What we owe the striking Quebec students

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Speaking of debts, as most governments now do in order to explain why they can't create anything and need to cut back on whatever is already there, here's what I think we owe to those striking Quebec students.

We owe them for taking a shot at saving our national honour in the eyes of the world. We've lost brownie points on the environment, our even-handedness in areas like the Mideast, our commitment to peacekeeping -- but their campaign for equal, publicly funded access to higher education hits a note closer to that other, previous Canada. I should add I don't begrudge the Harper government its shifts; it's what they said they'd do. But they don't reflect the attitudes still held by more than 60 per cent of the population -- at least according to how they vote.

We owe them for striking a blow on behalf of public discourse. I'm thinking here of the term entitlements, which has replaced rights in the discussion. When did health, housing, a dignified retirement, etc., stop being human rights and turn into shabby, whiny entitlements? It didn't just happen. There's a linguistic war on, and it isn't French versus English; it's over politically loaded terms.

The students have fought this one on the issue of free -- in the sense of publicly funded -- post-secondary education. If post-secondary seems a bridge too far, think about this: any argument you can make against accessible post-secondary schooling, would apply in exactly the same way to high schools and elementary. In fact, during the last Depression, when high school still wasn't widely available, there were the same arguments you hear now about how we couldn't afford it. It was then, in that economic mess, that the fight was fought. I'm not talking about Quebec; it happened here in Ontario. The students aren't just out to save a few bucks personally; they're fighting for a historic principle.

OK, now having opened the door, as they say in the courtroom shows, I suppose I have to address the cry: There isn't enough money! Along with its twin: The numbers don't lie. Actually, since numbers are animated by people, they do anything people do: they lie, obscure, omit -- so let me just point this out: When something is a widely agreed social priority, the numbers obediently adjust. The money gets found. That happens in every war and natural disaster. In those cases nobody ever says there's no money. They raise taxes, rejig priorities, rearrange financial schedules. Suddenly it's no prob. In other words, this isn't just about economics, it's about politics. There's clearly more to be said on this but that's true with all serious issues.

Here are some more things we're indebted to those students for:

A good democratic moment. It happened when the Charest government offered a weak compromise. The student leaders didn't say yes or no. They sent it to their members, who voted it down. This is the opposite of what happened in the Greek crisis. The prime minister said his people should get to vote on the harsh terms of a bailout; the international bankers vetoed that and sacked him.

A good old-tyme strike. This may be your last chance to see one before they're all sent to the Museum of Civilization -- the way the Harper people are banning them long before they ever start. As in any good strike (and yes, there are bad ones), the outcome hangs on the public's reaction.

We're seeing a fresh start for the public imagination. Do you ever tire of hearing about everything that's now impossible and how we need to get real? It's only in the last few decades that governments became bodies exclusively devoted to eliminating whatever was once built by and for everyone -- like public education. Those days lie within historical memory -- at a time when our society was less wealthy and its people less educated. They're also sometimes just a plane ride away, like Finland, where schooling is free right through university -- and it's a lot like Canada, except without our natural resources! It isn't undoable, it's merely become unthinkable, except for those neat students in the streets of Quebec.

They are our Indignados and we owe them.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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