Ed. Note: Marhalt is busy (election time!) and so we turn to one of our trusted guest bloggers, Thaddeus, who writes from the Great White North Canada. Marhalt will be back next week with the second part of Scientology!
Before I explain the title, let me ask you: where, in America, are there street protests that are going on their 116th day ? And how could $1,625 bring down a government?
I live in Canada, not a known hotbed of unrest, so it came as a shock to me when CNN announced that a student dispute in Quebec has been causing “civil unrest” for more than 115 consecutive days. In the past couple of months, the protests have mobilized such a large number of people that news outlets around the globe have called it the “Maple Spring.”
We Canadians are known for maple syrup, being polite, and putting gravy and cheese on our fries. Outside of hockey, what could be causing such nice people to rebel for 115 consecutive days?
It turns out not to be hockey but education fees. In early February the ruling provincial Liberals (Ed note: the state government) put forth a plan to increase tuition fees by $325 per year for five years. That means the average price of a university degree in Quebec would increase from $2,168 to $3,793 over a period of five years. This is what precipitated the protests.
Now, $3,793 for a university education may not sound like a lot, but most Quebecers are taxed a lot, and expect very heavily discounted or free education as a result. To express their dissatisfaction, students took to the streets and started a four-month long campaign of civil disobedience, violence and unrest in major cities across Quebec.
Despite some interesting tactics, most of the population disliked the protests. Students blocked main bridges, highways and subway routes during rush hour, barricaded universities, and generally caused enough chaos to alienate the general population after a few weeks.
That’s a large number, and a growth of 2,666%. For context, remember the crowds in Tahir Square that brought down the Egyptian government last year?
Clark McPhail, a crowd analysis guru at the University of Illinois, calculated that the number of protesters never exceed 200,000 people . So how did some student protesters, largely disliked by the general population, gather twice those numbers, not over tyranny and democracy but over a raise in student fees?
The answer has to do with elections. In Quebec, the opposition party to the Liberals is the Parti Quebecois (PQ). The PQ was not a popular party in February. They promote sovereignty for Quebec, and their leaders often come up with anti immigrant and anti-semite statements. With elections looming, the PQ was looking for a way to score points, and noticed that after 4 weeks of protest, the Liberal government was doing precisely nothing about the student protests. That’s when someone at PQ headquarters remembered the tale of the Baptists and the Bootleggers.
In 1982, Bruce Yandle, the Executive Director of the Federal Trade Commission during the Reagan years, created a framework to explain the political dynamics behind the creation of regulation and legislation in a democracy. Mr. Yandle noticed that, very often, several disparate groups end up supporting the same cause, for very different reasons. For example, the ban of alcohol sales on Sundays was initially supported by a group of Baptists in a rural American county, who did not want alcohol served on the Lord’s Day. Soon enough, other groups joined the Baptists in their support of the ban. The most surprising supporters were the bootleggers themselves. During the early 1930s, bootleggers were worried that they might lose profits as the introduction of the Twenty-First Amendment made it legal again for individuals to manufacture, sell and transport alcohol. If one could get their dose of poison legitimately at the local liquor store, who would need bootleggers?
But, if Baptists got their way, Bootleggers could sell their alcohol on Sunday at very high prices and recuperate some of their lost profits. The Bootleggers did not have to voice support the ban publicly, as the Baptists were already doing so. So the Bootleggers supported the Baptists discreetly, by providing financial support, crowd support and other ‘silent’ help to their strange allies. As Yandle states “when the Baptists go away, the bootleggers loose their territory […] For the regulation or institutions to stay in place it requires for both parties to be very active as they play.” The Baptists didn’t even need to know of the Bootlegger’s support, but their combined efforts were needed for the ban to succeed.
Back at PQ headquarters, the idea began to form that supporting the students could be very profitable for the PQ, but only if the protests could swell and go from social inconvenience to social unrest. So the PQ began a two-phase strategy. In Phase 1, the PQ, after the first five weeks of abstaining from publicly stating an opinion, finally started to state strong support for the student ‘movement’:
But, for the plan to work, the student protests had to swell in numbers and become really significant. The PQ had the Baptists, but where to find the Bootleggers?
The Liberals saw the PQ support for the students, and started to make noise about creating legislation to force them back to school and hinder their rights to protests on university grounds. This was a massive mistake, as it allowed the PQ to find the perfect bootleggers they needed; the Quebec trade and labour unions.
After all, if the government can pass emergency legislation forcing students to go back to school and hinder their right to picket on university grounds, imagine the limits they can place on unions? Scared of the grim precedent the government’s decision to try to force students back to school would have on them, the country’s largest trade and labour unions started to eagerly supported the province’s student federations both financially and technically. Last May, for example, Quebec’s student federations received over $250,000 in “aid money” from unions all over the country. In addition, student leaders acknowledged receiving crash courses on negotiations from the presidents of the CSN and the FTQ (Quebec’s largest unions), who helped them explain how to create a favourable atmosphere to gain bargaining power during negotiations.
With the aid of the bootleggers, the numbers of protesters began to swell and swell. Students, trade unions, and PQ supporters started to mingle in the street, and social inconvenience morphed into social unrest.
This alone would have been pretty good for the PQ, but the Liberals, completely out-manipulated by this stage, decided to give the plan one final bonus. After another few weeks of street protest, the Liberal Party decided to introduce an emergency law (Bill 78) that went well beyond student protesters. It banned protests anywhere in the province unless the police approved it beforehand. It forbade masks in protests. It allowed for sanctions on leaders of movements if their followers broke the law. In other words, to suppress the student movement, the Liberals passed a law that greatly reduced social freedom in the province.
Gleefully, the PQ jumped on the opportunity and recruited many more bootleggers who could care less about student fees but who did feel strongly about social freedoms. Soon, the students / trade unions / PQ in the street were joined by libertarians, other groups that like to protest, and even the full Bar Association of Quebec.
The PQ began to call on all of this population to vote PQ in the next election. One of the leaders of the student movements, Leo Bureau-Blouin, now a PQ candidate, was even caught saying that “if the Liberals are in office by the time of the next school semester, count on the student protests to continue.”
As of this writing, the PQ are now out-polling the Liberals, whereas only a year ago they were quite behind in the polls. So, in a very real sense, a $1,625 student fee raise (and some subtle manipulation) could very well bring down a government. Let both Bootleggers and Baptists rejoice!
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