Tuesday 29 May 2012

Fighting over first-world problems

Photograph by: Dario Ayala , Montreal Gazette

We may have crappier weather here, but Quebec’s social climate should be the envy of the rest of Canada, what with free college education, more generous and flexible maternity leave, paternity leave, $7-per-day daycare, pharmacare, and so on.

Unfortunately, the problem with generous social programs is they’re never quite generous enough.
A while back I read a piece by a frustrated Quebec mother, home alone (i.e. without her children) in the final months of maternity leave. She’d been lucky enough to snag a spot for her second child at the same daycare her oldest attended. They had room for her children in September, but her maternity leave didn’t end until January. The daycare wouldn’t hold the spots for her, nor would it allow her to pay from September and only start using them in January. (Long waiting lists, you know.) She wanted to care for her children at home while she was off work , but was “forced” to put them in full-time care several months early. This woman was mighty steamed.

First-world problems.

Twenty-five years ago, I returned to work after a 16-week maternity leave. My son had only been sleeping through the night for three weeks. A departmental secretary told me that a generation earlier, she’d been forced to quit her job as soon as she “showed.” She didn’t begrudge me my 16-week mat leave; she just wanted me to know, as I was complaining, that I was forgetting how good I had it.
Quebec’s first-world problems keep on coming.

Take our student strike. After the usual endless prodding and consultation, the provincial government declared a 75-per-cent increase in university tuition over five years, to bring the students’ costs to 1968 levels when adjusted for inflation. Today’s average annual tuition is $2,168; in five years it will be $3,793.

Less than $2,200. That’s what it costs right now to go to university chez nous. Even at McGill.
Unfortunately, the proposed increase – $325 annually – was too much for some Quebec students. So they’ve been “on strike” for more than 100 days.

First-world problems.

The student movement had clearly jumped the shark by April 24, when a visiting candidate for president of Concordia University was shouted down by “striking” students there. The totalitarian underpinnings of the striking, protesting minority – shouting down dissent, refusing secret-ballot voting, smashing windows and cars, disobeying legal injunctions to let classes resume, disrupting classes and intimidating those in attendance, demonstrating in front of the premier’s home, rioting, and allegedly setting off smoke bombs on the métro system – were made as plain as the noses the students were cutting off to spite themselves.

Some of the manifs have seen an estimated 250,000 people hit the streets. Some students may not graduate. Dispirited others have dropped out. Another recent casualty was the 14-year career of Education Minister Line Beauchamp and her “good cop” strategy – to spread the pain over seven years, and to set up committees (including students) to search for savings at universities that’d be passed along to students (an administrative nightmare). The strikers are supported and encouraged by opposition politicians, organized labour, entertainers and professors, all wearing the movement’s red-square symbol.

The latest government salvo is Bill 78, “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend.” Imagine having to pass such a law! It requires 8 hours’ notice and the route of demonstrations, and includes large penalties for student unions or organizations that prevent others from attending classes. The usual suspects call it the worst attack on civil liberties since the War Measures Act.

Spring has gloriously sprung in Montreal. But despite the good weather, Quebec is still slogging through the winter of its discontent. The Charbonneau Commission hearings into allegations of corruption in the construction industry are under way, another ring in the circus that defines public life here. But our beloved festival season – Festival TransAmériques, the Circus Arts Festival, the Francofolies, the jazz fest, Nuits d’Afrique, Just for Laughs, film festivals, etc. – beckons. Ah, summer in Montreal: could anything be finer?

It’s enough to convince anyone of the truth in the immortal words of Louis C.K.: “Everything’s amazing. And nobody’s happy.”

Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer. 
Her debut collection of short fiction, The Meaning of Children, is available at Amazon.com.

Originally published May 28th, 2012, in The Montreal Gazette.


  1. Every heard of democracy? Charest follows his agenda with the support of a very small minority of the population. But this is not okay for the students? I think your opinions are a bit out of the loop.

  2. Dear anonymous

    i may disagree with your perspective but i don't try to prevent you from using the internet. unfortunately, the students who believe in the boycott do believe they have the right to prevent those who disagree with them from getting an education.

    you all deserve a failing grade in civics. our political institutions aren't infallible but letting the tail wag the dog--letting the mob decide what our laws or public expenditures should be--is the EXACT opposite of democracy.

  3. You have sparked a debate with your blog post, which is good in a way because it will definitely promote critical thinking.

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