Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest has a blind spot, and it is student-led movements. In 2005 his government sought to eliminate bursaries to low-income students, which made up 40 per cent of the financial assistance they received (with the rest disbursed in the form of a repayable loan).
Had he simply sought to raise tuition fees for all students he would still have faced stiff resistance, but instead he chose to find savings in cuts that targeted the poorest students. Even commentators who supported tuition hikes struggled to justify this regressive measure, and all sides eventually agreed it had been a colossal tactical blunder. The Quebec student movement declared war, walked out of classes in a massive strike and forced the premier into an embarrassing reversal.
The grudge Charest nursed from this episode informed his stubborn refusal to give in to student demands in 2012, when his government sought to increase tuition fees by 82 per cent over seven years. This time he had the students right where he wanted them, boxed in and forced to defend the lowest tuition fees in Canada against what he would argue was the financial imperative of austerity.
Come hell or high water, the premier had drawn a line in the sand that would not be crossed. And it wasn’t, not until the longest student strike in Quebec history and another severe tactical miscalculation in Law 12 — which criminalized demonstrations, reinvigorated a flagging protest movement and infuriated much of the population, including many of those who supported tuition hikes — led to the defeat of his government and his resignation from politics.
As a Quebecer who lived through 2005 as a student and through 2012 as a journalist assigned to cover the student movement, it was oddly comforting to see him emerge from his private sector exile to argue in this week’s Globe and Mail and La Presse that students seeking to pressure their schools to divest from oil companies are misguided, naive and ultimately irrelevant.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And as surely as the sun can be expected to rise in the morning, Jean Charest’s continued misunderstanding, misjudgement and underestimation of student-led movements is becoming a universal constant.
His op-ed, co-authored with former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, cannot resist referring to a “so-called divestment movement” — as if disagreement with the aims of a movement in some way invalidates its existence — and goes on to describe students asking their educational institutions to divest from companies that contribute to climate change as “fundamentally misguided.”
“But investment decisions for university endowments must be based on one thing: which investments will bring the best financial returns,” the authors argue. “If fossil fuel companies are a bad financial investment, that’s reason to divest. Otherwise, divestment is inappropriate.”
I wonder if these two considered the application of this bit of sophistry to the original divestment campaign, the one that brought apartheid South Africa to its knees.
In 2002 I spent a year in Swaziland and South Africa, and every time my nationality came up, almost without exception, I was thanked for the role Canadian students played in delivering freedom from white rule. I suppose that bit of courageous student-led resistance, long championed by Charest’s mentor Brian Mulroney, was also “inappropriate.”
If universities are not there to teach students to make value judgments about the world around them, and seek to hold their institutions accountable to their values, then what are they for? Job training?
For Charest the answer to that question is yes. In 2012 he famously declared that striking students should go get a job up north, as if their university educations were an indulgence to be abandoned at the first opportunity to serve as hewers of wood and carriers of water in the wilderness.
The op-ed concludes with that old chestnut about how students are hypocrites because they too “live in heated apartments, cook food and use mobile phones and computers.”
In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I am currently an advisor to a coalition of Quebec student associations opposed to pipelines. I agreed to help when asked by the vice-president of my old student union because, unlike Charest, I believe students are our best hope to build a better future and I think it behooves us all to support them in their quest to change the world.
But the illogical nature of the arguments presented in this op-ed struck me, so I began to wonder what Charest’s conflicts might be. I’ve met him, asked him questions in press scrums and covered his political career for years. The man is the furthest thing from stupid, despite a stubborn streak that has often been his undoing, and neither is Hall Findlay, who twice ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party and served as an MP from 2008 to 2011.
Yet here they are, making an argument so replete with logical fallacies and half-truths that it would have earned any ninth grader an F. Why the willful blindness?
The answer lies in their new post-political roles as Steering Committee Chair (Charest) and Chair of the Advisory Council (Hall Findlay) for a new outfit named the Partnership for Resource Trade.
According to its website, “the Partnership relies upon voluntary contributions by individuals and organizations to fund its activities.” And such friends it has.
The Advisory Council reads like a who’s who of oil company representatives, yet the organization solicits individual supporters and claims to represent popular support for extractive projects like the tar sands. In short, it’s a prototypical example of astroturfing, a tactic popularized by the Republican Koch brothers in the United States through which corporate interests establish lobby groups to support their agenda while claiming to be spontaneous and grassroots.
If Charest and Hall Findlay ever had the best interests of the population at heart, that is no longer the case. They are now spokespeople for the oil industry.
Not shocking I suppose, Westmount mansions like the one Charest lives in don’t pay for themselves. But this isn’t any old corporate appointment. As is often stated, 97 per cent of climate scientists agree that climate change is a clear and present danger to our continued survival as a species. The UN Environment Programme says we must cut CO2 emissions to zero by 2070, a goal that requires drastic action in the crucial window of 2020-2030. A recent study in the journal Nature put it even more plainly: 85 per cent of the oil in the tar sands must be left in the soil if we are to have any chance of avoiding disastrous climate change.
Charest and Hall Findlay are little more than the smiling public face of a death cult, determined to ignore the science and the warnings in their rapacious quest for ever more profit. No doubt they’re also working over their former colleagues in the federal and provincial Liberal parties to betray the interests of the citizens who elected them. Not that they need much pushing; both parties support a massive expansion of the tar sands.
But the wolf behind their meek sheep mask is becoming increasingly difficult to conceal. Divestment is working. Why else would industry pay these heavy hitters to fight it from the pages of national newspapers?
Jean Charest has made a career of underestimating the strength of students when they work together to fight for their future. With the divestment movement, he has done it once more. Students aren’t in it for profit; they’re fighting for a planet they and their children can live on. There can be no retreat, no surrender, when the stakes are this high.
It’s time the rest of us had their backs. For ourselves. For each other. For the future.