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The Daily Talks to Plateau MNA Amir Khadir of Québec Solidaire

Amir Khadir is many things to many people – a Member of the National Assembly for the Mercier riding, which covers a large swath of the Plateau and Mile End; the only MNA and most prominent member of the leftist party Québec Solidaire; a practicing physician who has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories with Médecins du Monde; and a McGill alumnus.

Khadir was born in Iran in 1961, where his parents were active in opposing the Shah’s regime. Moving to Canada when he was ten, Khadir received his Bachelor’s degree from l’Université de Montréal, mastered in physics at McGill, then obtained a medical degree from Laval. He became a well-known activist in Montreal, and still practises medicine once a week since he became a MNA (he specializes in infectious microbiology). He was a candidate for the Bloc Québécois in the 2000 federal election, but ran against the provincial Parti Québécois in Mercier in 2003 for the Union des forces progressistes and in 2007 for Québec Solidaire. He did not win an election until the 2008 upset that took him and his young party to the National Assembly. The Daily spoke by phone in French with Khadir, who was en route to Chicoutimi at the time of the interview.

The McGill Daily: You’re a doctor, and you practice in a country with free health care. Do you think post-secondary education should also be free?
Amir Khadir: Yes, in the sense that it’s a question of priorities. If you consider education a cost instead of an investment, you fall into a cost-benefit analysis. At the moment, priorities being what they are…it’s a system that systematically advantages capital over work or knowledge. [The argument goes] “No, this can’t be free, just like any other consumer product. There has to be a price attached to practicality.” But for us, on our little raft, education is not just spending. It’s an investment, first, and more fundamentally, it’s a right. Québec Solidaire is proposing to massively reinvest in education and make it free.

MD: How will you pay for your reinvestment in education?
AK: We have proposed, since the [Finance Minister Raymond] Bachand budget, legitimate ways for the government to find extra revenue. We’ve talked about imposing taxes on those whose individual incomes surpass $115,000. Abolish the many fiscal exemptions the government accords to the financial sector. Not across all private enterprise…but reintroducing a capital tax on financial companies. We give too much freedom to companies that are still very, very lucrative to Canada. It’s a useless waste of money for the government. We absolutely have to control our natural resources better…over water, over mines, on all of our resources, to increase revenue. So we’ve made calculations based on a series of concrete, immediately applicable measures…that would allow the government of Quebec to collect between $5 billion and $6.5 billion in added revenue every year. In other words, it’s not that we don’t have the means, it’s that we’ve voluntarily deprived ourselves of legitimate revenue.

MD: There are student groups, like FEUQ, that say universities don’t know how to manage their finances. Do you think the government should have a role in managing universities to this effect?
AK: If you begin to question universities’ independence, you run into a lot of problems. I think students need to closely scrutinize the way public money is being spent, and level criticisms. But that does not mean we have to put universities under guardianship or demand that the government intervene in them. The problem is our funding model, first of all, a model that encourages bureaucracy, with…a “bonus” mindset. And all of this has corrupted universities with sometimes opulent spending for the administration, which authorizes all kinds of largesse, while at the same time cutting into student services and increasing tuition fees. Certainly, I understand that student associations would be angry with that. It could be a political or governmental decision to attach certain criteria – like good and transparent management, making sure they’re ethical – to university financing. But I don’t think the government should meddle in university financing.

MD: Education Minister Line Beauchamp promised “action” against McGill for its massive increase in MBA tuition this September, as did former minister Michelle Courchesne. Do you think these threats are sincere?
AK: I don’t know if they are sincere. I have reason to believe Ms. Courchesne was without a doubt sincere about it. I don’t know about Ms. Beauchamp – time will tell. We are still pleased to have two ministers speak out like that, but it’s up to them to prove their sincerity. It’s plain to see that elsewhere in this government – whether it’s with health care, the financing of public institutions – there’s a tendency to privatize and hike fees. So I understand the meaning of your question – it’s a legitimate question to ask.

MD: Would you punish McGill for the tuition increase if you could?
AK: Of course, yes. This accentuates the erosion of the idea of accessibility, of equity, and of free education.

MD: You know Premier Jean Charest’s political thinking well; you’re well-known as a critic of his. Do you think he is ready to deregulate tuition completely after 2012?
AK: [The Liberals] have used a very consistent logic since the beginning of their mandate in 2003, their first mandate. Everything we’ve seen has been privatization, from Mont Orford [a public park slated for condominium development] to the subtle, sneaky privatization in the health care system. Using this same logic…[the Liberals] are absolutely trying to finance education as a pay-as-you-go system. So if they have the political opportunity, I’m convinced that if the government maintains power after 2012 [when the next provincial elections are scheduled] they will use it. It has been exclusively because of society’s resistance that they have not had the political power to [deregulate tuition] yet.

MD: When you were at university, what aspects of the experience most strongly influenced you? How do those experiences affect your thinking on post-secondary education today?
AK: My parents both attended university, but once we were in Canada, our financial means were certainly not very comfortable. So I come from a family who, thanks to public education and the financing of post-secondary education – the support I received throughout my years of studying – I was able to become a doctor, a specialist, with scientific training. It’s an incredible investment and that’s why companies should contribute directly to the task of financing universities – because they’re the first ones to profit from it.

MD: Won’t private sector financing of universities lead post-secondary education in the direction businesses want?
AK: They are already doing that, directly, through foundations with financing attached. We are against that. They have to contribute to the financing of education in the form of a tax. A dedicated tax…a fee for knowledge. They’re extractingthe knowledge of our people, which is our most important natural resource. They exploit it, so they should pay a fee on it. When you exploit a resource that belongs to the public you have to be responsible; you have to pay something for it.

Whether it’s mines, or shale gas, or water. And now, we’re seeing [that logic] extended to knowledge – they’re exploiting all the natural resources that we produce in public, without paying any fees, without assuming part of the costs.

—compiled and translated by Eric Andrew-Gee