If you turned down the volume, it could have been Victoria, in 2001.
Would-be anarchists in camo cargo pants waving black and red flags; granolas in wool toques and plaid pants. A couple of hundred in all, all chanting some variety of one message. Roughly translated: Down with tuition fees. Down with the Liberal government. Add in the bored TV cameramen trying to keep their feet dry in the half-flooded concrete causeway, and you have a near replica of the many student protests that dogged the early years of the Campbell Liberals.
One difference of course, this one was entirely in French.
It is just days before the Quebec election and I'm in a small park in central Montreal, adjacent to the University of Quebec in Montreal. It is an election in which, thanks to a three-party split that has made a majority almost impossible for any camp, the issue of sovereignty is mostly off the table. (Henry Milner, a professor at the University of Montreal, called the issue the "dead elephant in the closet" when I spoke to him later in the afternoon.)
With the threat of separation at least temporarily at bay, the competing parties have scrambled to find issues to run on. And, in a province where students enjoy the lowest post-secondary fees in the country, a Liberal plan to implement marginal increases has become one of them.
Tuition fees in Quebec have been frozen since 1994. University students pay just under $2,000 a year on average, compared to nearly $5,000 in B.C. and more than $6,500, the country's highest, in Nova Scotia. The low fees, though, are hurting the universities according to the men and women who run them. In February, the presidents of four of the province's largest schools called on the government to allow them to charge more. Without more money, they argued, the schools faced a crippling shortage of funds in the near future.
Publicly, Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair has dismissed calls for higher fees. Under his leadership, he has said, universities will be better funded, but fees will not go up. It's a position he's been forced to take against his own better judgment, according to Henry Milner.
Speaking in his old grey stone townhouse near the city's largest cemetery, Milner said that privately all three major party leaders think the freeze has been bad public policy. (A "gift to the upper middle class" is how Milner described it.) But with two parties, the ADQ and the Liberals, campaigning hard on his right and leading a party still heavily influenced by unions and student groups, Boisclair cannot afford to gore this sacred cow.
Back at the protest, I'm speaking to Remy Parent, a 25-year-old nursing student with a thin goatee and thick black glasses. What students in Quebec pay, he says, may seem like nothing to those in English Canada. But what we should remember, he argues, is that taxes, too, are higher in Quebec. So Quebecers in his view have already paid once for the schooling their children now enjoy.
Parent is dismissive of Premier Jean Charest's late campaign promise to slash income taxes by $700 million. They said the same thing in the last campaign, he said. "They always say the same things, but it never it happens."
But, despite their promise on fees, Parent is equally unhappy with the Parti Québécois. Like many Montrealers, he remains angry about the PQ's deeply unpopular decision to amalgamate the many towns of Greater Montreal during their last mandate.
Parent plans to vote for Québec Solidaire, a new party in the province and the first purely leftist party Quebec has ever really had, according to Milner.
Québec Solidaire was founded last year. It came about thanks, indirectly, to a manifesto published by a small group of influential Quebecers. Pour un Québec Lucide called for a general reduction of the role of the Quebec state. Signed by both sovereigntists and federalists, the manifesto sparked a furious debate in the province and led to a counter manifesto (Pour un Québec Solidaire) that, in turn, led to the new party.
Québec Solidaire won't win any seats on Monday. But the debate it's part of, Lucides versus Solidaires as it's known, may become the defining argument of an, at least temporarily, post-separatist Quebec.
I'll have more on Lucides and Solidaires in later posts. Tomorrow, it's lunch with Mario Dumont at the Quebec Board of Trade, and a cocktail party with the provincial Green Party. On the weekend I'll be in Quebec City, where Dumont and the ADQ are promising an electoral sweep.
For more on the campaign, visit Election Central.