Instead of studying or finishing homework last Monday night, Jamie Richardson went to Montreal’s City Hall to improve the living conditions of a group of people she has been living with for just over a week.
The graduate student, who is completing a master’s degree in political science at UniversitÃ© de MontrÃ©al, volunteers for Occupy Montreal and sits on the information and co-ordination committee. Richardson has been involved with the occupation since its start. Along with several other citizens presenting various demands to City Hall during the monthly open session on Monday night, she requested access to electricity for the “occupation.”
Several dozen Occupy Montreal protesters accompanied Richardson after the daily general assembly that evening in marching the few blocks to the marbled City Hall from Victoria Square, the area that was renamed “People’s Square” during the first day of the occupation on Oct. 15.
Since then, over 200 tents have been erected in the small square and green space located in front of the city’s stock exchange, in emulation of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has exploded worldwide.
Many of the Montreal occupiers, like Richardson, are students, and they’re making their presence felt at a movement that is at once global and very local, balancing schoolwork while contributing to the running of the tent city.
The first day of the occupation, many of the speakers and facilitators at the general assembly were university and CEGEP students. Some remained to set up permanent camp.
The Concordia Student Union established a few tents, prompting the joking suggestion that they set up a “satellite CSU office,” according to president Lex Gill.
The CSU’s council easily threw its support behind the movement, she said. “There are a number of things in the CSU’s policy book that match up with the demands in the Occupy Wall Street movement,” she said. “Given that students are very much apart of that hypothetical 99 per cent, it only makes sense for us to support this movement.”
While the Student Society of McGill University does not have a permanent presence at Occupy Montreal, several members of its Mob Squad, a group organizing tuition protests, have been present, along with members of student lobby group Association pour une solidaritÃ© syndicale Ã©tudiante, according to SSMU VP external affairs JoÃ«l Pedneault.
“I do feel the student presence at Occupy Montreal has been larger given tuition hikes and mounting student debt,” he said in an email.
Tuition fees are an obvious mobilizing cause for students in the province. Premier Jean Charest promised in this year’s budget that tuition fees in the province, the lowest in Canada, will rise by $325 a year over five years in order to add to university revenues. The new annual total tuition costs for a full-time student will be just under $3,800. The hikes begin in fall 2012, and have spurred opposition from student groups who say they’re already squeezed for cash.
CEGEP student Jean-Pierre Goyer said at City Hall that he’s been going to GAs and sleeping overnight to highlight the difficulties that come with the tuition hikes, but that the protest has brought its share of problems.
“It’s hard to stay clean, go to school and remain in high spirits with all the discussions that run late into the night. And it’s hard to sleep with construction starting nearby early in the morning,” he said. “But it’s good we’re there.” Goyer added that his classmates have been spurred to visit the protest when they heard about his experience.
One student at CEGEP de Maisonneuve, who declined to give his name, said his routine has been normal since he started sleeping over at Victoria Square. He wakes up, goes to school, and studies at a public library when he needs to get away. But as finals approach in a few weeks, he might head back home for a better night’s rest in order to do well in school.
The issues are broader, though, than just tuition: still a few years from entering university, high school student Ã‰mile Frenette has also been camping out for a few days, motivated by his anti-capitalist beliefs.
But some are hoping for more student activity.
“I would say there is definitely additional awareness and attendance due to the tuition battles, but it hasn’t been as much as I would have expected and would love to see more in the future,” said CSU VP finance Jordan Lindsay in an email. “There has been considerable growth however in the last two days, we have pretty much packed the green spaces that are free.”
Involvement may increase over the next few weeks, as a province-wide day of action on tuition fees scheduled approaches. At Friday’s GA, an invitation was put out for members to join in on the day of action, scheduled for Nov. 10, though the GA has yet to mandate activities specific to the event.
But while Occupy Montreal has grown in size and breadth of organization (it has acquired its own website and online livestream camera), some basic living conditions need improving. Back at City Hall, Richardson told the council that electricity had been cut off last week by the City.
While Richard Bergeron, leader of the municipal party Projet MontrÃ©al, spoke in favour of reconnecting the electricity, eliciting cheers from the crowd, borough mayor Michael Applebaum, who was stepping in for absent Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay, turned the request down because of “questions of security.” He, in turn, received howls of disapproval from the group.
Calling Applebaum’s answer “bullshit,” Richardson later argued that it would prove a safer option. “It’s way more secure for us to use electricity that’s already available in the square, then to use propane to fuel the services that we’re providing.”