There exists an exotic land where socialist values are embraced, liberals are dismissed as right-wing zealots, government is massive, women are sexually liberated and almost everyone speaks French.
There's no need to board a plane for Charles de Gaulle airport or buy Euros to visit this Republican Twilight Zone; one need only to drive just north of Vermont.
The province of Quebec is an oddity in North America. The majority of its nearly 8 million inhabitants are Francophones and they are recognized by government as a nation within Canada. It is a truly "distinct society," as the expression goes, because of its French character, rich history, vibrant arts scene and social-democratic values.
Any challenge to those values has been typically met with great resistance. The latest conflict, now making headlines worldwide, centers around access to higher education. Faced with a provincial debt of $250 billion, the Liberal government and Premier (equivalent of Governor) Jean Charest raised annual university tuition from $2,168 to $3,793 by 2017. After the gradual increase is complete, Quebec students will still pay the lowest tuition in Canada. But for many, that is isn't good enough.
Leaders from four student associations have been in negotiations with two different education ministers over the past few months as multiple daily protests have paralyzed Montreal, Quebec's largest city. Last week, talks broke down and students promised a summer of demonstrations until the government would agree to further concessions.
Most of the protests have been peaceful; some have had up to 200,000 participants. But a few have been violent. Police officers have been assaulted (chunks of concrete, billiard balls and Molotov cocktails thrown at them), cars and business vandalized, and in response, police have been accused of rounding up innocent civilians, pepper-spraying bar patrons and lashing out a protesters.
Student leaders have not encouraged violence, only civil disobedience. But they are having trouble exercising even marginal influence on the minority of more radical supporters. Some were recently charged with terrorist-related activities after smoke-bombing Montreal's Metro subway system, paralyzing it during a morning commute.
It's getting ugly. And with the summer tourism season kicking off this week with a Formula 1 race and a beer festival, there is widespread concern that the political instability could tarnish Montreal, the Paris of North America.
For Americans, or even Canadians outside of Quebec who have been watching the conflict, which has evolved into a class struggle not dissimilar to the Occupy movement, it's hard to fathom why a sizable segment of the population could be so outraged while still having access to such affordable education. Many view the government's near doubling of tuition as a betrayal of a social contract. We may pay the cheapest tuition on the continent, but we also pay some of the highest taxes. Those taxes pay for a wide range of social services, including public health insurance for every citizen, daycare at $7 per day, and, of course, university education, which almost anyone can afford on a part-time, minimum wage salary.
But we're not getting our money's worth. Quebec is weighed down by bloated bureaucracies at every turn, populated by baby boomers with safe, cushy union jobs. In the health sector, there is almost one bureaucrat for every healthcare worker; a ratio worse than that of our cousins in France. Building infrastructure costs more in this province than in others, for some mysterious reason (a commission into corruption in the construction industry has just begun and key industry figures face fraud charges). And taxpayers are on the hook for an over $500 million university building projectwhen the tuition increase won't even raise twice that amount. You can understand the protesters' frustration and scepticism that money raised would be used to improve services.
To add one more crucial dynamic to the mix: The never-ending threat of an independence referendum if the Quebec government leans too far to the right or otherwise offends nationalist Francophones. The second separation vote in 1995 ended with 51 percent of Quebecers opting to stay within Canada. Although the issue has been on the backburner in recent years, the official opposition at the National Assembly is the separatist Parti Québécois, which if elected in the next 18 months, could call another referendum (there are two other smaller separatist parties in the Assembly and the second opposition is led by a former separatist who is against a referendum -- for now, we think).
Needless to say, Quebec is complicated -- some say impossible to properly govern, or at least lead with any kind of wide consensus. We carry on knowing that a Pandora's Box of political instability could be opened at any moment. So, we distract ourselves with arts, culture and wine, hoping that our leaders won't engage us in a divisive debate.
But this summer might be different. Instead of enjoying government-subsidized jazz, comedy, fringe arts and fireworks festivals, many will be out in the streets fighting to preserve what they see as an island of reason in a sea of North American greed and inequality; a high-tax, big government, artistic paradise that is truly a Republican's worst nightmare.
Dan Delmar is a Montreal-based journalist and communications consultant. He is the co-founder of Provocateur Communications, a talk-show host with CJAD 800 Montreal and the managing editor of The Métropolitain, a bilingual commentary journal.
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