Tom Mulcair: With tuition hikes, CAQ is top of class in wedge politics

The government’s decision to target English-language universities after its byelection loss smacks of crass and unprincipled opportunism.

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Pascale Déry, Quebec’s minister of higher education, candidly admits that the Coalition Avenir Quebec’s scheme to massively increase tuition for out-of-province students at English-language universities will result in reduced enrolment.

That, she says, is actually the plan. She also pleads that it’s necessary to protect the French language without providing a scintilla of evidence as to a causal link between attacking English-language institutions of higher learning and promoting French.

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This is the same Pascale Déry who, in August 2022 (just before the provincial election) attended the Bishop’s Forum, a civic leadership event for English-speaking youth, and pleaded that more had to be done to keep anglo grads from leaving the province.

I guess having fewer anglo grads is a way of ensuring that fewer anglos leave, but I’m not sure that’s what Déry meant when she issued her vibrant, principled plea at Bishop’s University.

Déry has proven remarkably flexible as a politician. She sat on the board of a lobby group that opposed Bill 21, a law that openly discriminates against religious minorities. When she became a candidate, she blithely said she’d always supported that discriminatory law. That must’ve been surprising news to anyone who had sat with her on that board.

Just a few weeks back it was Finance Minister Eric Girard who spoke with a select group of business people and lamented that Montreal was lagging behind Toronto. He specifically mentioned the fact that McGill’s ranking had fallen behind that of the University of Toronto.

He made those remarks, of course, prior to the CAQ’s crushing loss to the Parti Québécois in the Oct. 2 byelection in the Quebec City riding of Jean-Talon. Girard, who also has the role of representing the interests of the English-speaking community, has been silent since the scheme to undermine McGill and the other English-language universities was announced.

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Let’s face it: The CAQ is a party of one. Its founder is its only star, but Premier François Legault has begun behaving erratically since that humiliating byelection loss. He won a strong majority just a year ago but a couple of boneheaded moves have cost him dearly.

His double flip-flop on his broken promise to build a “third link” highway tunnel between the provincial capital and its south shore was roundly mocked, but that was mostly an embarrassment to himself. He won two elections on that promise, then announced he’d abandoned the plan right after his second victory, only to put it back on the front burner when he got crushed by the PQ.

The CAQ’s decision to lash out at the province’s English-language universities just as the CAQ tries to play catch-up with the PQ on language and identity smacks of the most crass and unprincipled political opportunism.

Déry’s communication lines on the day of the announcement were hopelessly muddled. She repeated ad-nauseam that she was acting to increase the tuition of people who studied in Quebec but who moved elsewhere. That simply begged the question as to whether there would be a concomitant plan to reimburse those who chose to stay!

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Most of the pitch consisted of general affirmations about tuition being much higher in other Canadian provinces, but research and facts proved more nuanced. But this wasn’t about nuance; it was about cheap “we-they” politics, something we’ve grown sadly accustomed to with Legault.

Since the announcement, it’s also become painfully obvious that some of our key institutions are hopelessly ill-equipped to take part in big, rough and tumble political debates. McGill’s initial reaction, adopting a wait-and-see attitude and saying it would postpone its $50-million plan to enhance the use of French, was breathtakingly weak-kneed.

The only glimmer of hope was the strong reaction of the Quebec Liberal Party against Legault’s scheme. Too bad they’ve decided that they don’t need a leader until 2025. Their help is needed now.

Tom Mulcair, a former leader of the federal NDP, served as minister of the environment in the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest.

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