What the Québec tuition protest taught law students

What the Québec tuition protest taught law students
On May 16, tuition protesters stormed into law classes at the University of Quebec in Montreal. The law students had obtained an injunction allowing them to continue attending lectures despite the protestors blocking access to classes. Within the equivalent of a nursery for future lawyers, a group of masked students from other faculties breached the court order and demanded the law students leave their lecture halls.

Does it require much imagination to picture the school houses in distant lands, where ignorant thugs have stopped teachers from giving lessons to girls? In Montreal, the incursion into a college of learning should have caused people to shudder. Too much imagination, though, for the anti-law thugs who stormed into UQAM, seeking to enforce solidarity in the battle for cheap tuition. But studying is not working, and bullying a law class to stop learning is not the working class hero’s finest moment.

Several years ago, I joined several hundred gowned Canadian Bar Association lawyers at the steps of Osgoode Hall, the seat of the legal profession in Ontario. We expressed our outrage over the persecution of lawyers and judges half way around the world in Pakistan. Why could we not mobilize ourselves to respond to an act of violence against student jurists on our own shores?

Lessons from UQAM

The newly elected Parti Québécois government has now cancelled the tuition increases. Crisis over? Appeasement of the lawless? Whatever your political stripe and whatever your views on the student protests, we the profession let the UQAM law students down that spring day.

What did the besieged law students learn from this episode? Interestingly, they got a first-hand education on the fragility of justice in a modern democracy.  Without popular support or police enforcement, the court injunction was a paper tiger. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke at the 2011 American Bar Association Conference in Toronto on the passive role of judicial power, he invoked Shakespeare’s Henry IV, where Hotspur listens to Glendower boast that he can “call the spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur then responds: “Why so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you do call them?”

Perhaps this topic may seem ethereal to apply to most legal practices, or the daily humdrum of a young lawyer’s day at the office. Think again, the next time you obtain a cost award from an interlocutory motion and the other side simply carries on with the lawsuit without paying. Think again, the next time you have to renegotiate a business purchase or real estate closing because the other party has not fulfilled a disclosure undertaking. The practice of law faces apathy and expediency at every turn, and you as a lawyer will learn to live with it.

The law students also learned they could not count on the fraternity and sorority of jurists to stand by them. Most of us in common-law Canada looked on with some bemusement, but we did not connect the disruption of law lectures with a threat to our democracy. We lawyers are great at standing up for others but can be lousy at looking after our own. Perhaps, too, it may mean those lawyers of tomorrow will not be that good at standing up for others either.

The generation prior to the Baby Boom fought for democracy out of an obligation to future generations. They knew the importance of sacrifice to uphold the rule of law. They did it, not for themselves, but for us. In contrast, my generation’s lack of response to an act of political intimidation shows our complacency. We also did not see it for what it was, because it took place in Canada.

This class of millennial law students learned, first-hand, how blasé we have become. Will they pursue careers in law to change the profession against the tide of complacency? Will they, instead, turn away from the law?

What can the Canadian lawyer learn? That the profession’s blanking of the UQAM law students is part of an accumulation of abandonment-of-young behaviour that originated with the rise of Baby Boom lawyers.

We will complain about the lack of skills among new lawyers, but then we fail to see we were responsible for a survivalist approach to legal training. We will decry the loss of the Bar Admission Course, but it was we who elected benchers who vowed to reduce annual dues to the law societies.

Whether it is the Ontario articling crisis, the exodus of women from private practice, or the decline of lawyers in public life, a great generation has failed to achieve its potential, and it remains a mystery what we will pass on. New lawyers complain about lack of mentorship. It is because we do not provide it.

Not too late to smell the café au lait

It is too late to do anything about the May 16 event. Nor would we benefit from over-analyzing the confrontation between the masked carrés rouges and the future avocats and notaires. Anyone closely following the Charbonneau Commission on corruption in the construction industry and municipal politics will know it is, in fact, a truth-and-reconciliation commission that is really round two of the Gomery inquiry that felled the once mighty federal Liberal party.

The Zeitgeist behind the Québec student protests must be tapping into something more than concern over increased post-secondary tuition. Somewhere behind the marching and drumming must be frustration, and frustration is the main social by-product of a generation’s failure to act as a mentor to the next. It is against structural failings in Quebec society that the UQAM law students would be among the best qualified to fight. Law students, almost by definition, are called to the law because of the good it can do. The law, as we have found with the Bill of Rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, can unblock social frustrations. Alas, the protesters never thought it through.

As with any student politics, the journey is transitory, and likely idealized in middle age like the hippies and Woodstock, or the Soixante-huitards and Paris ’68.  Gaudeamus igitur, they may very well chant. Life is too short to consider the lasting effect of what they have done.

The outlaws who invaded the law school will remember themselves in the same way aging motorcyclists relive the time they saw Easy Rider in the cinema. They will have judged the lawyers who came of it as conformists or sell-outs. Their hope, in needing to cast a punching bag in the piece, is that lawyers learn nothing from the episode. Instead of being the heroes in the piece, the UQAM law students were branded as pro-establishment or fifth columnists, too concerned about their law careers to join in solidarity with the other students. Too busy learning about the law.

Apology for our apathy

The classical scholars out there will know an apology is not an expression of contrition but rather a defence (Plato’s Apology on behalf of Socrates, Cardinal Newman’s defence of Catholicism in Apologia pro vita sua, to name but two). In both senses, I apologize to the new lawyer. If we have left you to figure it out on your own, sometimes it is because we do not know how to do it ourselves.

In our defence, the profession can and likely will reverse the neglect of our lawyers in training. We can learn, if not the current we but those who are to come. The circumstance of the new lawyer is full of anxiety and devoid of promise, and we leave it up to them to find a way out of the paper bag.

It is undeniable that law schools have waiting lists of aspirants hoping for entry into our profession. We stand by while our universities make them incur $100,000 in debt for a law degree so the chief justice of Canada can scold them for choosing a high salary in a Toronto bank tower over a small practice in The Pas.

We cling on to self-governance. We are not prepared to fund the apprenticeship of new lawyers. We take it for granted that they want to be like us, and then we frown at their lack of loyalty. The saying, “Keep your head down and work; by the time you look up it will be 15 years later,” describes a kind of penal colony from which lawyers used to emerge with a kind of Stockholm-Syndrome love for their tormentors (no etymological link with mentors, but one might not be faulted for thinking so).

To our new lawyers, I say, keep your head up. It may be the only way to see past us, and into your future.

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