Student protests: what’s at the root?

Since the beginning of this year, Quebec has been gripped by student strikes protesting tuition increases and other policies. But the strikes have been primarily a francophone phenomena–English universities like McGill have seen little disruption. And Canadians outside Quebec are often bewildered, since Quebec students will still pay the lowest tuition in the country.

Quebec education policy can't be understood without reflecting on its religious dimensions. Until the 1960s, education in the province was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church with some Protestant exceptions–there wasn't even a provincial education department until 1964. Education was closely tied to the Catholic mission.

But in the few quick years of the Quiet Revolution, the state took over from the Church, and education became tied to the secular goal of Quebec national identity. Other provinces didn't have this sudden changeover. While many Canadian universities have religious roots, they gradually evolved over many decades into largely secular institutions.

The Catholic idea of education serving a larger collective societal mission–rather than the more Protestant idea of teaching individuals one by one–underlays the 1960s policy of cheap tuition to build an educated French-speaking population. The same goal now drives the protests in 2012 (and explains why McGill students are not out in the streets). The students' idea of education as a common good for which the state should pay finds its roots in Catholic ideas of common institutions with a collective mission.

Most non-Quebecers, including many of my own students at Carleton, have little sympathy for the students' tuition complaints. I suspect that's particularly true for Christian parents who (varying across provinces) pay significant money out of their own pockets to send their kids to private Christian schools and perhaps later to Christian colleges. Like the Quebec students, they understand very well that education can serve an important and larger collective mission–it's not just picking up job credentials.

However, while many Christians would like to see more public funding of Christian schools, they are also very aware that state money comes with strings attached, and this can undermine the collective mission. In contrast, Quebec students see the state as an overarching entity that is benign or good, much like the Church was once viewed in that province, and want it to pay.

The issues have now moved beyond tuition and education policy, and have become about more basic democratic and security issues like the right to protest in disguise. These raise an entirely different set of Christian concerns about our relationship to authority, and even Christians that sympathized with the original protests may now be concerned about the increasing levels of disruption and violence. But it's worth remembering the religious roots of the students' concerns, and one more reason why Quebec is such a distinct society within Canada.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.