“They’re a bunch of whiners,” a friend remarked as we had a discussion about the student protesters in Quebec.

“Their tuition is less than a third of what everyone else pays – what are they complaining about?” he continued. The sentiments he expressed echo the general opinion held by most people I’ve spoken to outside Quebec.

I too viewed these protesters as privileged ingrates who are complaining about a tuition hike that is peanuts compared to what everyone else pays. However, after visiting Quebec and witnessing these protests, I’ve been forced to reconsider my opinions; I strongly believe that other Canadians should too.

Imagine the following. Due to financial constraints, our government has had to take some desperate measures. Starting next week, every Canadian will now have to pay a flat fee of $10 for every consultation with a doctor and about $ 200 for surgeries. It’s a small affordable fee that would help offset the financial strain on the government.

Yes, our much cherished healthcare system is no longer free.

As one can imagine, there will be uproar in our society at the announcement of such news. How dare the government charge us for healthcare? We will go out into the streets and will protest all night long. We will not stop until our demands are met. No way am I paying 10 bucks to visit a doctor.

And as we lead mass rallies to protest these unjust measures, the Americans will look to us and say, “What a bunch of whiners! What are they complaining about? They pay nothing compared to what we have to pay.”

That analogy might have a few shortcomings, but it’s the same idea. You see, it’s not just the small fee and potential future hikes that we would be protesting. It’s the principle. We expect our government to provide universal healthcare, much like childhood education, library services and access to highways. Failure to do so results in uproar. We’ve worked hard to get our society to a point where we can enjoy these benefits; any attempt to jeopardize our access to these services is unacceptable.

Quebeckers view post-secondary education in the same light as these services. Yes, it’s not free, but it was pretty close to it. For years, the student movement has been working towards achieving universal access to post-secondary education and Quebec was perhaps the only hope of that dream being realized. As Rick Salutin pointed out in a Toronto Star article, when society has a whole recognizes a service as a fundamental priority, the excuses go out the door and the money gets found. A tuition hike of any sort, let alone one that increases tuition almost twofold, is a step backwards and squashes any chances of ever achieving fully publicly funded universities.

We need to make it clear to our governments that higher education should be made accessible to all and not just the privileged few. It must be voiced that tuition hikes are not an acceptable of way dealing with budgetary restraints.

This is the exact message Quebecois students are sending to our government. We need to stand along with them and join hands in giving our support to this message. Our collective silence is a tacit approval to tuition hikes – we are saying that we are okay with such measures. Our indifference to the issue serves as support for tuition increases in other provinces and gives politicians the impression that they can simply get away with it.

Protesting every single night for weeks on end demonstrates a level of commitment unheard of in recent Canadian history. As I walked through the streets of Quebec City, I realized these protests were much more than just some students complaining. I saw old women in their 70s cheering on the sidewalks; I saw a five-year-old girl marching with her mother; I saw people in their balconies clanging their pots and pans to express support.

While apathy and heedlessness are often used to describe young people, these students defy any such categorization. They are young, they are mad, and they are fighting for what they believe in.

And we should be too.

By Waleed Ahmed

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