Significant concessions wrested from Quebec government
By Roger Annis
On Saturday, May 5, an interim settlement to the nearly three month long strike of more than 200,000 post-secondary students in the province of Quebec was announced by the provincial government and four student associations following 24 hours of talks. The settlement will be voted on by students in the coming days. Student associations are not recommending how to vote.
The intractable issue of tuition fee increases is unresolved. But students have won several gains. One, the government has agreed to reduce annual ancillary fees that added hundreds of dollars of cost per year to students.
Two, tuition fee increases for the next year are effectively frozen. A special commission to include student leaders will study education spending and recommend ways to reduce it. Any savings would offset the government’s proposed $250 annual tuition increases for the next seven years. (Undergraduate tuition fees in Quebec average $2,500 per school year.) The commission will not deliver its first report until the end of this year; there will be no change in tuition fees until then.
During the strike, students criticized many examples of wasteful education spending, including inflated salaries of university and ministry officials and de facto subsidizing of research that profits private industry.
The Quebec government was anxious for a settlement because the political situation in the province is becoming increasingly precarious for the ruling elite in the province. Students simply refused to back down from their demand for a freeze on tuition fee increases. What’s worse, the violent assaults by police not only failed to put down unrest, they fomented deep disillusion and anger with the “forces of order.” Far from intimidating students and their supporters, the attacks emboldened them.
Much of this came to a head in Victoriaville, Quebec on May 4 and 5 where more than a thousand student protesters showed up to confront a meeting of the ruling Liberal Party. Pitched battles were fought with police who fired CS gas and wielded truncheons. Tragically, two students were gravely injured–one lost an eye, another suffered serious head wounds.
Sycophants of the government decried the fact that due to the militancy and persistence of students, court injunctions against picket lines and other student actions had become “unenforcable.”
The government’s credibility in attacking students is further hampered by exposés of corruption of government and Liberal Party officials by the criminal owners of the construction industry in the province. No less than 16 police investigations plus a specially constituted judicial commission are supposed to investigate and ‘get to the bottom’ of the sleaze that permeates the government and industry.
Another element of the government’s weakened credibility is the rising environmental movement in the province. On April 22, some 300,000 people marched in the streets of Montreal on Earth Day. Among the concerns voiced was the government’s announced ‘Northern Plan’ to open up the vast natural resources of northern Quebec to even more intensive exploitation than is the case already. The plan calls for more damming of rivers for hydroelectricity, more mining, more forestry (clear cutting) and more roadbuilding.
Increasingly, student protests have encompassed issues and demands from the environmental movement, and visa-versa. This growing solidarity among social movements was a major factor in causing the government to back down from its hard line and seek a compromise settlement with the student movement.
One area of less concern to the government was the trade unions. Although unions in Quebec are under attack from the provincial and federal governments and from large, private employers such as Rio Tinto Alcan, support by them to the student strike was largely limited to statements of support. Supporters of at least one student federation, the militant Classe, have criticized the unions, calling on them to move beyond statements and into action.
How did Quebec students succeed in conducting such a sustained mobilization? A recent discussion on this subject with three student activists from the Classe student association was broadcast on the Real News Network.
Student associations emerge strengthened through this remarkable strike. This bodes well for the difficult struggles that lies ahead over tuition fees and other education issues. Equally, as student leaders have noted throughout the struggle, the strike opens new paths of struggle for a society of social and environmental justice.
Quebec government offers temporary freeze on hikes to end tuition protests
By Benjamin Shingler, Toronto Star, Sunday, May 6, 2012
VICTORIAVILLE, QUE. — After a bitter three-month battle, there was hope Saturday of a breakthrough in Quebec’s tuition crisis, with news of a tentative agreement reached between the provincial government and student leaders. The deal, made public late in the evening, would include what amounts to an overall freeze on what students pay for the next six months, giving both sides some breathing room while negotiations continue. It would also ensure the debate over tuition levels becomes a key election issue.
Premier Jean Charest must call an election by 2013, and opinion polls suggest most Quebecers side with his government in the dispute.
Still, it was unclear whether the deal, hammered out after a 24-hour negotiating session in Quebec City, would end months of unrest. Students leaders were referring to the arrangement as a government “offer,” while the government was using stronger language.
Premier Jean Charest was nonetheless pleased by the possibility of an end to the standoff, which reached an ugly climax with Friday’s riot outside a Quebec Liberal Party convention. “Everyone is relieved that at least we’re seeing progress,” he told reporters in Victoriaville. “The goal is to have students return to class, (so that we can) create room for discussion.”
As part of the deal, the Charest government would proceed with its tuition increases but at the same time cut back ancillary fees, allowing for an overall freeze until December 2012. After that, the government could still proceed with its revised plan to increase tuition by $254 annually for seven straight years, but students are savings can be found to limit that increase.
Student leaders were mostly warm to the offer, but those who they represent must still vote on the arrangement over the coming days. Until then, the student strikes are still on. “This is not the end (of the conflict) — but it’s the beginning of the end,” said Martine Desjardins, one of the three main student representatives.
The glimmer of a resolution came after one of the darkest days of the conflict. A protester lost use of an eye after he was injured in a savage riot in Quebec that broke out Friday during a protest over tuition increases, health officials said.
The demonstrator was one of two young men admitted to hospital with serious injuries following the violent confrontation outside the Liberal meeting in Victoriaville. The other man was admitted with fractures to his face and skull, along with a cerebral contusion. In all, nine people were taken to hospital, including three police officers. One officer had been kicked, punched and beaten with a stick in scenes captured by television cameras.
Quebec provincial police made 109 arrests in connection with the riot _ many of them after pulling over school buses that were returning late Friday to Montreal.
The Charest Liberals had moved their convention from Montreal to Victoriaville, a normally sleepy agricultural community, to get away from the protests rocking Quebec. But after Friday’s violent events, there were more demonstrations including a peaceful one Saturday.
Outside the convention centre where Liberals were gathered, not everyone was immediately aware of the deal in Quebec City. And not everyone cared. Among those joining the students were groups against shale gas drilling, wind turbines, and those promoting Quebec independence.
A small group of students held a lengthy sit-in outside the convention centre, facing off against riot police. Later, dozens of protesters tried to block the car exit to the convention centre where Liberals were staying.
As news slowly trickled through the crowd, though, tensions appeared to drop a few notches. “It was time we reached a deal,” Xavier Hegetschweiler, 18, the head of a student group at a Victoriaville college, said outside the convention centre. “It’s time for students to get back to class.”
As part of the deal, the Charest government would establish a committee to better manage university finances, a long-standing grievance amongst student groups. Any savings would be used to claw back student fees. The government’s loan and bursaries program was also strengthened in the offer.
As for the previous day’s disturbing events, Nicole Lamy, a 51-year-old mother with two children taking part in the protests, blamed the escalation of violence on Charest’s government. “It’s very sad to see this happen,” she said. “The contempt this government has shown students.”
Quebec provincial police, meanwhile, pointed the finger at a small number of people who chose to stick around after things turned violent. “We never lost control,” Capt. Jean Finet said at a Saturday news conference. “Most of the people who didn’t want that kind of thing to happen, they left.”