Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest tuition hikes in Quebec
Montreal – On March 22nd, over 250,000 people marched on the streets of Montreal, making it possibly the largest demonstration in the province’s history—comparable in numbers to the February 2003 march against the looming war in Iraq.
People came from across the province to denounce the 75-per-cent increase in tuition fees over five years to be implemented by the provincial Liberals. Premier Jean Charest has said that the increase is meant to ensure students pay their fair share, and has repeatedly stated that the government’s decision is final.
The tens of thousands in the crowd, and who continue to support the strike, are hoping to call his bluff. The strike has been ongoing since early February, and shows no signs of stopping: in the days following this march, actions across the province have multiplied.
The students have summoned a broad range of support for their movement. Those on the streets of Montreal include unions, community organizations, teachers, grandparents, parents, high school students, and many others.
While Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp claim students are isolated in their demands and are up against a silent majority, those in the crowd—and many of those standing on the sidewalks as the procession stretched by them —clearly feel otherwise.
According to organizers, the protest at one point stretched 50 city blocks through downtown Montreal. Beginning at Place du Canada in the city’s core, the march proceeded east through downtown and finally south to the city’s old port.
On March 22 over 300,000 students were officially on strike—the largest of the nine or so strikes held in Quebec since 1968. Around 200,000 students, though, have voted for unlimited general strikes. This means they remain on strike until they vote to go back to class. Most associations hold regular meetings every week or so, where they discuss the strike, the state of negotiations, and whether or not they should return to class.
Student federations and coalitions are also regularly holding provincial-wide congresses. Student associations in Quebec fall under three large orgniazations: the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération étudiante collégial du Québec (FECQ).
The red square, popularized as the symbol of the last Quebec student strike in 2005, has once again come to represent the movement. The symbol comes from the French expression, “carrément dans le rouge,” or “squarely in the red,” referring to the large levels of debt students are facing. In 2005, the fight was over a $103 million cut to financial aid, which the government eventually re-instated.
While tensions have at times run high on campuses between teachers and students, a vocal and growning number of teachers (or “profs” – short for “professeurs”) have been speaking out against the tuition fee increases. Profs contre la hausse have begun a website, produced videos, and have been very present at student actions. Teachers not officially affiliated with PCLH have also been taking actions, from signing open letters, to holding classes outside, and even disrupting a parliamentary commission meeting with Education Minister Line Beauchamp.
While over 300,000 students have gone on strike in Quebec, much has been said about the Anglophone/Francophone split. English-language schools have not voted to strike at the same level as Francophone schools. At the same time, though, while school wide votes have not been effective, faculty and department associations strike votes have been gaining momentum.
At Concordia University, the entire undergraduate association voted to strike for one week, and other departments representing several thousand students have continued to strike. At McGill University, there was no university-wide vote, but around 10,000 students were on strike on March 22, with some departments voting to continue on an unlimited strike.
Women’s groups have come out strongly against the fee increase. According to the Quebec Women’s Federation, tuition hikes will have a clear impact on women, who continue to be paid less than their male counterparts after university. This means that any higher levels of debt will be that much more difficult for them to pay back.
“It’s a movement.” Polls have remained split on the issue of the fee increase, showing a near 50/50 split in public opinion about fee increases. Momentum seems to be behind the students though, with broad swaths of society opposing the hikes. This ranges from unions, to community organizations, to artists, to a 10,000 person strong support rally that saw parents and grand parents hitting the pavement. The division is also seen across age groups: polls show that Quebeckers from 18 to 54 are opposed to the increase, with the only age group with a majority in favor being those 55 years old and up.
Student leaders are also talking about this becoming a broader movement. On April 1, buses paid for by student groups will be traveling from across the province to Alma, QC, for a support rally with Rio Tinto Alcan employees who have been locked-out fro the past to months.
“After today, the fight against tuition hikes should never again be depicted as a student struggle. As of today, the fight against tuition hikes should be called by its name: it’s a popular movement, it’s a class struggle!” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the spokespeople for CLASSE, at a free concert following the March 22 demonstration.
“Maple Spring” doesn’t have the same ring, but say it fast enough, and Printemps Érable sounds like Printemps Arabe, and that’s what some students are hoping to see in Quebec in the next few months.
Their tenacity is holding, too: since March 22, actions have only multiplied, with occupations of government buildings, blockages of bridges and the Port of Montreal, and several protests every day. On March 29, students held a Grand Masquerade, with four different, colorful marches weaving through downtown all afternoon.
The provincial government has responded finally, after seven weeks. On March 29, Education Minister Line Beauchamp said they are open to discussions, but on one condition: that students renounce the tuition fee freeze. Student leaders have rejected that condition:
“The strike is over tuition fee increases, and [Beauchamp] says, ‘We don’t want to discuss what led to the strike.’ It’s a bit of bad faith,” said Dubois-Nadeau.