Minority rights, reasonable limits, voter turnout, and the Quebec student protests

As someone with libertarian sympathies, I can appreciate the furor over Quebec’s Bill 78, which places limits on protest activities, such as a minimum distance from post-secondary facilities and the requirement of advance notice before a protest takes place.  Moreover, I also see the potential of this bill backfiring on the Charest government. Even a cursory scan of news reports following the bill’s passage shows that parents and older Quebeckers have joined the ranks of students in the streets, and as the scope of the protests continues to expand from the original raison d’être of accessibility of post-secondary education.

On the other hand, I am also puzzled, particularly by the support of leftists/progressives in English Canada.  Why? Because Bill 78 is arguably quite Canadian, and progressives tend to lament the ‘Americanization of Canada.’

Regardless of the ultimate underlying political reason for Bill 78, one of the things it accomplishes is to protect those students who are not protesting and wish to continue attending classes. The protection of minority rights and the strengthening the standing of traditionally disenfranchised groups in Canadian society (women, visible minorities, First Nations, the handicapped, LGBT groups, etc.) are key issues for many of the Canadian left, and key objections of the new Canadian right. I do not know the exact proportions of students protesting and not protesting, but it seems counter to principles the left has historically stood for to oppose allowing conscientious objectors to the protests the right to attend classes—something for which the ‘scabs’ have applied and won via a court injunction.

Moreover, as anyone who has read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms knows, it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”  I am no lawyer or constitutional scholar so I cannot comment on whether or not Bill 78 would pass the Oakes Test, but the fact still stands that it is within the purview of governments in Canada to place limits on freedoms outlined in the Charter, assembly and expression included. One need not be familiar with Seymour Martin Lipsett’s writings on Canadian and American societal development to know that, on the issue of “rights versus order,” Americans lean towards rights and Canadians lean towards order. The difference is spelled out in the respective constitutional documents: American society seeks “peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whereas Canadian society seeks “peace, order, and good government.”

Perhaps Canadians are simply becoming less deferential, as argued by Neil Nevitte. Or, perhaps, for the left, the value of challenging the establishment trumps the value of protecting the rights of the minority of students who are not protesting.  Or, perhaps the answer is a lot simpler; maybe this has been about the self-interest of students wanting cheap tuition all along.

My vote is with the simple explanation. While tempting to say that the Charest government’s decision to raise tuition by a few hundred dollars is a betrayal of the principles of the Quiet Revolution, as MNA Geoff Kelley explained to CBC’s As It Happens on Tuesday night, even with the increase, the percentage of the total cost of post-secondary tuition that Quebec students would be paying remains at the 17% level set after Le Révolution Tranquille.

That is not to say there is anything necessarily wrong with acting out of self-interest; it is perfectly within the rights of Quebec students and student organizations to do so. Perhaps this issue will help mobilize young voters, who likely made up a large percentage of the 54 per cent of voters who stayed home in Quebec’s 2008 election. After all, if the Charest government really is as intransigent as the student leaders say it is, then no amount of protesting will equal the power of showing up to the polls as a bloc and “throwing the bums out.” The students cannot forget that, as much as some of them would like to compare themselves to the Arab protesters of last year, as much as some would like to call the government tyrannical for imposing limits on the freedoms of expression and assembly, the society in which they live is still democratic and still has free elections, and they should avail themselves of that avenue that so many Arab civilians died to bring to their societies.

If turnout in Quebec’s upcoming provincial election does not substantially rise, if there is no significant expansion in the number of citizens exercising the fundamental freedom guaranteed by democracy upon which all others are based on,  then what message does that send about all that they have fought for in the last hundred days?

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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