For and Against the Quebec Student “Strike”

When the Quebec student protest (it’s not actually a “strike”) started heating up a few weeks ago I found myself falling into the standard trap of people like me — people who have been out of school for some time and who, rightfully or not, tend to see the current crop of young people as perhaps a bit too entitled and completely unaware of how good they have it. After all, tuition in Quebec is lower than anywhere else in Canada, and has been since as long as I can remember.

And indeed that is a trap. I like to call it the “geezer trap,” as it is the most likely hole for people of a certain age to fall into. That’s not to say there aren’t younger people who feel the same way, but for them I blame ignorance.

To cut a long blog post short, I’ll just say that I know the burden of student debt, so I can relate to their concern. It took me almost 10 years to pay off my student loans, and during my first four years post-university, I didn’t know how I would be able do it.

The amount I had to pay seems rather small in retrospect; $16,000 in official student loans plus another $3000 in short-term loans and credit card debt that I acquired while trying to launch myself into a post-university, so-called “real life.” (I knew people who were paying that muct just to get a car.) But you have to consider that I was not graduating with a degree in video game design or object-oriented programming. There were virtually no jobs available to me with my lowly bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. It took three years before I found a job that had the slightest hint of a career path, and that job paid only $6.50 an hour. (I quit a $7.00 an hour dead-end job to take it.)

Kids these days (ha! I just had to say that) seem to think that everything was all rosy and filled with unicorns in times past and now is the only era of bleakness. Not so. When I started university in 1983 the national unemployment rate was 12%. By the time I graduated it was down to 9% but it went north of 10% by 1991. Those are national averages; for people in my geographic and demographic groups the rates were consistently higher by three or four percentage points. Today’s national unemployment rate of 7.2% seems rather glorious by comparison.

But I’m not going to dig deeper into the geezer trap by yammering on about how tough I had it. But I will say this: from the point-of-view of freshly-graduated me looking forward from 1987, things looked very bleak indeed. Big debt, high unemployment, and few personal prospects. Adding weight to that burden was the fact that I was coming from a bleak place with a long history of unemployment and minimal prospects, so I started off having very little hope. I went off to university not because it was expected, but because I forced myself out of a quagmire of defeat and dispair and got myself some education with the hope of smartening myself up and improving my prospects a little.

In 1987, 88, and 89, those prospects seemed worse than ever. Now, in 2012, 20-plus years into a fairly interesting and reasonably lucrative career, it’s easy to dismiss my youthful worries. That too is part of the geezer trap, although there is potentially a positive “it gets better” type of message in there, if anyone’s looking.

While I probably won’t remember your name two minutes after we meet, I do remember how defeated I felt in those few years after university, and how empty the future looked. I remember how that debt felt like a ball and chain, keeping me from having the kind of life that people in their 20s are supposed to have. I also remember that despite all that, I was always very grateful for the student loans I was able to procure, and how the annual increase in tuition fees at my university always felt like a stab in the gut. (For perspective, the tuition for two semesters in my final year was about $1600. That was 1986-87.)

I maintain that one should pay for the things one receives, but I also think that we all, as a society, benefit from an educated population. (Please re-read that last line and ponder it. Save us both the bother of me writing 1000 words on how important it is to have an educated population, as that should go without saying.)

Surely there’s a balance point that places less burdent on the students, particularly when you remember that not all of those students are there to “train” for high paying jobs. They all bring something valuable to our society, and not all of them will be engineers and doctors.

I agree with many who acknowledge that the price of tuition should go up somewhat, but I also agree with many who feel that the currently proposed increases are way too much, way too fast.

What I cannot agree with are the tactics the student protesters are using. Boycotting classes hurts themselves and their fellow students who may not want to boycott classes. Their practice of disrupting public transit and bridge traffic only turns public opinon against them. Then there are the recent acts of vandalism, including failed Molotov cocktails and throwing bricks on the Metro tracks, that may or may not be associated with the student protest. That’s where they are really shooting themselves in their collective foot, because the only way the student protests will have any effect is if they can create and then ride a wave of positive public opinion.

Pissing the public off only plays into the government’s hand. It’s bad enough that there is a general perception that today’s youth are spoiled with self-entitlements and their discontent is just them crying like children under threat of having their candy taken away (I tend to believe that does define a minority of todays’ youth — as it always has). But when you pile that perception on top of public disruptions, all wrapped in a fog of conflicting information on how much money we’re really talking about, then you have a very strong formula for protest failure.

I doubt the tactics will change, so I doubt the tuition increases will be stopped. That is unfortunate, as it will cause some students to drop out of their studies, and it will place a large burden of debt on those who do manage to finish.

As for those of you who are stuck in the geezer trap and can’t take your eyes off that “lowest tuition in Canada” factoid, it’s a false argument to compare the fees of Quebec students with those from other provinces and other countries, because the question is not “why shouldn’t Quebec students pay as much as others?” The question is the simpler and un-relative “how much should Quebec students pay?”

Opus Card Problems

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Opus card. It has made using public transit in Montreal a lot easier, at least in terms of buying and using tickets and passes. The single, rechargable “chip” card makes a lot of sense, and I’ve had no real problems with it. Well, except for what I’m about to describe.

opus cardSome background: I live “off island,” on the South Shore of Montreal where the transit system (RTL) is separate from Montreal’s STM. Generally, this presents no problem; I pay a bit extra to get a monthly pass that I can use on both systems. (The standard STM monthly pass is $72.75, while my combined RTL/STM pass is $113).

Before the Opus system was installed, the pass was a paper card with a magnetic stripe. I’d get in line a few days before the end of each month and would buy a new pass for the upcoming month from a ticket agent. I had to buy these passes at the terminus in Longueuil, as they were not for sale at the regular STM outlets. Again, not a problem as I passed through the terminus twice a day, five days a week.

With the Opus card it’s even easier. I have one rechargeable card that I can recharge at a machine. Sadly, although Opus recharging machines exist in virtually every Metro station on the STM system, I could only recharge my combined RTL/STM pass at the terminus Longueuil. A bit of a setback, but no biggie since passing through the terminus was part of my commute.

Then, last June, I was thrust into a new situation. Due to an externally imposed (but ultimately welcome) “sabbatical,” I did not have a need to commute into Montreal five times a week. I knew I’d be going into town frequently, but I didn’t think it was worth buying a full monthly pass. I thought it might be better to buy my tickets a la carte.

That’s where it gets complicated.

It’s complicated because when you’re paying “per ride” on my commute, you’re not just dealing with two systems, you’re dealing with three. Or more precisely, two and a half. Or maybe two and a virtual. It’s like this:

  • RTL tickets are needed to ride the bus from my house to the Terminus Longueuil, where the STM Metro’s yellow line terminates (and all RTL busses terminate). Those tickets are $3.10 each, or six for $16.75.
  • STM tickets are needed to ride the Montreal Metro and bus system. Those tickets are $3.00 each, or six for $14.25 and 10 for $22.50.
  • Special STM tickets are needed if you are starting your STM ride in Longueuil. This is because some idiots feel that any Metro station that’s “off island” should charge more. (People taking the Metro from any of the three stations in Laval also pay extra.) These tickets cost $3.00 with no discount for bulk purchases. (Re-read that, and ask yourself if it makes any sense.)

It gets worse:

  • RTL tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines at the Terminus Longueuil, on the ground floor level.
  • Regular STM tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines in STM Metro stations, with the exception of the Longueuil station (and most likely the Laval stations).
  • Special Longueuil STM tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines at the Terminus Longueuil, on the Metro level (the level below where the Opus machines for the RTL are).

Did you catch that? I have to go to three different locations to buy all the tickets I need to get around on a per-ticket basis.

It gets even worse:

Once you’ve put the three different kinds of tickets on your Opus card, you have to keep track of how many of each you have left so you don’t end up stuck with the dreaded red light on the turnstile when you’re in a big hurry to get somewhere. This would be OK if the readers on the Opus machines gave a clear indication, but they don’t. They do not distinguish between the two different kinds of STM tickets!

Here’s a blurry picture of what my Opus card contained one day a couple of weeks ago. It shows how many tickets I have for each of the three variations. The one in the middle is obvious, as it says “RTL.” But can you tell which, between the top one and the bottom one, is the regular STM tickets (for use only on the island of Montreal) and which is the one I need to enter the system in Longueuil?

Opus Card Recharge screen

If I’m down to one or two of the top variety and have six or eight of the bottom variety, which one do I recharge? (Bearing in mind that each requires being at a different geographical location in order to recharge.)

The Solution(s)

The solutions are easy, at least in theory. The hard part is getting the human beings behind two or more disparate systems to work together for the benefit of the riding public. Believe me, that’s no easy task.

But if they were to find the desire to fix it, here’s how to do it:

Solution, Part 1

This is easy: reprogram the interface so it differentiates between regular STM tickets and “off-island” STM tickets. Look at the photo above; by checking my status before and after using an off-island ticket, I was able to deduce that the top item refers to those tickets. I have since written it in Sharpie on my Opus card, which is about the most inelegant solution ever. But if the screen said:

  • STM-off-island
  • RTL
  • STM

…then I’d know at a glance what tickets I have available. It’s a simple matter of labeling. Is that so hard?

Solution, Part 2

This bit is harder because it involves (a) getting networks to work together (somewhat difficult) and (b) getting people to commit to getting networks to work together (very difficult).

If the networks had better awareness of each other — and the labels were clearer — then I’d be able to go to any Opus recharging station anywhere on the system and load up with whatever tickets I need.

The most frustrating part is that the systems are aware of each other; at any Opus recharging station all three types of tickets are shown on the console. They just don’t let you purchase anything other than the ones that are allowed at that station.

That is as stupid and user-unfriendly as anything I’ve seen, and it is (at least in theory) easy to fix.

Alston Adams, 1974-2010

Alston Adams, known as @AlstonAdams on Twitter and formerly as Jonas Parker and later himself on his blog, died of cancer yesterday. He was 35.

I don’t remember exactly when I met Alston for the first time, but it was probably 2003 or 2004, most likely at La Cabane, where we early-adopter bloggers used to hold our monthly YULBlog gatherings. By then, the YULBlog evenings were drawing a larger crowd (20 to 30 people), so I didn’t get to know Alston very well right away. But over time, through seeing him at YULBlog and other events, and by reading his blogs, I eventually fell into his orbit.

In 2007, just after landing his dream job in the video game industry, he was diagnosed with cancer. In September of that year he underwent a radical surgery that removed a large piece of his stomach and esophagus. A few days after the surgery he was able to receive a group of friends went to visit him in the hospital. We were shocked at the extent of the scarring. It was as if the surgeon had deconstructed him, or had unwrapped him like a tube of Pillsbury turnovers and then wrapped him back up again.

Espophogeal cancer is one of the worst ones to get. Hardly anyone gets over it. Alston’s continuing treatments would show some success and then there would be a setback. Up and down he went in his very open battle. By the end of last year he was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to beat it, that it was a matter of pushing back as long as life seemed livable, and that this likely wouldn’t be very long. Last November he said, in a blog post, that he’d be surprised to see the end of 2011.

He lived as well as he could over the past three years. Perhaps the highlight was participating in a film, Wrong Way to Hope,  about young adults with cancer. The project saw him fly out west to hang out with other like-bodied people and to do fun outdoorsy things like whitewater kayaking. The film will be released in November of this year.

This clip contains a few scenes cut from the film. That’s Alston at the beginning, the shirtless guy.

Alston also contributed to a book published earlier this year by the McGill University Health Center and The Cedars Cancer Institute, called Cancer Under the Radar; Young Adults Tell Their Stories. On a more personal and immediate level, he contributed to his friends’ knowledge and understanding of cancer, treatments, setbacks, oncology, and even race issues, through his insightful and sometimes humorous blog posts at AlstonAdams.net/blog.

During Alston’s three year battle with cancer, he bounced between sickness and not-quite-wellness. He went out as much as he could, saw friends, and continued to attend YULBlog when he could. By early 2010, however, it was becoming apparent that he might not live out the year. He was thin and frail and wasn’t eating much. He continued to write on his blog, but he didn’t go out as much as he did before, as the cancer, the treatments, and his low food intake were all making him very tired and weak. But occasionally he’d rally and would show up looking thin but good. In April, Martine and I sat with him at the Mainline Theatre where we saw “The Midlife Crisis of Dionysus.” He was as thin as a stick but in high spirits despite the fact that a tumor was pressing on his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper.

He showed up at my birthday party in June, held at a bar above a tapas restaurant on rue St-Denis. His voice had partially come back, and he looked dapper in a short brimmed Panama-style hat.

50 years of Blork

The last time I saw Alston was at a pot-luck Sunday dinner held at Michel and Suzanne’s place in August. Alston brought smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s, and to everyone’s surprise he managed to eat one himself. In the early evening, Martine and I drove him home; he was staying with a friend, a doctor who lives on the edge of Old Montreal. There was a flight of stairs to climb, but he refused any help. He thanked us for the ride and said goodbye to us there on the sidewalk. We all knew that we might never see him again, which sounds very dramatic but in reality it was more surreal and a bit awkward. That’s how it is with the terminally ill; you never know when their time will be up and every time you see them you think it might be the last. In that case it was.

Rest in peace, Alston. You will be missed.

Some other tributes to Alston:

What is “Montreal Culture?”

Way back in 2001, Quebec’s then Culture Minister Diane Lemieux commented that she felt Ontario had no real culture. Everyone in Quebec snickered. Everyone in Toronto got huffy. The debate raged across Ontario with various ministers of this and that standing up in their respective legislatures and declaring that Ontario does, indeed have culture. Lots of culture! They would trumpet the various symphonies, theatres, and museums to be found in and around Toronto as irrefutable evidence. In Quebec we just rolled our eyes.

The issue has popped up again. None other than MacLean’s magazine, so very much a Canadian institution (which is to say, it is 90% from and about Toronto), has issued the results of some surveys and resulting rankings of cultural activities in various Canadian cities. Lo and behold, Montreal ranked quite low, which raised a lot of eyebrows and prompted MacLean’s to toss this nugget up on the web, complete with a photo of rioting Habs fans, as if to underscore just how uncultured we are here in Montreal:

MacLean's Article

What MacLean’s doesn’t get — which is the same thing that all those barking Ontarians didn’t get in 2001 — is that Montreal culture is not about symphonies, theatres, and museums. The famous Montreal culture is the stuff that happens every day, with regular people. It’s about the extent to which regular folks here are engaged in cultural activities as a normal part of their lives. How so many people know how to play — and actually do play on a regular basis — musical instruments. The way regular folks go to small-budget movies and neighbourhood theatre productions (regular people, not just faux-ho hipsters). It’s about how regular people think it’s completely normal to read a lot of novels and to be able to talk about writers and literature outside of the Twilight and Harry Potter series. It has to do with the extent to which people are aware of the small acts of music, literature, and theatre that happens every day all around them.

We’re not all like that. There are plenty of tight-assed people in Montreal who can think of nothing more interesting than their jobs and their daily commutes. People who haven’t read a piece of fiction in 20 years and who parade themselves off to a fancy restaurant every Valentine’s day and pay big bucks for good seats at the Basilica Notre-Dame’s performance of The Messiah every Christmas and are glad when it’s over because they’re off the hook for another year.

But many, many people are culturally engaged. I think of the first impressions I had of the people I’ve worked with over the years (I’m an office drone). At first many of them seem pretty dull, but then you get to know them and you discover that this software geek does salsa and tango dancing on weekends. That project manager plays clarinet in a neighbourhood klezmer band. The engineer in the corner has a fine arts degree in ceramics. On and on.

Of course there are people like that in Toronto too. Toronto, which, as urban legend has it, was declared by UNESCO to be the world’s most ethnically diverse city*, is jammed with people just like that; people who cook for passion, who publish small chapbooks of poetry while scraping out a living as a bookkeeper or bank clerk. People who saw on fiddles at night and sing in amateur choirs on weekends.

The difference is this: the predominant attitude about culture in Toronto is still highly influenced by its old, white, Presbyterian “Hogtown” past. That’s a tired hold-over from the days when Toronto had no ethnic diversity to speak of, and was composed primarily of a bunch of working class stiffs and a handful of rich Scots and Englishmen. (By the way, the only difference between Toronto and Montreal back then was that Montreal had more of those wealthy anglos, and its working class was 80% francophone.)

In that way of thinking, “culture” is indeed defined by symphonies, theatres, and museums. And lets not forget opera. In other words, “culture” is something you look at, not something you do. Spectator culture. More specifically, black tie spectator culture. If you don’t have to buy an expensive ticket for it, it isn’t culture.

That attitude prevails in the arguments by those indignant white collar stiffs back in 2001 and in the orientation of the MacLean’s surveys and reports. Well, I hereby declare that culture is alive and well in Montreal, but it is a participatory culture that you don’t need an expensive ticket or a tuxedo to be part of. It happens every day with the choices people make with regard to how they divide their time, how they amuse themselves, and how they pursue their interests.

And it happens in Toronto as well. Toronto, that city of neighbourhoods. That city of ethnic diversity where every street is like a little tower of Babel. But those old Presbyterians up there in their stuffed white-collar shirts, those parliamentarians and editors, are stuck in 1932. As for the rest of us, we can pretty much ignore those fools and get back to our books and guitars.

* UNESCO never said any such thing. From what I can gather, it started with a University of Toronto professor who used UNESCO data to arrive at that conclusion according to his own criteria. This was picked up by the mayor’s office and touted as a UNESCO finding. The press then ran with the story based on the mayor’s declaration. [Source 1: CERIS Policy Matters # 11, Oct. 2004, “The Anatomy of an Urban Legend: Toronto’s Multicultural Reputation(PDF), Source 2: to.ronto.ca/demographics]