The red square is the symbol of the Quebec student movement. It is a visual pun from the popular saying “being squarely in the red”.
What exactly is going on in Quebec?
The Quebec Liberal Charest government recently proposed plans to increase tuition by 75% over five years. Quebec students pay on average $2,500 in tuition fees per year and this increase would up that average to over $4,000. The average student debt in Quebec is $13,000.
Students are fighting the proposed tuition increase by a variety of means including mass demonstration, student strikes and economic disruption. The backbone of the Quebec student movement’s success is the unlimited general strike. In April, there were 183 student unions and 169,836 students on unlimited general strike.
In response to student demonstrations, Charest’s government passed Law 78 which, apart from other assaults on democracy, made demonstrations of over 50 people illegal unless the demo and route are pre-approved. On May 22, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian History occurred when over 400,000 marched in the streets of Montreal in support of the student struggle and in defiance of this new law.
This is not the first time Quebec students have successfully employed these tactics. For example, in 2005, the same Liberal Charest government was forced to overturn a planned $103 million in cuts to a needs based bursary program.
What does this have to do with us in New Brunswick?
Here in New Brunswick, post-secondary students pay the second highest tuition in Canada; the average debt of a NB student upon completing their undergraduate degree is $34, 000, and the average full-time tuition in NB is $5,800 annually. New Brunswick’s Timely Completion Benefit forgives student loan in excess of $26,000 only if the degree is completed in a ‘timely’ manner, which is not always possible.
Moreover, this normalizes student debt and sends the message that students are still expected to shoulder a debt of tens of thousands of dollars. High tuition and dependence on loans rather than grants or bursaries is just one example of how, in the post 1970s age of neoliberalism and austerity, the cost of social services has been shifted from the state onto the individual.
While many in the mainstream media criticize the Quebec students for being ‘greedy’ and ‘entitled,’ in reality the students are fighting against an economic system that violently seeks to commoditize every aspect of our lives, from basic health care and the environment, to our education. The precedent being set by the Charest government will be taken as an example by the rest of the provincial governments that the people should be forced to pay for our essential rights. Luckily, the Quebec students are also setting a precedent (and have been for decades) that demonstrates the power of communities when they join in solidarity against these austerity measures. From Chile, where students are similarly empowering themselves and their communities, to Quebec and beyond, students and the working people of the world are uniting.
On May 22nd, 2012, the students and their supporters in Quebec celebrated 100 days of their unlimited strike. Weeks later, they continue in full force. New Brunswick students across the province have been holding casserole demonstrations in an act of solidarity, and in the process have begun to empower ourselves and create a movement of our own!
A moving video of Casserole Night in Montréal, 24 Mai 2012:
Students in Fredericton who have been brought together through solidarity with the Quebec student movement are now organizing here in New Brunswick with the goal to educate and build a dialogue around the broader issue of access to education in Canada. Newly named Students for Direct Democracy, this group plans to engage the Fredericton student community and beyond, beginning this fall semester. We are also working towards a fundraising event at the end of summer to help us get off the ground. If you are interested in getting involved we can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.