It was supposed to be a day of action, but it turned into, well. a somewhat day of action as 1,000 students from three Montreal universities and Dawson College came out in the cold calling on the province to renew its commitment to tuition freezes and to cap ancillary service fees charged to students.
The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an alliance claiming to represent more than 80 student unions, organized the rallies on more than 30 campuses and legislative buildings across Canada.
Martin Brody from Concordia marched in Montreal as he did in 1998 in Seattle against the Free Trade of Americas. In 2001 he went to Quebec City to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations, and marched again last year to protest the round of WTO talks in Montreal. He marched in 2000, in 2002 and last week, all against tuition fee increases.
Twenty-four year-old Dawson student Isabelle Cousineau takes care of herself but lives with two other women to make ends meet. She works part-time at a downtown club and studies full-time. She’s debt-free at the moment but doesn’t know how she’ll pay for her tuition in September at Concordia. She marched because she feels a fee increase may delay her plans to be an engineer.
Carmen Pires from Brazil marched because she pays over $11,000 per year just to come to Concordia and feels Quebec takes advantage of international students. She’s never felt the need to protest before. But last month she couldn’t pay the rent. She also works 20 hours a week for minimum wage at a bowling alley.
The three students have one thing in common. They say they want affordable post-secondary education and relief from heavy student debt loads. They want the Canadian government to spend $4 billion more each year on college and university education.
“I’m here because I work and go to school and find it difficult to do both,” said Brody, a second year student. “If fees go up I know I’ll have to make changes. I only have a few options available to me.”
One option is to borrow from a bank or from the government.
CFS estimates the country’s more than one million post-secondary students are struggling with mortgage-sized debts totaling $20 billion, with the amount growing by $1.5 million each day.
Cousineau holds up a maroon sign that says ‘Freeze Tuition Fees’. But as we marched down Crescent St. she drops the sign into a pile of garbage on the curb. “The Quebec government can’t claim they have no money to fund post-secondary education,” said Cousineau. “Look at the provinces of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Quebec has a reputation of providing an affordable education,” she said.
Fees in Quebec are about half the national average and college is free. Similarily, Newfoundland and Labrador have seen tuition fee reductions and a real attempt by governments to keep education affordable.
Cousineau is angry that university administrators here are still pushing ahead with plans to increase tuition. “I hear that next September I’ll be expected to pay more. I don’t mind paying my share but I can’t right now. It’s too bad,” she added. “This is the most important time in my life. I need a degree to earn more money but I don’t have the money to earn my degree.”
As the march moved up McGill College ave. and into McGill University, international student Pires was shaking her head. “I think students here are in a very special position,” she said. “Tuition fees are lower here than almost anywhere else in Canada but the turnout today is very sad. I expected over 10,000 students.”
The last time a CFS day of action had an estimated 10,000 students in attendance was 1995 when students turned out en masse to protest the Chr