Many angry and extravagant things have been said about the 15 weeks of student demonstrations in Quebec. Their printemps erable—“maple spring”—has put Montreal’s streets in the center of Quebec’s politics.
The street was no longer just a visible and convenient place to exercise free speech. The crowds were not assembled merely to impress, but also to enfeeble the state; to reverse legislated decisions by the Government and the Assembly of Quebec; and, conceivably, to force the Charest government to resign.
End-running the sticky ways of traditional democracy is appealing, especially to the young. A charged crowd and insolent demonstrators can be endearing, especially in cautious places like Canada. Les Perreaux of The Globe and Mail reports, however, that serious people—people who are expected to think through consequences and help prepare society for intelligent change—are willing to grant the printemps erable a significant voice in deciding Quebec’s future.
“University of Montreal philosopher Christian Nadeau sees a more pragmatic motivation. ‘This is no revolution, but instead a confrontation with a government that has decided its authority to govern comes strictly from the ballot box. Representative democracy is a delegated affair, but the problem with that idea is that it's always provisional. In representative democracy, it's never a blank cheque. Delegating power to a third party, to a government, is an act of confidence. They must work to maintain it or they lose their moral authority.”
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This is beguiling sophistry.
The Government of Quebec’s authority—now that Queen Elizabeth II has none—does come strictly from the ballot box. It can lose it’s nerve because of what the people and the pollsters say. The courts can check it actions. It is not above the law, but it doesn’t answer to public opinion or sweet reason from the street.
The Government and its legislative majority have no contract with the street or any obligation to keep the confidence of any exercised faction in Quebec society. Indeed, Charest is entirely within his rights as a democrat to squander his popularity.
That sounds harsh and I acknowledge that the Quebec Government hasn’t used belligerent language. Nevertheless, democrats shouldn’t indulge the idea that the street—or poetry, a good argument, and even a palpable change in the zeitgeist—can shave the authority of the ballot.
Election days and the secret ballot are the only tools we can all use to demonstrate that we are equals and to stand up to the louder voices and the bullies.