Degrees of Legitimacy

In late February, I began to notice posters on Concordia University’s campus advertising a special general meeting of my facultys student association, the Fine Arts Student Alliance (FASA). The intended goals of the meeting were not immediately clear, but its subject was the rapidly growing grève étudiante, which had not yet made national headlines but was spreading like wildfire among francophone universities and CEGEPs throughout the province.

I got my start in student movements when, in Grade 9, I organized a sit-in information session and subsequent walk-out protest at Wolfville Junior High School in response to the Nova Scotia provincial governments plan to drastically cut the education budget. (The education minister at the time, Jane Purves, had stated blithely that fifty students per classroom was acceptable; my fourteen-year-old self rebelled.) In Halifax, as an undergraduate student at the University of Kings College, I was a participant—albeit not an extremely active one—in the Canadian Federation of Students’ “Reduce Tuition Fees” campaign. So my participation in the grève étudiante was not out of character.

This student movement, though, was markedly different than the previous ones in which I’d taken part in the sense that the decision to mobilize took the form of a grassroots democratic vote. It didn’t begin with at instigation of a rabble-rousing fourteen-year-old (ahem) or descend from the coordinated efforts of a national student organization. In our student association, at least, the strike was initiated by a grassroots motion, presented to the aforementioned special general meeting and voted in by a show of hands. While the initial meeting and those that followed it have not been without their frustrations—the phrase “call to quorum” is still enough to reduce me and many others to paroxysms of rage—it is worth observing that most fine arts students at Concordia now have a basic grasp of Robert’s Rules and actually know what the phrase “call to quorum” means. The process has not been without value as a civics lesson.

Contrary to the narrative that the mainstream media has consistently presented about the grève étudiante, those of us who have taken part are not ignorant slackers intent on “playing hooky” over some perceived injustice that bears no relationship to the realities of economics or provincial governance. The proposed tuition hikes are part of a broad pattern of fiscal mismanagement on the part of Jean Charest’s Liberal government. I’m not just talking about the government’s failure to address corruption in the construction industry, which allegedly cost the provincial Transport Department $347 million in inflated costs in 2010 alone and has left Québec’s infrastructure in tatters. I’m not just talking about the government’s bizarre decision to forgo $513 million a year in revenue by eliminating a 0.98% capital tax on financial institutions in late 2011. I’m not just talking about the widespread mismanagement within university administrations, which has been mostly ignored by the provincial government (the $2 million fine imposed on Concordia in the wake of the $4.1 million the university handed out in administrative severance packages over the past five years seems, to this student, a bit like adding insult to injury; who ends up paying that fine?). So when a columnist dismisses the concerns of the student movement and suggests that increased tuition might be “a good place to start” in solving Québec’s fiscal woes, I can’t help but laugh.

And when this same columnist—Sandy White, a former aide to scandalplagued Conservative MP and Industry Minister Christian Paradis—tries to deligitimize the strike based on the low voter turnout among student associations, I can’t help but laugh even more loudly. In a supremely patronizing Globe and Mail op-ed on Friday, White observed:

Of [Québec’s] 460,000 post-secondary students, only 165,000—or slightly more than 35 per cent—are striking. However, since faculties and student groups did not require unanimous consent when voting to strike, the number of students who actually voted in support of this action is likely less than 20 per cent of the total student body.

I observe, with regard to the 2011 Canadian federal election, which took place one year ago today:

Of 14,723,980 voters, only 5,832,401—or slightly more than 39 per cent—voted Conservative. However, the number of people who actually voted in support of the Conservative Party is barely more than 24 per cent of the total number of eligible voters (24,257,592).

White’s contention is that a minority of students are on strike, and that since the decision to strike was made by an even smaller minority of the total student population, the whole movement lacks legitimacy. But even if you assume that the numbers are with her, the same could be said of Canada’s federal government. Our current parliament, with its “majority” Conservative government, was supported by less than a quarter of eligible voters.

The difference, then, is that as Canadian citizens, we can’t choose to pretend that we aren’t governed by the parliament that we elected (or didn’t, as the case may be). And furthermore, whenever discontented citizens on the left dispute the legitimacy of Harper’s “majority”, we are inevitably told that if more of us had voted, it wouldn’t be this way. Not so with student associations. If we took our student associations as seriously as we take our federal government, those students who hadn’t turned out to vote against the strike would have gritted their teeth, accepted the decision of those who turned out in favour, and mobilized themselves to make sure that they had the numbers to vote down the strike at the next opportunity.

Instead, those who didn’t support the strike just ignored it, ignored the votes, and carried on with business as usual. It worked for them this time. But when they aren’t voting in the general meetings of student associations with funny acronyms, but in the general elections which decide the future of their provinces or their country, they would have been better-served had they taken the time to learn how representative democracy works when they had the chance.