For background on the earlier stage of the Quebec student strike, see article by Richard Fidler dated March 23, 2012.
Quebec student strike drags on as longest in Quebec history
By Rheal Séguin, Globe and Mail, Monday, April 9, 2012
There appears to be no end in sight for what is now the longest strike in the history of the student movement in Quebec. After close to eight weeks, leaders of the protest against university tuition fee hikes appear more united, more defiant, and more combative than ever despite court injunctions ordering picket lines to be dismantled and a concession offer by the government on student loans. There are more rallies planned this week.
With 175,000 students out of a province-wide total of more than 400,000 on strike, leaders of the protest movement are playing havoc with Premier Jean Charests pre-election strategy. We know that we are in crucial period where colleges and universities have to juggle how they manage the spring session after a two-month strike, said Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec Federation of University Students, in an interview. We are in a pre-election period and we can see that the government is anxious to settle the issue and get students back in the classrooms. They certainly dont want us on their heels throughout an election campaign.
The students are demanding that the government back down on implementing the tuition fee hikes of $325 a year for five years and negotiate the accessibility and funding of universities.* Their determination has become a source inspiration for other student movements in the country whose debt load and tuition fees far exceed those in Quebec, which has the lowest in Canada.
At the University of Ottawa, students disrupted a board of governors meeting last week to protest tuition fee hikes. The Canadian Federation of Students were in close contact with the leaders of the Quebec movement to examine whether their strategy could be used in other provinces to protest rising tuition fees.
“We are keeping up the pressure until we get a meeting with the government,” said Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the College Student Federation of Quebec, on Sunday. “We are beginning to see cracks in the government’s armour. If they want a way out of this crisis, they will have to sit down with the students.”
But the Charest government has refused to come to the bargaining table, insisting that tuition fee hikes were non-negotiable. Instead it extended an olive branch last week, announcing changes to the student loan program allowing reimbursements to be proportional to income and extending credit to students of families whose annual income is above $60,000.
The student leaders responded by categorically rejecting the announcement, calling it “arrogant” for failing to address their demands for a complete review of post-secondary education funding, including free tuition.
The students are currently weighing the effects of the court injunctions against the strike in recent days. In three separate rulings, the courts have issued temporary injunctions for three post-secondary institutions requiring students to end picket lines and allow classes to resume.
If anything the court injunctions has strengthen the students’ resolve to pursue their battle and force the government’s hand. “At the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, student associations in a number of faculties reacted to the injunction by voting to continue the strike. The rulings angered the students and enforced their belief that they were fighting a just cause,” Ms. Desjardins said.
The student leaders remained convinced that if they can stay united and maintain the pressure for a few more weeks, the government will bow to their demands. On Monday, university student associations meet to evaluate their strategy. Demonstrations are being planned each day this week, including one Thursday with the Quebec women’s federation and another on Saturday to mark the 9th anniversary of the first election of Premier Jean Charest’s government.
The coming events provide a build-up to what is expected to be another major demonstration marking Earth Day on April 22 that may rival the estimated record 200,000 protesters that marched in the streets of Montreal last month.
* In Canada, education is a provincial government responsiblity, supplemented by funding from the federal government. Tuition fees for undergraduate programs at post-secondary institutions in Quebec currently sit at app. $2,500 per school year. In Ontario, they are more than double that amount; in BC, just under double the amount. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/educ50a-eng.htm –RA
Quebec wrestling with province’s longest student strike
By Marianne White, Postmedia News, published in Vancouver Sun on Sat. April 7, 2012
QUEBEC — Tens of thousands of Quebec university and college students have been marching, blocking roads and bridges and loudly demonstrating for seven weeks against a tuition hike, making it the longest student strike in the province’s history. The students are furious over the province’s tuition increase of $1,625 over the next five years starting in September. That represents a 75-per-cent hike from the current $2,200, but Quebec would still have one of the lowest university tuition rates in Canada, which averages $5,400.
Quebec is known for its flourishing social movements and strong union representation, and students associations have been tapping into that. “The student movement is one of the most efficient and successful social movements in the province,” said Benoit Lacoursiere, a political-science professor at Montreal’s De Maisonneuve College.
Lacoursiere, who has written a book about the history of Quebec student strikes, noted that there have been several successful strikes, notably in 2005 when Premier Jean Charest backed down from raising tuition fees. “The students have won almost every time,” Lacoursiere said, aside from losing battles against the government in 1974 and 1990 and getting mixed results in 1978 and 1988.
The current student movement is at a fork in the road and will reach a critical point after the Easter break when it will become very difficult to avoid cancelling the semester at some institutions. More than 188,000 students were on strike in the province Thursday, meaning the majority of the 495,000 students were still attending classes. The strike hit the 52-day mark on Thursday, breaking the previous record set in 2005.
“What we’re seeing now is unprecedented. This is the biggest, largest and longest student strike in Quebec’s history,” Lacoursiere said.
At the height of the strike on March 22, between 100,000 and 300,000 students marched in downtown Montreal in what CBC News described as a gathering “considerably larger than the one at Montreal’s famous 1995 pre-referendum rally.”
In an effort to stop the unrest, the Quebec government presented new measures Thursday to ease the financial burden of students, including boosting its loans program. But Education Minister Line Beauchamp said the province is sticking to the $325 tuition hike each year for the next five years. “The Quebec government is firm and convinced that students should pay their fair share,” she said.
Charest called on striking students to return to their classrooms, but the main associations dismissed the government’s offer. “This doesn’t meet the students’ demands. The hike is unfair and we will continue to pressure the government,” said Jeanne Reynolds, spokeswoman for CLASSE, a more radical fringe of the student movement, which represents half of the striking students.
All student associations said they will nonetheless vote on the government’s offer over the weekend. “I’m sure the strike will continue. We are determined,” said Reynolds.
Sociologist Pierre Hamel believes the student associations have been successful so far because of their high level of preparedness in recent months. “They have also been able to capitalize on their opponents’ weaknesses, such as the government’s low satisfaction rate in the population,” said Hamel, who teaches at the University of Montreal.
Charest’s government, which has been in power for nearly nine years, has seen its approval rating plunge in the wake of a handful of scandals. The effective use of social media and traditional media, such as staging new actions everyday, has also helped students win sympathy from Quebecers, Hamel said. “They have proven to be very creative,” he stressed.
The student organizations believe they have managed to mobilize such large crowds because of their cause: access to education. “Our message rang true with a lot of Quebecers who feel this is a debate that concerns our society, not just the students,” Reynolds said.
A poll conducted last week for Quebecor media showed that 61 per cent of Quebecers agree with the government’s proposed hike, but want to see negotiations between the two parties.
Political analyst Christian Dufour noted the government doesn’t have any choice but to stand by its decision to raise tuition fees because it will otherwise pay a hard political price. “But the government has to strike some sort of deal with students or else risk seeing things get out of control in the streets,” said Dufour, a professor at Quebec’s Ecole nationale d’administration publique.
Many observers believe the movement will soon face the test of time and there are already signs of rift within student ranks. A handful of students have taken legal action against the strikes, including one in Quebec City where a judge granted a student the right to have one of his Laval University classrooms reopened. “Challenges like this and uncertainty about the semester’s fate are factors that could hurt the student movement,” Hamel said.