A Mutually Hurting Stalemate in Quebec

It is an irrefutable assertion to say that the substance of a conflict is at the base of its resolution, but in several cases, substance is not enough. This is certainly true in Quebec, where the parties at odds have drawn support (and opposition) for the ideas they defend. But as I write these words, it seems that the student conflict has reached a point where neither party has been able to advance further in their goals.

Despite a growing number of protests, the student movement has not succeeded to break the Charest government’s inflexibility in its plan to raise post-secondary education fees by 75%.  Conversely, the student movement has suffered a severe backlash on its reputation and goals, and are seen by many as being carriers of economic misfortunes.  This however, does not mean that the government has risen as the victor in this conflict.  Far from a victory, the government has had the task to subdue civil unrest and disobedience by passing legislation that seriously curtails rights of association and expression in Quebec.  Some believe this reflects the authoritarian attitude of a government that has been in power for nine years, but it also bears witness of the government’s fear, and above all, inability to resolve the crisis through its own means.

In peace research literature, there are some who believe that over-focusing on the substance of  a conflict threatens its very resolution, for procedural considerations such as timing for intervention are not catered for.  The champion of  this debate is Dr. William Zartman, who proposed the idea of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS), which in essence, is a perception by the conflicting parties that their ultimate goals have become unattainable and that furthering violence will cause significant pain to both sides.  Zartman argues that this critical juncture in a conflict signals a “ripeness” that enhances the likelihood of a successful resolution through avenues such as mediation.

In Quebec, there have already been two series of talks between the government and student groups, but it is hard to sustain that the moment for these talks was truly ripe.  The first negotiation attempt was broken abruptly on April 25, when a “truce” on protests was reported to have been broken by members of the CLASSE, who had purportedly announced a protest at the same time they were sitting at the negotiation table.  The second round of negotiations was successful in bringing about a tentative agreement, but this was ultimately rejected by the membership of the student associations.  Assessing costs and benefits,  the participating parties in these two rounds of negotiation perceived that they were better off pursuing their ultimate goals through their previously used means than by negotiating with one other.  Put bluntly, negotiation efforts were premature because the benefits of civil disobedience and heavy police action still outweighed the benefits of negotiating.

As I write these words, the situation has changed dramatically.  There has not been a better opportunity in the last 15 weeks to start negotiations than now.  With the prospect of an election looming, accusations of ingrown corruption, and with questionable support by the people of Quebec on issues such as Bill 78, the Liberal Party cannot continue to overuse its policing powers, which might put its ambitions of forming another government on the line.  Similarly, by pursuing their strategies of civil unrest, the student movement risks losing popular support, jeopardizes the legitimacy of their claims, and decreases their image as responsible and well-informed citizens.  The climate in Quebec is ripe for resolution, and it is essential that the government and student groups begin to perceive this fact and assess previously unconsidered avenues such as mediation, in order to arrive at a realizable agreement, beneficial for everyone.

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