Searching for a solution on education

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

One of the most anticipated promises from the Parti Québécois, the provincial summit on education, will be held next month to discuss future plans for Quebec’s governance and management for post-secondary education funds.

As a part of her agenda, Premier Pauline Marois abolished the proposed tuition fee increase of $1,778 over the next seven years imposed by the previous provincial government led by former Premier Jean Charest. Near the end of last year, Marois stated that it was time for discussion and an open debate on the subject of education in the province. The conference, to be held on Feb. 25 and 26, will not only examine the dispute on tuition, but other aspects of higher education and identify the main goals of the universities in Quebec. It will take into account the voices of university administrations, students and taxpayers in the province.

The provincial government has been accepting comments and questions electronically, through a website and a Facebook page created for the summit. Denis Comeau, a real-estate agent, says he remains skeptical on the contribution of opinions from taxpayers like himself despite the outreach from the PQ.

“The system is only as good as the people who use it and maintain it,” said Comeau.

He explained that when it comes down to the summit itself, a pressing issue is the quality of university education and some schools are “suffering” from being underfunded.

Due to Marois’ freeze on tuition, universities are short $32 million. In December, the provincial government slashed universities’ budgets by $124 million, with Concordia suffering a $13.2 million loss.

In an interview with The Concordian, University President Alan Shepard said that the best scenario which can come from the summit next month is having “clarity of funding, support for students, research funding, [and] renewed and refreshed commitment to the central role of universities in our society.”

Marois acknowledged that many will push for tuition increase, others for indexations and the rest for free tuition — a subject that many Quebec residents remain divided on.

“I do believe that they should not raise the tuition more, in fact, they should lower the tuition,” said TD Canada Trust financial sales representative Vita Carrara. “It is already very difficult for young adults to be able to afford today’s living expenses and have to pay for their own education.”

Karyna Bourgault, a dog groomer, said she believes that the relevance of the curriculum taught in the post-secondary environment should be reviewed. She feels that students shouldn’t have to pay more tuition because “accessible education will allow more opportunities.”

Members of the Liberal Party of Quebec, the official opposition of the PQ, believe the PQ is going into the summit with their minds already made up on the issue of tuition. If the freeze continues, some Liberals argue it will put Quebec universities in an $80 million shortfall.

“Students should pay more tuition, eventually. You can’t keep something like that frozen. I don’t agree with having to pay more, but yet, just like opus passes, people will be forced to pay more,” said Joe De Cicco, a customer service representative at Indigo Books and Music.“I don’t see any other way around it.”


The making of an informed people

Image via Flickr.

They don’t have the power to put criminals behind bars. They don’t have the power to take people to court. They certainly don’t have the power to accuse witnesses of wrongdoing. However the Charbonneau Commission has the ability to inform the people and in a society like ours, an informed people is the greatest power of all.

“The commission’s investigations are going well, in terms of one of the purposes of the commission, which was to make public the corruption in Montreal,” said Marcel Danis, Concordia University professor, lawyer, and former politician, in an interview with The Concordian.

The Charbonneau Commission was created by Jean Charest’s Liberal party on Oct. 19, 2011. As I look at the past year, I must say, I’m fairly impressed with the work this commission has done. As a result of the testimonies made by witnesses on the stand at the commission, two major Quebec politicians, Gerald Tremblay, now ex-Montreal mayor, and Gilles Vaillancourt, ex-Laval mayor, have resigned amid corruption allegations.

This is what Montreal’s corrupt construction industry, and the system as a whole, needs; a fresh start. The Charbonneau Commission, chaired by Justice France Charbonneau is doing just that. Although they don’t have the power, like I said, to accuse people in court, they have shed substantial light on the process in which public contracts are given out, and many politicians, Vaillancourt and Tremblay among them, were ratted out in the process.

The commission, however, does have certain drawbacks. Not only can they not make arrests, but witnesses who testify are completely protected. This, according to Danis, has pushed many people to come and testify.

“One of the bad things about the commission is that when someone goes to testify at the commission, what they say cannot be used against them,” said Danis. “That’s why some police officers were against the fact of creating the commission in the first place.”

However, one must not focus on that aspect of the commission, because it seriously undermines what the commission is actually doing, which is more valuable; scaring corruption out of the industry.

Lino Zambito, ex-construction boss and one of the more popular witnesses at the Charbonneau Commission, said it himself that the “process really hasn’t been the same lately.” People are finally aware of how corrupt the process was, and measures are being put in place to try and fix the system. This, all thanks to the commission.

“There’s no doubt that one of the good things of the commission is that it will scare people who are civil servants to work in the city of Montreal,” said Danis. “They’re more likely to be very careful at least for a number of years.”

According to Danis, prices for public contracts have dropped substantially since 2009, having “gone down between 25 and 30 per cent for sewer work and sidewalk work.”

More importantly, the commission is enlightening the people. Montreal is littered with corrupt politicians and a large mafia. Joe Pistone, also known as Donnie Brasco, infiltrated the New York mafia in the 1970s and ‘80s, and was invited to testify at the Charbonneau Commission. His experience has taught him a lot about the inner workings of the mafia, and he put it simply enough.

“Without that corruption, they really can’t operate,” said Pistone. “And as soon as the public realizes that, it lessens the impact that the mafia can have on us.”

Montreal needs to get back on track as one of the best cities in North America. The first step is by cleaning up our streets, and we have the Charbonneau Commission to thank for the progress we’ve made this year.


Tuition hike may not be gone for good

Photo by Madelayne Hajek.

Concordia University refunded all students upon receiving official directives from the provincial government concerning the tuition fee rollback while McGill University’s international and out-of-province students are still waiting on adjustments to their accounts.

The letter sent out to Quebec universities earlier this month confirmed the cancellation of the proposed tuition fees increase. The document also cites that the Parti Québécois is considering raising tuition fees for out-of-province and international students. McGill chose not to reimburse its foreign students in anticipation of an increase.

“We all got the same instructions,” said Chris Mota, Concordia University spokesperson. “We responded in one fashion and McGill chose a different route.”

This was also confirmed by Chief Financial Officer Patrick Kelley, who told The Concordian that the administration at McGill did not interpret the official directives from the the provincial government differently than Concordia but decided differently.

Simon-Pierre Lauzon, VP external of the Concordia Student Union, said he didn’t agree with the direction that McGill chose to take.

“McGill is kind of going in another direction and not doing what I think they’re supposed to be doing right now,” said Lauzon. “I find it very unfortunate that McGill students find themselves in this situation, it’s very unfair and I hope that it gets resolved quickly.”

Joël Bouchard, the press attaché for Pierre Duchesne, the minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, confirmed that no decision has yet been made about increasing tuition fees and that the proposition is being studied.

“If we are then told at a later date that we have to increase tuition for out of province and international students, we will do so,” said Mota.

McGill University spokesperson Carole Graveline explained that the university has not refunded the increase initially tabled by the Charest Liberals because of a potential increase for out-of-province and international students on the way. Although there’s no indication of precisely when the increase will be announced, if there will be one, and just how much it will amount to, it remains “very likely” according to Graveline.

VP external Robin Reid-Fraser of the Students’ Society of McGill University said the process and wait has been disheartening.

“People are frustrated and confused,” said Reid-Fraser. “The contact we have with the administration is that they’re waiting on the government to put out their budget and really finalize what the plan is with the international and out-of-province fees.”

The Parti Québécois minority government will present a budget on Nov. 20.

“I presume there will be something in the budget but there’s no knowing,” said Graveline. “We’re not waiting on the budget, all we’re doing is taking a different path.”


Higher education summit on the horizon

Image via Flickr

The Parti Québécois announced a plan detailing the higher education summit that is set to take place early in the new year, last Thursday.

The four major themes on the agenda are the quality of post-secondary education, accessibility and participation, governance and financing of universities and the contribution of research to Quebec society.

“We’ve been waiting for this opportunity, it’s been a long time coming,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec. “To have this situation where we can discuss and more importantly debate our visions of the entirety of the university network and long term projects is compelling.”

Desjardins said she is satisfied with the government’s consideration of the propositions brought forth by the FEUQ in terms of the summit’s structure and themes to be discussed.

“Now, all we have left to do is prepare,” she said. “We need to find people that will back up our demands and make sure that all that we advance is coherent and credible.”

Concordia Student Union’s VP external, Simon-Pierre Lauzon, has been working closely with various levels of student governance to create awareness about the upcoming conference. He emphasizes that now it is time to inform the student body and focus on the issues that they want to see prioritized at the summit.

“One of the themes that the government wants to talk about is university financing and governance,” said Lauzon. “How inclusive that category is, is up to debate at this point, how deep they want to dig into systematic changes is something that I’d be curious to know.”

Lauzon says that it is an important topic at Concordia, considering the hefty severance packages that have been handed out to senior administrators in the past.

“Concordia has a very interesting reputation at large for some of the decisions it’s made in terms of the administration, including what they did last year in reducing student involvement on the Board of Governors to one representative with voting rights,” said Lauzon.

According to Lauzon, a concern Concordia representatives will bring to the summit concerns the tuition fees of international students since they pay the highest rates. He feels that international students should also be subjected to a freeze so they aren’t taken advantage of by post-secondary institutions or the provincial government.

“I believe we should advocate for a tuition freeze for them as well because they do pay a lot of fees to the university and we don’t want to use these international students as piggy banks for the university or for the government at this point.”

Lauzon said students can expect consultation on these subjects in the form of general assemblies and surveys in the weeks leading up to the summit that is set to take place in mid-February.

The Political Science Student Association held a special general assembly Tuesday to discuss what they want to bring to the education summit but it did not meet quorum so it became an information session instead. The PSSA will hold another general assembly in the upcoming months.

Robin Reid-Fraser, VP external affairs of the Student Society of McGill University, confirmed with The Concordian that SSMU will begin hosting formal consultation sessions with its student membership concerning a wide variety of topics such as financial aid and student debt, anglophone students in Quebec and research, as of Nov. 19.

“I think that it seems to be a pretty good effort by the government and I’m glad that they are starting to talk about some of the issues that I think sort of got neglected by the Liberal government during the student strike,” said Reid-Fraser. “Hopefully, it will bring out students in a different kind of way than the tuition hike issue did.”


Corruption by the numbers

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

24-25 – The number, in billions, awarded in public contracts every year by the provincial government.

1 – The anti-corruption bill tabled by the Parti Québécois in an effort to eliminate collusion in the public sector and clean up municipal offices. To ensure that the public tendering of contracts is fair, the provincial government’s legislation aims to subject companies to a screening process to prove they are honest and free of corruption.

2 – The number of mayors who resigned as a result of the testimonies implicating them in the Charbonneau Commission. Following allegations of corruption within the Union Montreal, Gérald Tremblay stepped down from his position of the mayor of Montreal Nov. 5 following an extended vacation. Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt ended a 23-year career when he stepped down Friday, Nov. 9.

2.5 – Construction boss Lino Zambito accused Vaillancourt of taking 2.5 per cent of every public contract for his own gain. According to Zambito’s testimony, Vaillancourt pocketed the money as kickbacks.

76, 83, 45 – In a Léger Marketing poll for the Journal de Montréal Oct. 31, with a total number of 629 participants, 76 per cent felt it was necessary for Tremblay to resign. Additionally, 83 per cent felt Tremblay’s budget proposal for 2013 including an increase in municipal taxes by 3.3 per cent was unacceptable and 45 per cent of participants felt it was impossible to eliminate the Mafia’s presence in the construction industry in Quebec.

99 – The difference of votes that saw Vision Montréal’s Cindy Leclerc win a byelection in Rivière-des-Prairies Nov. 11 over Union Montréal’s Nino Colavecchio. The results mean that Union Montréal will have less power in City Hall after its opposition campaigned heavily on integrity. Approximately 21 per cent of the borough’s population voted in the byelection.

$700,000 – The approximate total in thousands of dollars that retired city engineer, Gilles Surprenant, received in bribes. Initially, Surprenant testified to taking $600,000 in kickbacks and blowing a portion of it gambling but the actual number was closer to $700,000.

91 – The number of contracts that Surprenant worked on during his career as a city engineer. Throughout a nine-year period spanning from 2000 to 2009, Surprenant fixed a total of 91 contracts and the cost of public works initiatives and projects rose by as much as 35 per cent.


Commonwealth tradition with a Quebec spin

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

Premier Pauline Marois made headlines when she gave her inaugural speech at the National Assembly two weeks ago, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Many veterans and citizens across Canada were offended when they realized the poppy she was wearing in honour of Remembrance Day had a fleur-de-lis, a symbol of Quebec’s cultural and political identity, over it.

After the incident, Marois’ director of communications, Shirley Bishop, told the Globe and Mail that Marois’ “objective was not to create a controversy.”

If her objective was not to create controversy, then what was it? To promote Quebec’s national identity on a holiday that celebrates Canada’s triumphs in past wars? To solely support Quebec’s veterans in the war?

Marois proved to be incredibly close-minded in the past few months, and that’s made her look ignorant and disrespectful.

Bishop continues to tell the Globe and Mail that “Marois has a lot of respect for veterans and a lot of respect for all the people who’ve lost their lives for their homeland. The fact of putting a fleur-de-lis was not at all, not at all, a political act … She’ll continue to wear the poppy but, given the controversy, she will not put the fleur-de-lis.”

I believe Marois knew very well that putting adding the fleur-de-lis pin was a political act. I feel this shows Quebec, and the rest of Canada, that she supports the Quebec soldiers in the war and perhaps doesn’t take any consideration for all the other Canadians soldiers who lost their lives as well.

Margot Arsenault, the Royal Canadian Legion’s provincial president, also believes that it was a political act and told the Globe and Mail that “[the veterans] fought for Canada, not just Quebec.”

Arsenault stated that she received 15 calls and about a dozen emails that day from veterans (even Quebec veterans) who claimed the act was unacceptable. The Legion states on their website that the poppy is not to be modified or altered in any way.

Remembrance Day is the day Canada remembers all the veterans who fought for freedom. To put any political symbol within the poppy automatically portrays you as supporting a single portion rather than the whole. In Marois’ case, having the Quebec symbol placed over this Canadian symbol clearly shows that Marois prefers one over the other.

For Marois’ director of communications to actually state that she didn’t want to create controversy is very ironic because Marois has been stirring up controversy ever since she was elected.

I’m extremely fed up with Marois’ acts. It’s embarrassing to be a part of a province with a premier who doesn’t recognize that we live in Canada. Furthermore, on a holiday that means so much to most Canadians, trying to display her political views through a symbol that symbolizes unity of Canada is extremely frustrating.

Marois would have been hard-pressed to keep wearing the fleur-de-lis, and I give her credit for taking it off just in time. Maybe this once, she can respect a Canadian tradition without making it strictly Quebec related.


Concordia refunds the tuition hike

Full-time Quebec students can expect a $254 refund for the 2012-2013 academic year. Photo via Flickr.

The provincial government issued official directives to post-secondary institutions on the rollback of the tuition fee increase last week.

Quebec university students will be reimbursed the additional money they paid as part of the Charest Liberals provincial budget that sought to lift the freeze on tuition fees. Therefore, full-time Quebec students can expect a full refund or credit of the $127.05 increase per term or total of $254 for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec, slated an increase of $325 a year over a total of five years for a hike of $1,625 sparking a seven-month long student strike movement. While negotiating with student leaders, the government then escalated the original increase from $1,625 to a total of $1,778 over seven years. Students this year were required to pay an additional $8.75 per credit.

Although Premier Pauline Marois announced the cancellation of the hike the day after the Parti Québécois won a minority government in the provincial election Sept. 4, universities were waiting upon official, written directives from the Quebec government before issuing a refund.

Joël Bouchard, the press attaché for Pierre Duchesne, the minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, confirmed in an interview with The Concordian that universities could expect instructions from the government in the following days.

McGill University announced on Sunday that its administration would be taking steps to apply the refund to students who pay Quebec tuition rates. Unlike Concordia, international and out-of-province students at McGill will not be reimbursed until the provincial government “renders its final decision” according to the statement.

In comparison, Concordia University released a statement online on Thursday Nov. 1 to inform all students that an adjustment and credit would be made to their fees for next semester. However, if students wish to be reimbursed before January, they can submit a request through their MyConcordia student portal and the university will comply.

Concordia President Alan Shepard discussed the refund during presidential remarks at Senate on Friday, saying that the downside of reimbursing students is that “it costs money to make those cheques” but that the university would issue them nonetheless.

Not all universities have issued an official notice of the repeal but both Concordia and Université du Québec à Montréal addressed statements to all students.

For Heather Gleason-Beard, a second-year education student at McGill from Toronto, she felt it was unfair that only Quebec residents received a reimbursement.

They did say they are awaiting to hear from the government, … so it may happen,” said Gleason-Beard. “It is pretty frustrating and unfair but I won’t lie, it is something I would expect from McGill.”

The Concordian contacted McGill, but the director of media relations could give no information on the matter.


The cost of the student movement

Dozens of student protests took place last spring, including this one on McGill College St. in March 2012. Photo by Navneet Pall.

The costs of this year’s student strike movement is the centre of attention yet again as the l’Université du Québec à Montréal claims the protests associated with the university amounted to $20 million and the provincial government estimates that overall costs for all post-secondary institutions are at $40 million and counting.

Both claims, made last week by the university’s rector Claude Corbo and Pierre Duchesne, the minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, respectively, attracted attention and criticism.

Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, was critical of the figures provided by UQAM and Duchesne.

“We have information that says it’s not 20 or 40 million dollars,” she said in an interview with The Concordian, “But that the strike cost the government over 150 million dollars, because we explain it to include costs for teachers, for assistants, also for people who work in the libraries. There are a lot of costs involved.”

“Of course the strike has cost a lot,” Desjardins added. “But I doubt UQAM has $20 million only due to the strike, actually I expect it to be more. They’re trying to get more and more money from the government because they’re a little bit shocked that there are no more tuition fee hikes anymore.”

For Concordia University the estimated costs came to a much lower figure of $226,755.39, all for additional security costs according to Chris Mota, university spokesperson.

“I know at other universities there was physical damage and there were other issues but at Concordia it was only the additional security,” she said.

In terms of security, McGill University devoted $275,233.39 of its budget for additional security while UQAM spent $841,414.95 and the Université de Montréal spent the least at $151,043.19 for the winter semester.

Outside of the education sector, other groups bore heavy costs from the protests as well. While the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal refuses to release any estimates of damage without a formal request filed under the Access to Information Act, the overtime pay for SPVM employees from February to June alone cost a hefty $7.3 million according to figures obtained by Radio-Canada earlier this year.

Steve Siozios, president of the Crescent Street Merchant’s Association, told The Concordian that they estimate their losses to be an average loss per business of 20 per cent at the height of the protests.

“We lost 20 per cent in April, May and June,” he said. “But it’s also more extensive than that because it kind of killed the whole summer. It had a very negative effect on merchants.”

Siozios also explained how a false perception of violence and danger in the downtown core scared people from outside of the city away from visiting.

“There were incidents, but it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was,” he said. “All of it has led to a very bad year so far. It’s closed down businesses already and by year end it’s going to close down more.”

Desjardins, meanwhile, believes the blame for costs lie firmly with the Liberal government, which is currently the official opposition in Quebec.

“They should be ashamed. They should be the ones going out and explaining themselves, why did they take so long to sit at the table and negotiate with us?” she said. “It should have been done earlier and I’m pretty sure we could have achieved an agreement at that time, in April, in March, but they waited for a general election and I think they should be ashamed of themselves.”

“They should be in front of the population and answering questions because we have been losing a lot of money over their way of handling this crisis,” added Desjardins.


A march for free education

Hundreds of demonstrators marched in the pouring rain Saturday, to celebrate the repealed tuition fee increase and abolished Law 12 while continuing to take a stand for free education.

The newly formed provincial government scrapped the proposed seven-year tuition fee increase of $254 per year Thursday, following months of social unrest from the student strike movement. The Parti Québécois also abolished the controversial Law 12 aimed to limit protests implemented by the former Liberal government.

The Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante led the protest through the streets of the downtown core around 2:50 p.m. from Lafontaine Park. Members of CLASSE began the monthly protest with speeches congratulating the student movement on their victory.

“The goal of this protest is to revive the debate about free tuition,” said Jeanne Reynolds, a spokesperson for CLASSE.

Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec and Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec were not present for the march, as both student groups fought for a tuition fee freeze and not free education. Both student associations declared victory following the repeal of the tuition hike.

Concordia University undergraduate student Robin Sas marched in support of the PQ’s decision to stomp out the hike.

“We have to celebrate the victories because they are rare,” said Sas. “That’s not to say I think it’s over but it’s a big victory in a continued fight.”

John Aspler, a recent McGill University graduate, said this was the first monthly protest he did not participate in. Aspler felt that the PQ’s position on universities’ management of funds and financial aid for students remains unclear.

“I don’t even know what we’re protesting anymore,” said Aspler. “I mean, maybe learn to compromise.”

Bishop’s University student Matt O’Neil believes that the student strike movement already won their victory and that the demonstration was unwarranted.

“It’s ridiculous, they already got their freeze,” explained O’Neil. “Now it’s getting down to greed.”

“CLASSE is leading the way in the fight toward free education, a model I personally agree with,” added Sas. “Why have any barriers based on income to education?”

“As long as there is a fee, some will be excluded, regardless of ability. Loans and bursaries are often insufficient, and student debt can be crippling,” Sas explained.

The demonstration ended with the arrest of two protesters and a police officer was injured on Sherbrooke St. after being pelted with a projectile outside of Loto-Québec. The Montreal Police declared the protest illegal around 4:30 p.m. and asked demonstrators to disperse.

“I think the protests will continue but with the most radical elements involved which could be awful,” said Aspler. “All of the 22nd protests have been peaceful except for this one.

Anthony Kantara, a Vanier College student, said that students must put pressure on Premier Pauline Marois because of her plan to index tuition fees.

“She’s not perfect,” said Kantara. “That’s why we have to keep fighting.”

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