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Fight against tuition hike ‘far from over’

Photo courtesy of FEUQ President Martine Desjardins.

MONTREAL (CUP) — Despite a Parti Québécois victory in last week’s provincial election, student leaders say the movement is far from over.

“This is not a complete victory,” said Éliane Laberge, president of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec. “It’s going to be a complete victory when the Parti Québécois is going to cancel the tuition fee increases.”

Also, speaking at the election result party hosted by two of the largest student federations, Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec President Martine Desjardins expressed doubt that the election would put an end to student demonstrations.

“It’s only a baby step,” she said. “This is not the end of the mobilization. Our goal is not obtained yet; we need a resolution and a real outcome.”

Jérémie Bédard-Wien, an executive of Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale, said that for students the main course of action in the coming days would be to “keep the pressure on the government” to ensure the PQ follows through on its promises concerning education.

“The Liberal hike has been cancelled however the PQ’s vision is very similar to the Liberals and we expect them to propose an indexation of the fees on the cost of living. This is not something that we consider acceptable,” said Bédard-Wien on the PQ’s proposed education policies.

The day after the election, Premier-designate Pauline Marois stated in a press conference her intention to order by decree the abolition of the Charest government’s tuition hike, to abolish the controversial Law 12 and convene a summit meeting to discuss higher education. The same day Marois reportedly called Desjardins personally to state the importance of settling the student conflict.

Whether the PQ will be able to implement its promises remains to be seen according to Concordia political science professor Harold Chorney who specializes in public finance and policy.

The economic viability of abolishing the tuition hike is realistic to Chorney, but he noted that the details of the “financing formula” could cause problems — particularly if the province’s budget, passed by the National Assembly every March, runs a deficit as a result.

“Governments have to present and get approved in the assembly a budget and if you stand outside of the budget you are in political trouble,” said Chorney.

Marois promised to abolish the tuition hike through an order in council, a process that, theoretically, could be issued by the minister of education unilaterally.

“It’s an interesting gambit that Pauline Marois is going to try to play and something I actually agree with — I think there ought to be what she suggests, a tuition fee hike freeze until they figure out a better way of financing higher education. That’s a good idea — but that doesn’t mean that’s going to be politically winnable.”

Marois’ final promise in her first address as premier-designate was a promise to convene a summit on higher education — a step that university rectors and staff have wanted to take for years, according to Concordia University political science professor Guy Lachapelle.

“We never had the debate about the place of education in our society and I think that’s very important,” he said. “I think it will be very interesting to watch – to see who’s nominated to be the chair, to sit on the commission,” Lachapelle added. The details of the summit have yet to be made public.

The upcoming summit will be the next major focus for CLASSE as it will be a key opportunity to communicate the associations’ plan for education, said CLASSE executive Bédard-Wien.

“We’ve always fought for a radically different vision of education — education free from tuition and from the corporatization — and so we’ll keep fighting against that and so, of course, the summit is a crucial point in that strategy,” he said.

According to Bédard-Wien, the real victory for the student movement is the central role issues and debates around education assumed throughout the general student strike.

“The strength that we built through leverage in numbers allowed us to put these debates on the political map and the fear that such momentous times in Quebec society will replicate itself is the main reason why the PQ is actually following up on these promises now,” he said.

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Protesters weave through downtown core

Photo by writer.

A contingent of students moved through the streets of downtown Montreal on Friday, Aug. 31 to denounce the tuition increase and support striking students that clashed with university administration earlier in the week.

A group of approximately 100 protesters left Place Émilie-Gamelin around 9 p.m. Students weaved through lanes of vehicles slowing traffic on St-Denis St. to kick off a protest that lasted nearly three hours.

As the group headed west, the Montreal Police followed and directed traffic away from the protest. At around 10 p.m., demonstrators joined a crowd on University St. emerging from the Percival Molson Stadium following a Montreal Alouettes football game.

Eric Pagé, a McGill University undergraduate student who was at the game, said he feels the student protests have run their course.

“I think they have the right to protest but not to goad cops or damage public property,” said Pagé. “I don’t think they should be protesting with an election coming up. The more publicity the protests get, the more it annoys people,” added Pagé. “It affects the odds of voters casting their ballots in favor of the party who will hold their ground about tuition.”

The student movement has slowed down in recent weeks following the announcement of the provincial election coupled with several failed initiatives to continue student strikes in French CÉGEPs. The upcoming election on Sept. 4 will ultimately decide whether the tuition fee increase will stand and if the controversial Law 12 will be abolished.

“For me, the solution to the problem isn’t the elections,” said Anthony Kantara, a Vanier College student at Friday night’s protest. “We could have accomplished a lot more as a movement if we had continued with the strike.”

The protest fizzled out after midnight when protesters and police clashed outside of Concordia on the corner of De Maisonneuve Blvd. and Mackay St.

“No major incidents happened that night,” said Montreal Police spokesperson Anie Lemieux. “Three people were arrested. One individual was arrested for intimidation while two others were arrested for assault.”

Andréanne Proulx, a CÉGEP du Vieux-Montréal student, said she believes the results of the upcoming election will shape post-secondary institutions and guide the student movement.

“It really depends on which party will form the next government and the decisions it will make,” said Proulx. “But if nothing changes, the protests will continue.”

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A Summer of Red

The ongoing conflict between the government, universities and students in what has been Quebec’s longest student protest to date reached a climax this summer.

Following months of protests and students taking to the streets during the early months of 2012 to protest the proposed tuition fee increase, the winter semester ended abruptly for many in the wake of unresolved tension.

Negotiations between the provincial government and student leaders began in April following massive protests in cities province-wide. The Charest government introduced a new deal of a $254 per year increase over seven years to total $1,778 compared to the initial increase of $1,625. This offer did not sit well with student organizations and negotiations quickly dissolved.

In May, following unsuccessful attempts at negotiations between the provincial government and student leaders, then Education Minister Line Beauchamp resigned from her position.

Upon stepping down, Beauchamp said that following discussions with students leaders she lost confidence in striking a compromise.

“I am resigning because I no longer believe I am part of the solution,” announced Beauchamp on May 14.

Following the appointment of new Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, the Charest Liberals tabled a controversial and historic bill aimed at ending the student crisis. The National Assembly passed the emergency legislation May 18 with 68 in favour and 48 opposed.

Bill 78 imposes strict regulations for protests and limits the size, when and how long individuals can protest. Demonstrations must be restricted to 50 people or fewer, where the individuals must provide an itinerary eight hours in advance to police.

Hefty fines are imposed for individuals who block access to classes as the law is aimed to ensure students may attend their courses if they so wish.

The law also immediately suspended the winter semester of 11 universities and 14 CEGEPs affected by the student strikes.

The emergency legislation was immediately implemented and met with backlash from students, citizens, various groups and the Quebec Human Rights Commission that condemned the bill. It resulted in students and their supporters taking to the streets in large numbers in nightly demonstrations.

In defiance, student group Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale etudiante encouraged students to challenge the law by protesting in the streets. Thousands took to the streets in a sea of red during the following days resulting in mass arrests May 22 and May 23. More than 500 lawyers marched in silence to oppose Bill 78 on May 28.

During this time, demonstrators banged pots and pans every night at 8 p.m. from their balconies and in the streets of the downtown core as a way to voice their discontent with the provincial government. International protests were organized to show solidarity with striking Quebec students and the iconic red square even made an appearance on Saturday Night Live when Arcade Fire performed.

As summer continued, so did protests but in smaller numbers. Dozens still march every night but demonstrations fizzled out shortly after the tumultuous Grand Prix weekend in Montreal where police and protesters clashed.

In anticipation of a provincial election, Léo Bureau-Blouin, former president of Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, announced his candidacy for the Parti Québécois on July 25. Bureau-Blouin runs for the riding of Laval-des-Rapides.

The provincial government called an election for Sept. 4 on Aug. 1. Political parties were given 34 days to sell themselves to electors. More than six months of student protests is a force behind the upcoming provincial election.

On Aug. 8, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois quietly announced his resignation as a spokesperson from CLASSE. Nadeau-Dubois’ resignation was timed with students heading back to CÉGEP and participating in strike votes. The move was surprising as Nadeau-Dubois has been the face behind the student movement since February but he felt it was time for “new blood” to arrive.

In a letter published in Le Devoir, Nadeau-Dubois wrote that the student movement had a new stage of renewal, and that it was time for him to go.

In mid-August, thousands of CEGEP students voted to return to class to finish their winter semesters. Following the return to classes of a dozen CEGEPs, students of CEGEP de Saint-Laurent and CEGEP du Vieux-Montréal also decided to discontinue their strike.

As Concordia’s new president Alan Shepard emphasized in an interview with The Concordian, the future of the student strike “depends on the outcome of the election.”

For now, the student movement and crisis has reached a lull while student groups encourage students to vote on Sept. 4. The student strike, while it continues on the 22nd of each month has reached a standstill for the time being.

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Concordia Student Union News

CSU general assembly fails to meet quorum

Students wait to register at the March 26 general assembly. Photo by Navneet Pall.

Unlike its March 7 predecessor, the second general assembly held on Monday by the Concordia Student Union to vote on continuing the strike was met with little success.
While about 2,000 students were present at the first GA, less than 300 showed up on the Reggie’s terrace for the outdoor GA organized by the CSU. After more than an hour of waiting in the cold and windy afternoon, the CSU still had not met the minimum of 450 registrations in order to carry out the vote. Around 3:30 p.m., CSU Chair Nick Cuillerier announced only 12 students had registered in the past hour and declared the GA adjourned.
“It’s a disappointing turnout, unfortunately, and it wasn’t meant to be,” said Cuillerier. “There was a very small amount of time between the calling of the general assembly and the general assembly itself compared to the previous assembly which had six weeks of notice and preparation.”
Shortly after the GA, about 100 students organized a sit-in on the 7th floor of the Hall building and started passing around a new petition to call for a third GA. While undergraduates as a whole are no longer on strike, individual faculty departments are still holding strike GAs and are organizing mobilization movements on their own.
Yesterday’s adjournment struck some motions off the agenda specifically for that GA. Notably, the motion to pass the minimum agreement, which would prevent the CSU from denouncing the actions of other student associations, as well as requiring that all student associations be present when negotiating with the government.
“It’s difficult to do any kind of advertising in this kind of climate of continuous strike,” said CSU VP external Chad Walcott. “If you look at the CSU elections, we barely made quorum. But this campaign isn’t over yet. It will end when the year is over and next year we’ll pick it up if that’s what needs to happen.”
Walcott said he was confident the movement was not losing momentum.
“One thing that we all know is that when people are connected to the movement, they are going to keep going until they run out of steam, and it seems like there’s a couple hundred students here who aren’t running out of steam anytime soon,” he said. “And they’re going to continue mobilizing and I’m going to continue providing them with the resources they need.”
Some students, including those who organized the petition for this second GA, blamed the CSU for the failure to meet quorum, emphasizing a lack of organization and advertising.
“This GA was a disappointment,” said geography student Alex Matak. “I do feel like it was largely an organizational problem why it didn’t happen. The CSU was really busy and it has a lot of other things to do, at the same time I think there is a certain time where if you can’t do something, you need to make that clear. […] I wouldn’t blame them but I would say that they should not have tried to take that on themselves if they did not have the capacity to do it.”
Several students also said that the GA would have attracted more students if it was held indoors. The CSU said it was forced to hold it on the Reggie’s terrace because of a double-booking of the Hall auditorium.
The sit-in of the CSU lounge that came after the GA was a direct reaction to a recent email from the administration warning picketers that they could face formal charges.
The original plan to occupy the GM building was cancelled when a student reminded the group that such action could not be carried out without a plan. Instead, the 100 students headed for the 7th floor of the Hall building to prepare an agenda for Concordia’s future actions in the movement against tuition hikes.
Just like the provincial student associations, Concordia students talked about a radicalization of the movement, notably by increasing the number of acts of disturbance.

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Anti-tuition hike protest draws record numbers

Students staged the largest protest in Quebec history March 22. Photo by Navneet Pall.

Over 200,000 people took to the streets in the historic March 22 protest against tuition increases, but as far as the provincial government is concerned, the hikes are here to stay.

The march began officially at Place du Canada, where buses full of students from outside the city started arriving earlier in the day. The approximate length of the route was five kilometres, with protesters marching down both Sherbrooke and Ste-Catherine Streets to their ultimate destination, Place Jacques-Cartier in the Old Port.

Protesters held signs denouncing Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government, the leadership of Education Minister Line Beauchamp, and the idea that accessible education is not a priority.

Despite the massive turnout, the protest was extremely peaceful and the SPVM reported no major incidents during or after the march. Police presence was very light in comparison with other demonstrations that have taken place over the past few weeks.

On the morning of March 22, Charest told reporters at the National Assembly in Quebec City that his government would “never stop listening to students.”

The next day, his education minister told the Canadian Press that students needed to get back to class or risk facing consequences. Beauchamp reiterated that the government would not back down from its decision, and said that should students continue to boycott classes, they risk having their classes scheduled at night and semesters extended. Concordia already indicated in a previous statement that it has no intention of prolonging the winter term.

“We called for a peaceful, but loud demonstration. It was the biggest demonstration in the history of Quebec,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec.

She went on to say that “Beauchamp has no choice now but to answer to 200,000 people speaking with one voice demanding accessible education.”

“The mobilization exceeded all our expectations,” said Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec President Léo Bureau-Blouin. “This is a precedent in student mobilization and I’m sure it’s going to have a huge impact on the Liberal government.”

The Concordia delegation lead the way for the better part of the three-hour demonstration.

“This sends an incredibly strong message to the government,” said Concordia Student Union President Lex Gill of the protest. “If anything else, the Liberal party has lost 200,000 voters for life.”

The participation far exceeded the predictions made earlier in the day, proving that there is more public support for the student movement than estimated. Despite the success of the demonstration, Gill explained that protesters still have much work to do.

“The fight is not over,” she said. “There will be massive actions in the coming weeks until the government backs down.”

Participants in the March 22 protest represented every age demographic, from toddlers with their parents to cheering grandparents. Grade 10 student Terra Leger-Goodes of Paul-Gerin-Lajoie School in Outremont was at the march with a large group of students from her class.

“We heard that the cost of going to university is going up by a large amount, so we’re here to protest that. Society can only advance if people can go to school and gain knowledge,” she said, mentioning that by the time she enters university four to five years from now, the government’s tuition hikes will have almost reached their maximum. The Charest Liberals are planning to increase tuition by $325 a year between 2012 and 2017.

For grandmother Danielle Genereux, accessible education is an issue that affects everyone in Quebec, and should be at the top of the government’s priority list.

“Major investments in education should be an absolute priority. There should be no further discussion on that,” said Genereux, a grandmother of seven. “[The government] says opposition against tuition increases is not representative of the whole population. But today, they will see that it is representative.”

At the end of the march, Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told students to return to their schools and to keep the student movement going. By 6 p.m., most of the protesters had dispersed, crowding into the nearest metro stations.

CLASSE, one of the main organizers of the day’s march, is planning a series of protests next week in an effort to cause an “economic disturbance” in the city, which they say will only end when the government retracts its decision to up tuition.

Opposition parties lend their support

Earlier in the morning of March 22, a press conference was held at Palais des Congrès by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, and included representatives from groups such as the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, as well as opposition political parties, the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire and Option nationale.

At the conference, PQ leader Pauline Marois reiterated that a PQ-elected government would not proceed with the tuition hikes, and would call for a provincial summit on post-secondary education. “The Charest government must stop considering students as enemies of the state,” she said.

QS spokesperson Françoise David, for her part, emphasized that the government could increase taxes on larger corporations in order to bring in more revenue, rather than asking for more money from students.

After the conference, PQ post-secondary education critic Marie Malavoy spoke to The Concordian about the issue of mismanagement of public funds in Quebec universities that has often been brought up in the debate on tuition increases.

Referring to Education Minister Line Beauchamp’s recent decision to fine Concordia with $2 million for handing out six severance packages totalling $3.1 million, Malavoy said “there is no reason to have targeted one university. We must look at the salaries, the benefits and the severance packages at all universities. It’s foolish to think it’s just Concordia,” she said.

Malavoy mentioned that an idea has been floating among PQ ranks to institute a “commission” to look more closely at the management of public funds in Quebec universities.

With files from Joel Ashak.

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Student movement to become more radical

Quebec has been holding its breath since the three major student associations promised to push things further following the massive demonstration against tuition hikes last Thursday.
After the March 22 protest that saw 200,000 students marching the streets of Montreal, student leaders warned the Liberal government they were now taking the movement further.
Organizations like the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec and the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante announced increasing actions of occupation and “economic disturbance” in order to hit the Charest government where it hurts—in its pockets. One of the leaders even showed signs of support to actions like blocking traffic on bridges.
“We are now going to speak the only language [the Charest government] understands, and that is the language of money,” said CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. “We have tried with symbolic actions but now it’s time to take it to the next step.”
Reacting last Friday to the march, Education Minister Line Beauchamp refused to call it historic, as most of the province’s media did, and declared that her position had not changed.
In the plans announced by FEUQ, FECQ and CLASSE, the associations’ leaders promised they would increase the number of protests, hold regular sit-ins and occupation-type demonstrations in government offices and ministers’ press conferences. They also aim to launch awareness campaigns to influence future voters, particularly in the regions where Liberal candidates were elected by slim margins in the last provincial election.
“We’re now switching to a pre-electoral mode,” said FEUQ President Martine Desjardins. “We’re going to target the 10 Liberal MPs who won with the lowest majority in the last elections and we are going to campaign in their districts telling people that their MPs are against accessible education.”
When it comes to actions of economic disturbance, however, the different organizations don’t all agree on the methods to use. While CLASSE praised actions like blocking bridges and commended the participants in these actions for their “bravery,” the FEUQ and the FECQ questioned such methods and said they wished to avoid losing public support for their cause.
“Our belief is that we should target those who are responsible and in that case it’s the government,” explained Desjardins. “Public opinion is very fragile and it doesn’t take much to turn people against us. We need to make sure the general population supports us and we need to keep those families and professors who marched with us on March 22 supporting us.”
The Concordia Student Union sided with the FEUQ, and said they would not follow other students organizations in any actions that would put Concordia students at risk.
“The CSU’s position is that we endorse positions that are peaceful,” said VP external Chad Walcott. “We will only advertise actions that we feel our students can go to and come back from without being arrested or getting fined.”
However, CLASSE, FEUQ and FECQ admitted that if the Liberal government maintains its refusal to negotiate with students, these types of extreme actions would continue to happen. The 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.
“Blocking bridges is not the type of actions we support since we don’t think it targets the right people,” said FECQ President Léo Bureau-Blouin. “But we have showed good faith in organizing peaceful demonstrations so far and at some point, if the government still doesn’t listen, we have to take it to the next step.”
This is not the first time the FEUQ and the FECQ have disagreed with the CLASSE over strategies of mobilization. The three student organizations have been continuously quarreling since 2005 over campaigning methods.
During the speeches at the end of the March 22 demonstration, CLASSE leaders refused to also let FEUQ and FECQ representatives speak, claiming their congress mandate kept them from sharing the stage. The leaders of the two associations had to climb on the roof of their sound truck to speak to the thousands of protesters.
“We found it unfortunate considering our movement is supposed to be a unified movement but it’s not the time to show signs of division,” said Desjardins. “Our cause goes beyond the associations that we represent.”
It remains to be seen if the student organizations will agree on the strategies to adopt in pushing the student movement further, but all have assured they aspire for unity in their message and in potential negotiations with the government.
“It’s important for us to stay unified because the enemy is not among us, it’s the government. Having a unified movement with different and complementary strategies is the best way to go for now,” said Desjardins.
The next major protests are set to take place on March 27 in Montreal, and then on April 4 in Premier Jean Charest’s home riding of Sherbrooke. The CSU has announced it will be sending a bus full of students to the demonstration.

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March 22 photo gallery

Check out these photos from the March 22 march taken by The Concordian’s Sophia Loffreda.

And if you haven’t already, you can read this story on the march and have a look at how everything went down by looking at the live blog here.

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March 22 live blog recap

[View the story “The Concordian at March 22” on Storify]
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