Vive la résistance! Students rise up to fight fees increase

But Quebec's government is determined not to be swayed by months of protests. Erin Millar reports

July 19, 2012

It was about 9.45pm on Saturday 9 June when protesters broke through a line of riot police and made their way to downtown Montreal, where a raucous Grand Prix party was under way.

Protesters, identifiable by the squares of red felt - symbols of the student movement - pinned to their jackets and scarves, moved up the main drag Sainte-Catherine Street, and momentarily merged with revellers as they flooded the area.

The festive atmosphere was quickly shattered when the first object was thrown at a police officer in riot gear.

Soon, police vehicle windows were being smashed and partygoers, children included, fled as a cloud of pepper gas launched by police spread through the crowd.

Grand Prix organisers and politicians in Quebec had hoped that the student protests that have dominated the city since February would be under control during the Formula One race, one of the most profitable tourism events in Canada. But night after night, thousands of protesters continued to march the streets in an attempt to stop a hike to tuition fees that is scheduled to come into effect in September.

Eight months after the first demonstrations against the provincial government's move to raise tuition fees, protests show no sign of abating, and talks between student leaders and politicians have been at a stalemate. A late-summer showdown seems likely now that the provincial government has passed legislation requiring striking students to return to class on 15 August.

The conflict dates back to November 2011, when students first demonstrated to oppose incremental fee rises for the next five years. Under the plans, fees would rise from C$2,319 (£1,570) to C$3,793 over the period. But even then fees in the province would still be 30 per cent lower than the national average.

Despite that, Quebec's student protesters say that their resistance is not about fees alone but is also an effort to prevent the province's higher education system from following in the footsteps of other provinces such as Ontario where, they claim, education is seen as benefiting primarily individuals rather than society at large.

"Tuition remains the central issue, but for many people it's always been about more than that," says Robin Reid-Fraser, vice-president for external affairs at the Students' Society of McGill University. "It's about the government's funding priorities. It's about questioning capitalism. It's about the flattening of income-tax brackets."

The strike is on

In February, after the government refused to negotiate, student leaders began calling for a student strike. Several umbrella groups began to organise at a provincial level, but student associations at individual schools and faculties each decided how they would participate, if at all.

Students at 11 of Quebec's 18 universities and 14 of its 48 public colleges voted to boycott classes for at least a few days during the spring term. At the height of student strikes in March, some 12,000 students stayed away from classes. Some universities have been all but shut down by student picket lines. With strikes under way, the government agreed to negotiate with student leaders, but several rounds of talks failed.

"We're at an impasse," Reid-Fraser says. "If a solution isn't reached over the summer, there will be more strike activity and confrontation." In May, Line Beauchamp, Quebec's education minister, resigned, citing her inability to defuse the situation.

Institutions varied widely in their response to protesting students. Many francophone CEGEPs (collèges d'enseignement général et professionnel, known in English as general and vocational colleges) and universities such as the Université du Québec a Montréal have delivered classes in many faculties since February, allowing unionised staff to respect student picket lines.

But as part of Bill 78, a sweeping law that limits the right to demonstrate, the provincial government has legislated that all schools open in mid-August with expedited classes designed to make up for lost time.

Anglophone institutions such as Concordia University and McGill managed to complete the academic year. Concordia plans to begin the autumn term in September as usual. It is not clear what accommodation, if any, will be made for a minority of students, primarily francophone, who missed exams or classes because they studied at an affected CEGEP during the previous academic year.

"Would we be expected to postpone classes for 350 students?" asks Christine Mota, Concordia's director of media relations. "We will likely deal with those students on a case-by-case basis."

Some students at McGill and Concordia have received letters informing them that they face disciplinary hearings for their participation in protests in the spring. Some students were alleged to have employed intimidatory tactics to prevent other students from attending classes, which led to disciplinary action.

However, student leaders say that most of those facing hearings were involved in innocuous activities such as handing out leaflets. "Our former VP external was banned from campus for a couple of days," Reid-Fraser says, "but he wasn't trying to prevent students from attending class. He was there as a facilitator. The disciplinary procedures seem to be quite arbitrary."

Watch out, premier

The protests have the potential to affect province-wide politics. Polls showed that the majority of Quebeckers did not support protesting students at the beginning of the demonstrations, but public support shifted after the Liberal government led by Premier Jean Charest passed Bill 78 in May.

The law requires individuals and organisations to inform police of the date, time, duration and route of any protest on or near university grounds involving more than 50 people, and imposes steep fines for violations. Bill 78 also makes it easier for universities to withhold funding from student organisations and for students to bring class-action lawsuits against the protesters for missed classes.

Provincial elections, which must be held by the end of next year, may be the ultimate showdown: outrage over Bill 78 is seen as a key reason the Liberal government lost a former stronghold seat in a recent by-election.

"This debate is no longer only about a hike in tuition fees," says Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer. "It's also about the role of the university in society. There's the view that they should be accessible to anyone and that they should be independent and free of the influence of corporations."

With its threat of steep fines and civil lawsuits, Bill 78 could have devastating effects on individual students as well as on student organisations.

"This could bankrupt individuals and wreck student associations," Grey says.

"There is a lot of potential for the handicapping for life of idealistic honest students who simply disagree with the government."

So far, no student protests have sprung up at universities in other parts of Canada. Universities in Quebec have a long history of political activism, and student strikes have occurred at francophone universities there in the past.

This is, however, the first time students have boycotted classes at anglophone universities such as McGill, which could indicate that student activism is spreading beyond the typically more militant French-speaking contingent.

Grey argues that the government's inflexible position will have to change in order to end the dispute. "The way out of this is to postpone the fee hikes and have a commission of prestigious people study all these issues about universities, including accessibility, the difference between faculties [including the expansion of business departments], the role of the corporation and the recent subsidies from sponsors - and to try to hear from everybody," he says.

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