile has picked up the slack and has been on the frontlines reporting without bias, but with passion and integrity. While like-minded alternative media has their own agenda, they are more aware of their requirement and duty to be transparent in the curious and informed light of technology.

I started writing politically motivated pieces because I felt the voices in this country’s op-eds did not represent me, or my generation, or the one that follows me, or the one that follows them. This country’s columnists have taken the occasion of the strike to beat up on students and Quebec alike, to scold youth as unknowing of the world they themselves entered with privilege and a lack of debt. Andrew Coyne, Graeme Hamilton, The Globe and Mail editorial board et al. have taken large steps in alienating their next generation of readers. And the construction of their arguments lack both transparency and integrity. Margaret Wente, I’m looking at you here, and I’ve addressed your boomer-centric simpleton rantings to the point where I now employ your name as an expletive. I fully expect “Wente you, man”, “you’re a piece of Wente”, and “motherwente” to catch on.

The New Democratic Party

I understand that federal parties and politicians are hesitant to involve themselves in provincial affairs, and this is why we haven’t heard from Steve at 24 Sussex, but where the hell is Thomas Mulcair and the NDP? How do they not realize that this is their base in the biggest fight of their lives? It was just a year ago that Quebec powered the NDP to its high water mark, a prominent role and responsibility as the official federal opposition party. How quickly they’ve forgotten, victims to their own self-indulgence. I hesitate to speak for the dead, but I can’t believe for a moment that Jack Layton wouldn’t be on the front lines of this fight, in his hometown, holding ground and offering counsel. The NDP seems more interested in using Layton’s name in their promotional materials than respecting and adhering to his legacy.

Quebec’s Schools

Quebec’s post-secondary institutions have been eerily quiet during this whole affair, like a child who knows it has done wrong and is afraid of its parents finding out the dog’s dead and mum’s purse is empty. CEGEPs and universities in Quebec have fostered this crisis through decades of over-spending and financial mismanagement. At some point, these institutions need to be asked to be accountable for the loose and irresponsible manner with which they waste both the students’ tuition and their provincial funding. An end to tenure? or to fat contracts for administration? or to incomplete research? In a province well-known for its organized crime, universities may be the biggest criminals of all.

The Rest of Canada

The ROC has always treated Quebec with kid gloves, like a heavy drinking uncle who is occasionally violent, but mostly benign. But this movement should have been embraced by Canadians from coast-to-coast. Part of the blame for that lies in a flaw in the framing of the argument (see below), but for a country that prides itself on being a strong social democracy, it has been very quick to nearly universally dismiss the very basic tenets of that democracy which the students are standing for. There should be marches in solidarity today in Vancouver, in Victoria, in Winnipeg, in Calgary, in every last corner of the country that still believes accessible education and democracy are important. Instead, demonstrations of solidarity are being planned in New York City and Paris. Paris, France, not Paris, Ontario.

Canadian Students and their Associations

I am honestly shocked by the lack of solidarity being shown by student groups across the country. Over the weekend, the Canadian Federation of Students was petitioned by their membership to have Ontario students join the fight, but a vote won’t be held until the end of the summer, and the petition had only 211 names on it. I’ve had innocuous tweets get more attention. Not framing the argument to be about student debt (below) was part of the failing here, but it doesn’t take a University of Toronto PhD candidate to realize that this movement is bigger than Quebec, bigger than next fall’s tuition fees, and bigger than a lost semester. It’s about provincial and federal governments, not to mention banks, making money off of students. The Canadian Federation of Students claims to represent 500,000 students from more than 80 university and college student unions in Canada, but where are they? I would hope they wake up from their unpaid internships and $450/month loan payments and join the conversation. And soon.

The Charest Government

I feel for Jean Charest. I get the feeling that he never wanted to be the premier of Quebec, but after the fall of the Progressive Conservative party and with the lingering threat of separation, he answered a call to service and entered provincial politics (and indirectly paved the way for the amalgamation of the Reform and PC parties, and the reign of Steve, but that is an argument for another day). But Charest’s leadership, or lack thereof, has to accept most of the blame. The first mistake was underestimating the will and passion of youth. Charest seemingly hedged his bets on the strike petering out as the threat of a lost semester and the promise of Montreal summer approached, and instead he has infuriated a strike into a full-fledged movement. The passing of Bill 78, a legislation that burns against everything that this country stands for, did not quiet the storm, it did not quell the fire. Instead, it poured gasoline on it, invigorated an already committed base, and helped to galvanize the movement. And if this offensive and insulting lack of respect for the students and democracy leads us into a discussion of separation, then Charest’s once admirable sacrifice was all for not.

The Student Movement

The students have been less than flawless in their endeavour. I’ll be writing about this more later in the week, but their first mistake was the manner in which they framed their argument. It should have been about student debt, and not about free tuition for Quebec students. By making it about free or freezed tuition, they’ve provided their opponents and detractors with the simple and oft employed argument, “Quebec students pay the lowest tuition in Canada.” The problem is, that’s a good argument, and it’s true. And it incites a level of jealousy and bitterness in like-minded student groups across the country. Why should someone in Ontario paying $6640-a-year in tuition care about a Quebec student paying $2519 who wants to pay $0? It was a huge mistake, perhaps one born of being unable to see or believe that the strike would evolve as it has, and one that the students are just now emerging from. If the argument, from the outset, had been made about crippling student debt, the issue would have found immediate allies not just across Canada, but around the world. The Canadian Federation of Students estimates the current national student debt at $14.5 billion. The movement should been shouting out that number like a mantra. It should have been emblazoned on their red squares, tagged on monuments and buildings. Numbers are bilingual. And a number that large would have spoken to the masses, and a discourse framed in student debt would have robbed opponents of their only argument.

100 days. Just over three months. A semester. The life cycle of my failed relationships. The only way the students, the media, the province, the country, and my parents will ever be happy is if we all take the time for a peaceful moment of self-reflection. This is no longer about old promises or missed classes. It’s about creating the framework for an argument that will dictate the course of post-secondary education in Canada, and about providing future generations the opportunity to establish themselves while free of debt and committed to the ideals from which discourse began.