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Student strike stalemate sways public opinion

by Joel Ashak April 3, 2012
Student strike stalemate sways public opinion

If the Quebec government hoped to see the student movement against tuition hikes lose momentum with the end of the academic year, student leaders say they should think again.

Despite the Liberals’ attempts to appease the student protesters with first signs of interest in negotiating and promises of bursary bonifications, the government is currently taking increasing heat from businesses, universities and citizens, being urged to quickly find a solution to the ongoing stalemate.

Two weeks ago, the head of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec warned that an extension of the winter semester would have repercussions on the number of students filling summer jobs, and would result in a serious blow to the province’s tourism and economy. Last week, the rector of the Université du Québec à Rimouski also urged Minister of Education Line Beauchamp to re-establish a dialogue with students and proposed to name a mediator.

“In this context of pre-elections, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the Charest government to maintain their position [in favour of tuition hikes],” said Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec president Martine Desjardins. “The government is expecting the movement to lose steam, but what we see is an increasing number of strike votes and an intensification of the movement.”

At Concordia, despite a one-week general strike and sporadic disruptions of classes and exams, the movement led by the Concordia Student Union will likely have no effect on the university’s academic calendar. Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota said the movement was not disruptive enough to make the university consider an extension of the winter semester.

In other universities, however, administrations are forced to adjust their schedules due to as much as eight weeks of general strikes in some cases.

UQÀR, Université du Québéc à Montréal and Université de Montréal are looking into extending the winter semester by at least a month and are hoping for a return to classes by April 16.

“Cancelling a semester would have disastrous economic consequences for universities and CÉGEPS,” said Desjardins. “It would mean having double the number of students next year, double the amount of professors and double the entire costs.”

Many departments in these universities have voted for an unlimited strike until their demands are met or until their student union puts an end to the movement. Added to that, the major student associations are informally respecting an agreement of non-denunciation and non-negotiation, where associations cannot question the legitimacy of other student groups’ actions, nor can they initiate negotiations with the government without the presence of all the major associations. The return to classes will likely depend on the government’s decision to negotiate with students.

For Desjardins, the threat formulated by Beauchamp warning students of academic consequences after the massive March 22 protest only proved the Liberal government had its back against the wall.

Beauchamp opened the window for negotiations for the first time last week saying she was ready to talk about improving the loans and bursaries program, but was adamant in her refusal to contemplate a tuition freeze.

“I cannot sit down at a table with students and discuss the topic of ‘to whom are we passing the bill to,’” Beauchamp told La Presse.

Although Desjardins praised Beauchamp’s effort to initiate negotiations, she said raising conditions for the talk was a bad start.

Desjardins also said that student mobilization against tuition hikes will continue to grow and actions will continue to be organized week after week, depending on the context and government responses.

“So far, it doesn’t look like we are stopping anytime soon,” she said.

At Concordia, there are still no signs of a petition that would initiate a third general assembly in order to vote for a continuation of the strike among undergraduate students. Concordia Student Union vice-president external Chad Walcott said that even if a GA was to be held by the CSU, “it would be very difficult [in the context of the end of the semester] to mobilize enough people in time in order to meet quorum.” However, Walcott said that the CSU would still participate in other organizations’ movements and said the union was ready to provide the necessary resources to students who “are keeping the movement alive.”

The major actions planned by student organizations so far are a protest in Premier Jean Charest’s Sherbrooke riding on April 4 and an outdoor show in downtown Montreal on April 5.

Information about future actions will be posted on the FEUQ’s, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec’s and the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante’s websites.

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