The more I study the cause of conflicts, and the more I analyze the inner workings of conflict management and resolution, the more intrigued I become about the idea of trust as a mechanism that will drive a resolution process further through its procedural steps. Within the context of a conflict, how does trust affect the chances of arriving at a mutually beneficial arrangement in face of uncertainty, and above all, fear? It is true that the conflict between students and the Quebec government over tuition fees is far from being a civil confrontation that threatens the existence of the state. Nor is it a situation that has the potential to corrode the very mechanics of governmental institutions. This conflict, in my view, is nonetheless a good example of how the idea of trust is essential to provide a legitimate, feasible and responsible forum for discussions to initiate, for ideas to be planted, and for solutions to bloom.
It is very hard to argue that fostering trust between the government and the students has been in the agenda of either group. On one hand, the breaking and entering into former Education Minister Line Beauchamp’s offices is a good indicative of the students’ perception of the government’s ability (or inability) to present itself as a truthful and benign negotiator. The level of distrust is such that protesters were encouraged to use violence and unlawful acts as tools to advance their own objectives, while leaving aside other peaceful measures. On the other hand, Line Beauchamp herself had substantially delayed meeting with students on the premise that the students who had broken into her offices violently were the same ones leading the student groups. While breaking and entering into a governmental office did not help to foster trust in the legitimate demands of students, the government’s refusal to negotiate could have in turn been seen as a symptom of a paternalistic political institution overusing its majority mandate to undermine students’ rights, which clearly did not help to calm the waters in the student movement.
After a failed attempt at a deal, the process came to a halt, and the options of continuing the strike and pushing forward with the tuition increase seemed like the only ones in the hands of the students and the government, respectively. With the momentum being lost, what path was left to take? Line Beauchamp answered the question with her somewhat surprising resignation. The only way negotiations could have gone forward given the tension and high distrust between the students and the government, was through a face change in either group’s leadership. The government took the initiative with the appointment of Michelle Courchesne as new Education Ministry. If my view is right that a change in leadership will help start a trust-gaining process, then it might be safe to say that Mme. Courchesne has a strong potential to instill upon students the idea that the government is a trustworthy force, and above all, that is an entity open to dialogue and compromise. In turn, the government must be convinced that student demands are legitimate, and this spirit should be the one directing future talks.