By Paul Murphy
In a developed and democratic nation, accessible post-secondary education is a necessity because, as Benjamin Barber put it, “the competence to participate in democratic communities, the ability to think critically and act deliberately in a pluralistic world, the empathy that permit us to hear and thus accommodate others, all involve skills that must be acquired.”
Little notice was taken to Licia Corbella’s March 9 Calgary Herald article, “Quebec students get cushy deal on tuition — thanks to Alberta,” as nearly 200,000 students, teachers, union members and adults from all over Quebec took to the streets in Montreal on March 22, 2012. As an Albertan, Corbella should know that one should not attempt to meddle in an other province’s affairs, unless they wish to look foolish. Those who remember the era of Peter Lougheed and the National Energy Policy should be aware of the massive mistake it is to interfere in other provinces’ constitutional jurisdictions — whether it’s education or natural resources.
Instead, Corbella went out of her way to criticize the publicly owned Hydro Quebec, while failing to recognize that privatization in our own province has resulted in Alberta having the highest electricity rates within Canada. Fortunately, Corbella’s dismal argument for inter-province bickering has, as I mentioned, not been taken seriously by those who had the courage to take to the streets.
Quebec’s situation requires careful consideration before one waves their finger east. First, Quebec values and encourages the less lucrative economic activities of arts and culture, which preserve their French culture while also reinforcing a colourful social fabric. Second, educational equality and opportunity for the French-speaking population have become of paramount importance. After the 1837 Patriot Rebellion — at which time the Anglophones controlled 90 per cent of the Lower Canadian economy — Quebecers’ access to education was reduced until the attempted restoration following the 1960 Quiet Revolution. The resulting establishment of the Universite de Quebec left a deep imprint in the identity of Quebec regarding the importance of education.
The Quebec Liberal’s provincial budget speech on March 17, 2011 revealed two key features that led to the protests: a $2.1 billion investment into resource development of the north, while also raising university tuition fees by $1,625 per year.
While at first the recent protests might seem like the result of students having too much free time, it is in fact a societal debate of the long-term economic future of Quebec. People are demanding a transition to a sustainable knowledge-based, in order to reduce the reliance on our diminishing non-renewable resource-based economy. Quebec has become a leader for a transition to a sustainable economy with the implementation on December 14, 2011 of the only carbon cap and trade system in North America, in addition to a number of subsidies and tax incentives through organizations such as Regroupement National des Conseils Regionaux de l’Environnement, which encourage sustainable transport, urban planning and housing.
The question should then be, what can the rest of Canada, in particular Alberta, learn from Quebec as Canadians continue to dig themselves deeper into the resource economy trap? While we hope that Quebec will remain a leader in North America, we must look even further to examples like Finland, which currently pays no post-secondary education fees. How can this model be used to help determine the massive structural changes required to transition from our resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, particularly as we enter a more difficult post-petroleum era?