Margaret Somerville: What is happening in Quebec

Written by  //  June 4, 2012  //  Québec, Rights & Social justice  //  No comments

Many young people in Quebec, with good reason, do not believe they have a voice in the public square, writes Margaret Somerville.

Ottawa Citizen
3 June 2012

It seems that many people in many places (from the emails I’ve received from around the globe) are asking themselves and others: “Has something changed in Quebec? Has what began as a student-led protest against tuition hikes now morphed into a broader social movement bringing together people from all walks of life? Will there be lasting implications?” In short, “What on Earth is happening in Quebec?”

The people asking these questions know what’s happening on the streets, so they’re really asking, “Why have these huge, sometimes violent, protests occurred and continued for such a long period and what does this eruption portend?” We can all only guess, but here are a few thoughts.

The “rule of law,” the bedrock of a civil, peaceful society, requires respect for the law by the vast majority of citizens. We don’t often think about this, but if a substantial number of citizens don’t obey the law, it becomes totally ineffective. Then, we risk anarchy and a society in which no reasonable person would want to live.

Respect for the law has broken down in the context of the current demonstrations and that sets a very dangerous precedent, with possible impact far beyond the law’s ineffectiveness in this particular context.

Court injunctions have been ignored; property intentionally vandalized; injuries inflicted; police have been attacked and, in response, have used excessive force in some instances; and, whatever we think of the wisdom or otherwise of Bill 78 and its impact on civil and human rights, it has been openly and intentionally transgressed.

The many calls for “civil disobedience,” including by people in positions of influence such as university professors, have been overt and loud. And protests against Bill 78 at the Palais de Justice de Montréal by lawyers “en toges” (dressed for court) is an exceptional occurrence.

As one appalled member of the Barreau du Quebec said in a posted comment (translation), “How are jurists able to openly declare themselves in favour of civil disobedience? It’s inconceivable! Have you forgotten your Code de Déontologie or what? Art. 2.01 provides, ‘The lawyer must uphold respect for the law’.”

And there is concern about the courts being overwhelmed with the cases of the more than 1,700 people arrested.

On the other hand, the protesters are not shy to use the law, when it might assist them. They are in court challenging the validity of Bill 78 and Monday, the Quebec Superior Court will be hearing an application to have parts of Bill 78 declared unconstitutional.

We need to consider how this situation could harm democracy, at least as we’ve known and practised it in the past. That requires that we understand what has precipitated the crisis.

I suggest, as with most “watershed moments” in a society (which this might or might not prove to be), that lead to important, fundamental changes, there is a convergence of causes and the increase in “student tuition” was just the match that ignited the bonfire.

First, from the polls, it seems as though we have a “hard vocal minority” prevailing over a “soft silent majority,” which is an increasingly common trend in relation to values conflicts and not good for democracy.

People, especially young people, don’t see their vote as counting, so they don’t vote. But they are politically engaged through new communications technologies, which make communication horizontal, not vertical, as is true of representative democracy. Politicians and other authority figures are seen as corrupt, sadly, too often correctly so.

People, with good reason, do not believe they have a voice in the public square, and that the politicians who are supposed to represent them and their interests do not do so and do not decide on the basis of what’s best for Canadians and their children — let alone old people.

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in his new book, The Righteous Mind, respect for authority, loyalty and a sense that some things are sacred are rejected by “liberal progressives” as Stone Age values, and this affects what they see as ethical and unethical. The most prominent voices in contemporary Quebec society proclaim “liberal progressive” values, certainly more noticeably and forcefully than in most other provinces.

As well, in Western democracies, and I suggest to a greater degree in Quebec than many other comparable societies, we have a culture of intense individualism, where personal choice is seen as the dominant value, almost no matter what the cost to the common good and communal bonding. Consequently, it’s not surprising — indeed, it’s to be expected — that there is a risk of a rise of anarchy, as a result.

But not all protests are equal and there might be a silver lining in the emergence of what is being called the “casserole protest” that is now accompanying the student protests.

Families — parents, children, grandparents — in Montreal suburbs and elsewhere in Quebec are gathering on street corners each evening beating saucepans, frying pans and so on with spoons and other noise-making implements. Participants are commenting on the unfamiliar experience of joining with their neighbours in a common cause and its unexpected positive elements.

Listening to media interviews with these people, many of them seem to have only the vaguest idea of what that cause is other than that they believe their concerns are not being heard by those they think should respond to them; that people are not being treated justly; and they have a free-floating fear about their and their children’s future.

I suggest they are also experiencing transcendence — the feeling that we belong to something larger than ourselves — in these gatherings.

We humans are social beings and need that experience. The vast majority of Quebecers used to have it through religion, now some have it through hockey or other shared passions, but many are left without an obvious way to bond to each other through a larger reality.

Nature abhors a vacuum: If we don’t bond in positive, life-enhancing ways, we will do so in negative, harmful ways. We might be seeing both of these forms of bonding in the Quebec demonstrations.

Quebec had strong, shared traditional values, until much more recently than comparable societies. The previous strength of those values means their collapse has a greater impact than if they had been weaker.

Shared values are the glue that binds people together to form a society, and the demonstrations might be one manifestation of what happens when the old shared values have been undermined and there is no consensus, yet, on the values that should replace them.

Most Quebecers are not neutral about the student protests, or even the casserole ones (some people strongly object to them as disrupting their lives, disturbing the peace and a noisy invasion of their private space).

They are either for or against them, which shows the lack of a values consensus.

Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

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