Friday, May 25, 2012

Thoughts on education in Quebec

I am tired of reading people's misinformed or inflammatory Facebook updates, so I thought I would just write out what I think about the whole thing, get it off my chest, so to speak. My thoughts are complicated: I think tuition should be cheap for students, but I don't think marching in the streets is the way to get that. I also wonder if the university system as a whole needs a re-think. I think la loi 78 is not nearly as bad as people think, and that police violence that we are seeing now, is not actually sanctioned by it (a point many people can't seem to come to terms with). But anyway, let's go section by section.

Free tuition: 

Tuition can't be "free": someone has to pay for it. The question is, how much of the cost should be paid by students, government, and private interests. I certainly would be pleased with a result that saw students pay little to none of the burden. Of the three constituencies, they are certainly the least well-off. But they are also the main beneficiaries of the education system, at least, in theory. (more on this at the end: what are we fighting for?)

I wonder if it is the same students protesting now, who cry out against the corporatization of campuses, as introducing more corporate dollars would definitely help shift the burden away from students. The problem with that of course is the fear that corporate interests would affect research. It would be naive to think that it wouldn't, but it is also naive to think that it doesn't already. How far down that road are we willing to go?

The question of how much burden the government is willing or able to take on is more complicated than people think. First of all, what we really have here is not a conflict between students and government, but between students, who pay few taxes, if any, and the bulk of the tax paying population. Quebec is already the North American region with the highest tax burden: should Quebecers be made to pay more? 

Is it really necessary to increase the tax burden to pay for a larger government contribution to education? Of course the government would say yes. But surely there must be some fat to trim. In a society that prides itself on it's collectivity and socialism, surely we can find some government departments to trim. Might I suggest the entire department dedicated to analyzing and approving "foreign" academic credentials. I put "foreign" in quotation marks because degrees from Ontario and New Brunswick, and indeed, anywhere else in Canada, are subject to this process, for anyone who wants to work for the government in Quebec. Is it not enough for the HR department to do an internet search and determine whether an applicant's degree is from a reputable university? But that would require government employees who can think independently, a quality not reserved for Quebec's "public" service.

I'm sure there are other examples of government waste that could be eliminated in order to increase contributions to education (such as the OLF). But that is not the point. Should there be free tuition? I'd like to think so. Can there be? It certainly seems possible. Will there be? No way in hell.

Why not? The simple fact is that governments do not make decisions based on the common good. Ouch, that sounded very cynical. Perhaps it is not absolutely true, but as a general rule, the way a party in power governs is primarily based on getting re-elected. The book The Dictator's Handbook does a really good job of uncovering this fact of political survival that is, unfortunately, not only true for dictators. Charest does not need students to get re-elected. He doesn't have to put government resources towards them in order to keep power.

What is ironic though is that with such large protests, the movement is putting financial pressure on the government, causing them to waste millions of dollars on security, dollars that might be spent on education. After the Habs lost in the playoffs a few years ago, the city billed les Canadiens for $1.5million. Who is going to get the bill this time? And to those who would argue that they shouldn't send so many cops, are you the same people who criticised Vancouver police after the Canucks lost in the finals, because they were not prepared, and didn't have enough officers deployed? Or do you think that situation was well-handled?

The protests in the street may put enough public pressure on the government that it will be forced to compromise, not because it believes in funding education more broadly, but because it is in danger of losing votes. Only when that happens will the tide turn.

Which brings us to la loi 78

Read it (if you haven't already). The government's very interesting response to all this. I see this very much as speaking to their coalition, their base as it would be put in American politics. For all the bellyaching about "trampling" on "rights" this law is actually pretty tame. I think those who are complaining the loudest either haven't read it, or are lawyers who can read pretty much whatever is convenient into any law. Here's how I see it (with the benefit of a legal education, but without the burden of a law practice, haha):

The first section is essentially "back to school" legislation. It ensures that students who are not "on strike" don't get screwed over in the process. As you can see, this is the government addressing their allies, not their opponents. It is also redundant in the sense that there are already laws that prevent teachers from not teaching: their contracts, and the loi du travail, for example. In any case, the deadlines imposed here are not designed to attack the "strikers" directly, but to reach out to students who want to study.

The sections that have resulted in the charges of "trampling" are 16 and 17 (and their respective penal provisions). The law requires anyone organizing a public demonstration of 50 or more people (the link above says 10, but it was changed to 50) to advise the police of the route, and gives the police the power to modify the route if necessary. This is absolutely not an infringement of anyone's rights. What reasonable person thinks that it is ok for a large group of people to simply appear in a public place? No one does this. If I want to put on a road race, I have to get the city's permission. If someone wants to run in my race, they have to get a number. The city often denies permission for these sorts of things. The fact that the police have a direct say may seem problematic, but they are the ones that will be out there controlling the crowd. You might say, hey, the crowd is peaceful, it doesn't need controlling. True, but human behaviour works in such a way that individuals in large crowds will lose their sense of individuality and do things they would not normally do. The rudeness we encounter on airplanes, for example, is due to this effect.

 Ok, you are saying now, but the idea of civil disobedience is to use a public space to make a statement about how we are unhappy with the current state of affairs, so reporting it to the police essentially sanctions actions that take their power from being unsanctioned. Fair enough, but if that is the case, why are you worried about what the law says at all? Unsanctioned is unsanctioned, pre or post loi 78. The problem is the fines. They are quite high. And here, yes, the government has come down with quite a hammer. If you read it carefully, though, you'll see the fines are between $1000 and $5000 per day (that refers to the delay in setting a schedule, so not relating to sections 16 and 17), and the large fines are only for leaders or institutions. The assumption there is that leaders of the groups would have their fines paid by the groups, and that legal bodies will pay their own way. So no ONE PERSON can be fined $25000 to $125000 for participating in a demonstration. In any case, the police have allowed to continue the large marches that, despite that sanctioning, have made a significant impact world-wide. So the law has not hurt freedom of expression, nor was that it's purpose.

The purpose of this law was to ensure public safety. Oh sure, you are saying, letting police pepper spray peaceful protestors is in the interest of public safety! I don't think that at all. The famous officer 728 is an ignorant fool. Also she has been removed of her duties. But she did not act under la loi 78. She acted as a police officer, probably pretty charged up at the situation, and she acted alone. In the video, we can hear people commenting on how none of her fellow officers are doing what she did. So the individual actions of stupid police officers is not connected to the quality of freedom of assembly or expression as impacted by la loi 78. It's two separate things.

Some perspective: it's not all about you.

What about all the people not protesting? The shop owners who fear rocks through the windows? The students who just want to finish their classes? How did these people get to be forgotten, or worse, made into the bad guys?

What is the solution? Marching raises awareness, but it has yet to turn the tide of public opinion against he government. Negotiations continue, and it is a credit to the government that they are negotiating at all. Do other special interest groups get such a prolonged sit-down with high-level politicos? The marching seems to have achieved at least this much. But it won't change the amount of money the government has to contribute, and given the political climate, as soon as they try to take that money out of someone else's pocket, that person will take to the streets as well. Perhaps it might come at the expense of bloated construction contracts? Is the student movement really ready to go up against the mob? I don't see that ending well.

And there's the dark side to this: around the world, people are protesting against their governments for things like the right to practice their religion freely, the right to vote, the right to live. It's life or death out there. All the students in the streets of Montreal, you are the 1%. Yes, you are. We all are. The 99% of the Occupy movements are missing the point that they are 99% of the top 1%. We are affluent compared to the rest of the world. I don't mean that Quebec already has cheap tuition compared to the rest of Canada. I mean, we are allowed to go to university and we have time to do it because we aren't busy just trying to stay alive. This is not life or death. This is "good life" or "ok life." Some perspective is needed.

The last thing: what are we fighting for? 

Is it worth it for students to go through so much trouble to get access to university? Is it really all it is cracked up to be? I think there is a bit of a fantasy going on with respect to what one gets out of a university education, and how this benefits society. In my opinion, the number one thing that an enlightened person should have is the ability of independent thought. An enlightened citizen would be able to make his or her own, informed political decisions. Do universities promote this skill? I'm not so sure. There's a bit of a catch-22 here. In order to benefit from a lot of the reading and learning that takes place in university, you need to already have some degree of independence. Otherwise, you just believe whatever you read. But in order to develop that independence, it helps to be widely read, to get a variety of perspectives. So where do you begin?

The other problem is the idea that a university education should be tied to a job. The reality is, the two ARE tied, and the government and business like it that way. University is a kind of holding tank for the unemployed, and it's certainly a cash-cow for some. It is understand able that students don't want to go into debt over it because maybe the education they get is just not worth paying that much for. Quebec is actually far ahead of other areas because of how many people DON'T go to university: they get their 3-year DECs and find jobs that way. If you don't go to university, you have 3-5 years of your life where you can make money instead of spend it, and learn your craft, whatever it might be. Of course this doesn't apply to certain professional designations (lawyers, engineers, doctors), and to academic disciplines that are tied to the university system (scientific research). But much of the value of a liberal arts degree, for example, is in this area of independent thought. With a little encouragement, in 3-5 years, a person could do a lot of reading (probably more than they would in a degree program, because they'd read what they wanted to read, and wouldn't be bogged down with assignments and exams), and at the same time, work and make some money.

If I were a manager looking for someone to help me in my business, I would jump at the chance to hire someone like that. As much as a university degree is short-hand for an ability to think critically, be organized, and finish what you've started (or so I'm told, I have four degrees in, there's often a disconnect between the theory and the practice. As a university instructor myself, I try very hard to make my classes as engaging as possible. But the tide of perfunctory presence is strong, and also, teaching remedial English is not always the place for great revolutions in learning. Some of the longer essay-writing courses are fun, though.

I suppose my point is this: if you have the inkling of independence to actually make something of a university degree, then maybe you are better off on your own. And if you don't have it, a university degree may not get you there. I doubt that a societal shift of such magnitude is possible (achieving free tuition doesn't seem possible, and that's a lesser success than this would be), but I hope when Quebec come through the gauntlet of this saccharinely named "Maple Spring" (not Cheese Curd and Gravy Spring? No? Anybody?), the next step will not be to line up at the university gates and take their well-earned medicine, but realise that if there is power in numbers, that maybe that power should be used to enact some real change. And maybe that change isn't going to happen at university after all. Maybe it needs to happen inside you.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Everybody calm down!

Democracy is alive and well in Canada. Despite what much of what my Facebook and Twitter feed seems to have to say, Canada has not gone off the deep end, we are not entering the dark ages, and our country has not become USA Part Deux.

What's that you say? "John, you just wrote a big long post about why you voted NDP. Surely, you must be devastated at the Conservative majority government!" The answer is: no, not really. Yes, there are some things I'm concerned about, which I will get to, but the main thing I think people need to get is that there are no real extremes in Canadian politics. Harper is really just a boring economist from Calgary. He's a bit creepy, for sure. But he's no devil. To be fair, all of the leaders are kind of creepy. Even Elizabeth May. She creeps me out, man. Good for her for winning a seat finally.

The other thing that needs to be remembered is that just because you don't agree with someone, does not make them wrong or evil. Democracy has not been crushed because there a bunch of people in Ontario who are more concerned about their mortgage payments than about how long a drug dealer has to stay in prison, or whether a poor aboriginal girl can get an abortion. Stephen Heighton was right when he called these people "gutless," but the point of democracy is that those people have a right to make that choice. A little ironic for a leftist crowd to be decrying their choice, I'd say.

Sure, there is plenty wrong with our system, and I bet a lot of those people would be happy to have another set of voting options. The Liberal party used to be that option, but they've screwed the pooch fairly royally since Jean Chrétien left. I know how they can fix it though. Two words: Justin Trudeau. I don't know much about the guy. I've heard he's a douche. I don't know. I'll get to know him in the next four years, as he's my MP. What the Liberals need to do is choose him as their leader, which they can do with confidence now. They have at least four years to the next election, and they are down to the third party in the House. Plenty of room for JT to learn the ropes. Like it or not, politics is about likability, and he is a cutie. The so-called soccer moms will love this guy. The other advantage of having a Trudeau at the helm, other than the history factor, is that the Liberals tend to do well with a francophone Quebecer as their leader. Yes, there are plenty who despise the Trudeau name, but for sure it will be enough to bring back this province, which is key for the Liberals to come back.

The NDP are the official opposition and they are plenty green. Lots of new faces are ok though. Politicians have to get their start somewhere, and, but for the unfortunate Vegas-vacationing lady, this would probably be seen as a really good thing for Jack's crew. I voted for them this time (though it didn't matter because Trudeau won in my riding), but I will be watching to see if they can show in opposition the chops to maintain or move up to government status. I doubt that will happen, but hey, until I wrote my last blog, no one thought the NDP would finish second. I'm pretty sure most of Quebec read my blog and made their decision based on that...right? Right!

There are some good things about these election results. The first is stability. No more elections until 2015. The second is that the NDP will be the official opposition, which means that family and social issues will get plenty of airing. The Conservatives can pretty much do as they please, but they will have to deal with the NDP's bleating over it. Here's hoping the bleating is effective and not annoying.  Another good thing: Elizabeth May got elected. I know I said she was creepy, but hey, good for her. Again, not much power to make laws, but at least she will be a voice with a platform now, instead of being on the outside looking in. One hopes that the other parties take a cue from the Greens and make the environment more of a priority. Yeah, right.

Ok, trying to stay positive, another good thing is the the Bloc are gone. Don't get me wrong, Gilles is dreamy, but he was getting old. Actually, I am quite pleased about this. Quebec has decided, it seems, that they want to participate in Canada, rather than try to break it apart. Of course there will still be idiots who will never be happy unless they get their own country. They will now be on the outside looking in. I hope the NDP will stand up for the right things in Quebec, and keep Quebecers happy on that front. By the right things, I mean, I hope that the MPs of constituencies in this province do what they can for their constituents, just like any MPs in any other province would. I don't believe Quebec needs or deserves any special treatment, but they deserve representation in Parliament. And now they have it.

Fourth good thing, and this one will surprise you. I'm quite involved in amateur sport and it's always nice when government steps up and supports health and active lifestyles. Well, based on this article from Andrew Maloney at TNFNorth, a track and field website, the Conservatives seem to at least have an Arts and Culture strategy now, which includes sport. It didn't exist before. The tax credit they created will be increased (but only when, if ever, the budget is balanced). Not sure how this will play out, but at least it is something. Ok, I'm really grasping at straws for good things now...

Bad things: I guess there are a lot of them. But do people honestly think Harper will re-open the abortion debate? He'll get killed on that. Canadians don't want to talk about that anymore. It's old news. As for gay marriage, again, Canadians are on-board, mostly. Harper is a politician, and even with a majority, he won't rock the boat. The social issues are safe.

My big concern, as I have said elsewhere, is with the Conservative Party's treatment of the Criminal Code, specifically mandatory minimums and time-served rules. If I learned anything from the reading I did in law school (cue cries of liberal bias in law school, blah blah blah), it's that crime is not caused by evil people. It is caused by putting people in bad circumstances. I suppose that sounds like an "it's society's fault" defence of all serial killers and rapists. It's not. What does need to be looked at though, in the often knee-jerk discussion of "crime and punishment" is that the majority of crimes are related to either substance abuse or mental illness. Yes, there are people out there who are just evil. They are the exception, not the rule. Most people break the law because they can't help it: they steal or assault someone to get drugs or money for drugs or because they are high on drugs. These are not excuses. If you do the crime, you should do the time, BUT. It is completely foolish to then release these people back into the world thinking that a few months, or even a few years, in jail is going to prevent them from committing the crime again. What will keep Canadians safe is a remodel of the justice system that takes these issues into account. Drug courts (and I recognize that the link is to the Government of Canada--notice that the backgrounder was published in 2005, however) and mental health courts are the way to go. There needs to be collaboration between the Federal and Provincial governments on these initiatives. It's a complicated process, but it needs to be. Building bigger prisons and extending the stays of small-time criminals just makes small-time criminals into career criminals.

So anyway, if you are going to worry about something, worry about that, rather than whether or not the CBC will continue to be able to air marginal programming. I say that with the utmost respect for all the arts and culture we get from the public broadcaster. I'm mostly just kidding, really. But here's the thing with arts and culture: artists won't be kept down. Writers will write, and painters will paint. The internet will allow their projects to be disseminated across Canada and across the world. I'm not worried for the artists for a second. I'm worried for drug addicts and poor people though.

That's my little recap. NDP: I'm watching, you better do good. Liberals: start the education of Justin Trudeau. I'll check back in four years.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I voted early

I voted yesterday. We had a viewing of our condo so we had to get out for a bit, so we figured we’d just get it done. In my case, I knew who I was voting for, and, in any case, it’s not likely to make a large difference under the current electoral system. I voted for the NDP candidate in my riding of Papineau. The likely winner will be Justin Trudeau, running for the Liberal party. He was actually at the polling station when we were there. That’s cool, but this time, you did not have my vote Justin.

Some people feel that your voting preferences are private and should remain so. I’m not sure if that is out of some misguided sense of propriety (or maybe asking the question leads to family feuding!), or if it is out of concern for protecting the democratic process: secret ballot and all that. Either way, I don’t have a problem if people know who I vote for. Of course, going public with your choice is kind of a backhanded way of asking people who they voted for, because if they get all riled up, you know they do not agree with your choice, but if they don’t have much to say, it might be because they voted for that person/party, too.

In any case, I hope no one is too mortified that I voted for the NDP. I know some people think Jack and Olivia are creepy, but let’s be honest: that mustache is just like my dad’s, so don’t you go dissing it! Seriously though, I thought that I could make a contribution to the electoral discussion by explaining why I did vote the way I did. There is at least one good reason not to vote NDP, especially in my riding, which is that they won’t win, so my vote probably won’t “count” anyway. I could go on a rant about the way the system works, but I’ll leave that for another time. This is probably true: Trudeau is a big favourite. I will not mind if he is my MP. That said, with at least one poll over the weekend showing that the NDP could form the official opposition with 100 seats (38 more than the Liberals were projected for), and with that a chance to form a coalition government with what would be a Liberal party both embarrassed and chastened by the voters. This is pretty shocking news, and it’s not clear that it will last. But still, the possibility that the NDP could be a player, for real, is another good reason to vote for them if, like many, you agree with their stance, but don’t traditionally mark the box for them because they are not in the running.

The question to ask at election time is what is government’s purpose, in Canada? I would summarize the role of the federal government in one word: service. First though, I’d like to dispell a myth: it’s not the economy, stupid. While there may be a connection between government policy and the performance of the Canadian economy, there are other factors that weigh far more heavily, and over which citizens have varying degrees of control. The first example is the American economy. In many cases, we are linked, and what’s good for the elephant is good for the mouse. In some cases, our government’s policies have protected us from American influence. The best example of that is the banking industry, which, since it is much more regulated here, prevented the housing crash we saw in the US. Of course, all the political parties in Canada are on the same page on that issue, so it doesn’t really matter who you vote for: our banks will stay regulated. Interest rates and the like are determined by public servants, not elected members. Yes, tax rates influence spending which influences the economy, however whether people spend or save their extra money depends on more than how much extra they have. How “the market” responds to government policy is equally complicated. There is no direct relationship between a government decision and market trends. The market is influenced in combination with other factors that both determine and are determined by government policy.

All this is not to say that the economy is not important. What it is to say is that the economy, like most other issues, is complex and government’s influence on it is not the be all and end all, nor is it the government’s primary purpose. So we should, when voting, downplay the importance of the economy in our selection. You might say, well, this is a clear example of an NDP voter who is oblivious about the economy. If anyone could control the economy, or even just knew how the economy worked, they would be filthy rich. Some are. They probably don’t vote: they buy campaigns or live on a tropical island. Most Canadians are not. Check out “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. All that you think you know, you don’t.

The Canadian government is a multi-billion dollar organization. There is no disputing that. They are playing with our money, so they should do it right. That’s true. But there is a difference between the government claiming fiscal responsibility for the economy as a whole, and claiming to have managed the treasury well. As far as I’m concerned, managing taxpayer dollars well means spending it on services for the tax payers. That’s it. I don’t mind a deficit budget because what that deficit is buying me is better services, in theory. In any case, the NDP budget projects a surplus, but there have been questions about that recently. I admit I’m looking at the budget and I’m wondering about a few costs, but what I like about it is that it is focused on real people and services for them.

It’s true that the Liberals and Conservatives both have nice things to say as well. The reality is that election promises rarely survive the harsh glare of the light of power. They often burn like a fly under a magnifying glass. But at least the NDP is starting from the right perspective. The Conservatives have done some pretty bad things to the Criminal Code with respect to sentencing. They’ve done some other things, too (the list is long), that, for a party that considers itself to be small-government focused, and with a strong moral compass, seem just incomprehensible. I know there are people out there focused on some moral issues that feel like the Conservatives carry their flag. I guess the question you want to ask is are the Conservatives really helping people? I think the answer is no. As for the Liberals, yeah, they are ok. They will do what they always do. Life will go on. We will lack doctors and nurses in Canada, we will continue to have health care but service will be poor. Right now seperatists seem to be waning. The Liberals will probably antagonize them. How do these things help the country? They don’t. They just perpetuate the same old same old. They will probably try to rob the treasury again.

What it comes down to is that I don’t trust the other parties. I don’t trust that they are not career politicians. Sure, Jack is a career politician, too. But his career has been spent fighting for the little guy. What does he have to gain, once in power? What is the NDP’s dark secret that they will spring on us once elected? There isn’t one. He is not beholden to corporate interests. This is important because corporate interests are not interested in regular people. Some say the NDP is a union front. Perhaps. But what are the unions after? Protecting working class jobs. I guess it’s just a value judgement on my part, but working class jobs seem more important to me and more in need of protection than corporate board room jobs. Of course the two are connected. But as a person, as a human being, who do I identify with? Who do I trust with my (at this point meager) tax dollars? Who would I want to have a drink with? Who do I think will do a better job of running the country? Jack Layton and the NDP.

The best thing about this election is that everyone gets a vote: just like opinions and assholes! Feel free to disagree or shit on my blog post. I thought of this as I waited in the polling station that had no armed guards, and welcomed men and women of all religions, races and cultures. Canada: it's all right.

ps when this gets posted to Facebook, you'll have to click back to to see the links (to the poll, the book, the NDP platform, Shit Harper did and the Sponsorship Scandal).

Friday, February 25, 2011

One door closes and another one opens...

Or so they say.

I failed the Quebec Bar exam, twice, which is actually not all that uncommon, but no less annoying. In order to write it again, I'll have to take the full prep course (4 months) and the regular course (4 more months) which is both expensive and time consuming. I could also write the Ontario bar, which is pretty hard to fail, from what I'm told, and try to article through LSUC. I'm pretty turned off a law career right now, to be honest. I'm motivated in other areas of my life, and I've got enough income to keep on doing what I'm doing. It's a pretty big disappointment, but as I may have intimated in an earlier post, there was only a pretty narrow sliver of the law that I was interested in pursuing. So we'll see.

I may write a longer post later about exactly the kind of torture the Quebec Bar program is, but it would feel like sour grapes. It's pretty ridiculously bad, and widely acknowledged as such, but hey, while lots of people fail, lots of people do pass, too, so some of the fault (really most of it) must be on me. I'm not sure I even want to go look at my exam, for 1) I don't want to go back there and 2) the chances of it changing are slim to none.

The way I feel now, though, can best be described by paraphrasing John Lennon. Enjoy.

Law is a concept,
By which we can measure,
Our pain,
I'll say it again,
Law is a concept,
By which we can measure,
Our pain,
I don't believe in Westlaw,
I don't believe in canlii,
I don't believe in the code,
I don't believe in procedure,
I don't believe in Hypothecs,
I don't believe in Jutras,
I don't believe in Kasirer,
I don't believe in Beverley,
I don't believe in Hart,
I don't believe in Fuller,
I don't believe in Beaudoin,
I don't believe in Wilson-Lafleur,
I don't believe in Healey,
I don't believe in Greenspan,
I don't believe in the barreau,
I just believe in me,
Mimi and me,
And that's reality.
The dream is over,
What can I say?
The dream is over,
I was dreamweaver,
But now I'm reborn,
I was the walrus,
But now I'm John,
And so dear friends,
You just have to carry on,
The dream is over.

For those who can't see the embed, here is the link: