On Sept. 21, a week before Québec’s provincial election on Oct. 1, candidates gathered at the D.B. Clarke Theatre at Concordia University to discuss issues pertaining to students including climate change, tuition hikes for international students, unpaid internships, and sexual assault. The debate was organized by the Concordia Student Union (CSU) and the Concordia Political Science Student Association (PSSA) to promote student engagement in provincial politics in preparation for a close election.
One of the most contentious issues of the night was the cost for higher education, especially in light of the Quebéc Liberal Party’s (PLQ) recent decision to deregulate tuition fees for international students.
“I think it’s absolutely legitimate that there be a fee differential [between domestic and international students],” PLQ Candidate David Birnbaum said. “Our universities start by belonging to Quebecers and they’re open to the world, but you all know that there’s limited funds available. Universities are deeply expensive institutions to operate, and for those who might come here and bring their expertise elsewhere, to pay a little bit more is absolutely legitimate.”
All but two of the candidates, Birnbaum and Christopher Steele of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), presented free tuition as part of their platforms. Both candidates stated that free education, while a noble goal, is not feasible in the near future. Conversely, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of Québec Solidaire cited other developed countries with free higher education systems as proof to the contrary and claimed that it would only take approximately one per cent of the provincial spending to provide free education for all.
“I think the [PLQ] made a big mistake by [completely] deregulating the tuition fee for international students,” Nadeau-Dubois said. “The first consequence of that will be that we will not recruit the best students, but we will recruit the students [with] the means [to pay] those unbelievably high tuition fees. And that’s a problem for Quebec, it’s a problem for our universities, and it’s a problem for those students, of course.”
The debate featured questions and answers in both French and English in an attempt to encourage participation by members of both the francophone and anglophone communities. Typically, English-speaking Quebecers experience low voter turnout in provincial elections.
“I think that both communities should work harder to overcome the language divide,” Patrick Groeneveld-Meijer, VP External Affairs of Concordia’s PSSA and one of the organizers of the debate, wrote in a Facebook message to The McGill Tribune. “Quebecers need to start focusing on the issues that unite us, rather than those that cause division. Our hope is that we will be taking a step in this direction by hosting the debate in both [languages].”
Ensuring that the needs of students are adequately addressed by the parties and their platforms was also at the forefront of the debate.
“[With] tuition fees rising, unpaid internships, and precarious youth unemployment becoming more common, […] there is no shortage of students getting involved […in political]issues,” Josh Hutton, CSU Financial Coordinator wrote in an email to the Tribune. “[…The] real question is, what are political parties doing to earn their support? We know that when young people believe that their vote will make a difference, they will vote. If politicians ignore young people’s concerns, they return the favour.”
Ben Corkett, a political activist present at the debate, elaborated on the impact that youth can have in swaying the vote.
“I think we shouldn’t underestimate to what extent student organizing can be at the forefront of both local and global politics,” Corkett said. “There’s a lot that can happen here, and I think that it’s important for politicians to recognize the importance of the power that the youth have in the shaping of the country and the province.”
A previous version of this article attributed a quote to Chris Kalafatidis, president of Concordia’s PSSA and one of the organizers of the debate. In fact, the quote was from Patrick Groeneveld-Meijer, VP External Affairs of Concordia’s PSSA and one of the organizers of the debate. The Tribune regrets this error.