It shouldn’t take a university degree to realize that vandalism is not protest, says Rex.

Read a transcript of this Rex Murphy episode

In Quebec over 100,000 students – maybe as many as 160,000 – are on what they are pleased to call a strike. In other words they’re not going to class.

This used to be called playing hooky – you cannot strike unless you hold something back someone else wants – typically your labour. The students are declining to receive a service many of them have already paid for. I’m not sure what that should be called – but shortsighted is one term that suggests itself.

Now this strike, or protest, has been going on as these things tend to for a good while and the numbers who showed up in the city of Montreal are impressive. The cause however – to cancel an announced increase in student fees of about $350 a year, for each of 5 years – is not the trumpet-blast of justice and equity the students may believe it to be.

Quebec’s tuition fees are the lowest in Canada – its loan programs are generous and open. It is not as if Quebec students are cut off from the benefits of higher education. In fact, they have it financially easier than any other students in Canada.

Recently, however, the protest took a wild turn. Threats, mayhem and violence were the themes. Quebec cabinet ministers’ offices were vandalized; buildings were smeared with red paint, faux or failed Molotov cocktails were thrown through windows. One private citizen’s home was attacked by "mistake," whatever that’s supposed to mean. Heaps of bricks were placed on subway lines.

These were not, and are not, the actions of democratic protest. They are crude attempts at precipitating a crisis; they are threats to life and limb. They are the actions of the mob – a resort to force and the threat – or reality – of violence.

When protest takes that turn – it should be plainly, without qualification, and calmly condemned. It is simply wrong – and wrong not to say it is wrong.

Some students in Quebec have condemned it. They understand what is right and wrong. Other student leaders are playing cute, neither condoning nor condemning because they say they have no "mandate" to do so.

When protestors threaten, vandalize, use violence and cause mayhem they destroy their cause. No legitimate government can give into a mob – no government can reward those who violate the codes of civil society. That rewards those who reject order as opposed to those who support and uphold it.

We’re lucky to have protests. Protests are good. Protests are healthy. But for some they are a facemask for turmoil, for the hope that a little violence could be contagious and lead to more.

Governments and citizens should not oblige this game; they should not let street bullies or self-styled "diversity of tactics" activists manipulate genuine protest, or corrupt legitimate debate with willful violence. 

For The National, I’m Rex Murphy.