Tens of thousands of students and their supporters marched in big Quebec cities on March 18 to oppose the Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s government’s promise to impose a 75% rise in post-secondary education fees over the next five years.
In Montreal, about 30,000 “former, present and future university students” protested. The march stretched for more than 1.5 kilometres, newspaper Le Devoir said. Thousands more marched in Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Alma.
More than 200,000 university and college students have launched a strike throughout Quebec, and their ranks continue to swell. The strike began more than a month ago on some campuses.
The main demand is to stop the proposed hike in fees, but many of the students support the demand put forward by the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity (CLASSE) for free post-secondary education.
This message — that education is an integral right of Quebec society, and must be accessible to all — has struck a responsive chord among broad layers of the population.
In recent days, the students’ demands have inspired strong messages of solidarity from their professors, more than 1600 of whom have signed a powerful statement against neoliberal “commodification” of education and the privatisation of university funding.
Thousands of parents are now organising through Facebook in support of the students. Many joined their children in the March 18 protests.
High school students are joining in, with strikes planned in several schools. The major trade union federations have issued calls for solidarity with the striking students.
The government continues to stonewall the student demands. The rise will boost student fees by C$325 (A$311) a year for five years. Organisers are already planning further protests in the weeks ahead.
In recent weeks, student demonstrators have faced violent attacks by police using tear gas, sound percussion guns and rubber bullets, and hundreds have been arrested. In one such attack, a Montreal student was hit in the face and may lose sight in one eye.
But this repression has, if anything, aroused mass indignation and public expressions of support for the students.
History of struggle
As the business media never cease to remind us, Quebec university fees are the lowest in Canada. But that is because Quebec students have mobilised repeatedly against attempts to raise them.
As Chantal Sundaram noted in the Canadian Socialist Worker on February 28: “From 1968 to 1990, tuition fees in Quebec were frozen at $500 a year. After a hike of about 150 per cent from 1990 to 1993, a PQ government introduced a new freeze in 1994. But that same government opened the door to a new increase in the name of deficit cutting in 1996.
“It faced a Quebec-wide student strike with mass street protests and gave up that idea. Fees have also increased by $100 a year over the past five years under the Charest government.
“Today’s strike comes only seven years after the last one. In 2005, an unlimited student strike shut down nearly every post-secondary institution in Quebec to protest the cutting of $103 million from bursaries to convert them into loans. The students won, forcing the government to backtrack on a policy it had already passed.
“That strike received massive public support and was the source of the ‘red square’ badge, worn by thousands of students and supporters, which is also in use today.”
The strike has been organised faculty by faculty through mass assemblies and democratic votes of the students; it began in mid-February when the CLASSE threshold of a pro-strike vote of 20,000 students in at least seven student unions was met.
At first, education minister Line Beauchamp dismissed it, claiming the movement represented only 2% of the province’s 495,000 post-secondary students. But already more than 40% of the total student population are on strike.
And now other student groups, traditionally less militant than the CLASSE, are planning their own actions to protest the fee rise. For example, the Quebec Federation of College Students (FECQ) has announced it will hold a sit-in at the National Assembly on March 20 when the finance minister tables his budget.
The 2005 student strike ended with serious divisions in the movement; the CLASSE predecessor was sidelined and in the end the government negotiated with only the FECQ and a rival organisation, the Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ).
At the outset of this year’s strike movement, the CLASSE had only 40,000 members, but the FEUQ boasted 125,000 and the FECQ 80,000. However, the relationship of forces within the student population may be changing rapidly.
“There is something in the air,” 21-year-old CLASSE leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told Le Devoir. “There is momentum. The Arab Spring, the indignados [in Spain], the Occupy movement …
“There is an entire discourse being advanced about the interests the governments serve. They do not work for the majority. And the question of the increased education fees is a stunning demonstration of this.”
Another CLASSE spokesperson, Jeanne Reynolds, said: “It is a whole vision of education that is changing. That’s why people are mobilising so much.”
Balance of forces
Indeed, an important feature of the movement is the attractive appeal of the CLASSE demand not only for a freeze on fees, but for free university education as a right of society. Other groups have advanced similar demands for treating social services as a public right, not an opportunity for private profit.
In a statement coinciding with the March 18 marches, the Coalition Against Fee-for-service and the Privatisation of Public Services called for public participation in the students’ actions and opposition to the Charest government’s rise in electricity rates and its tax on medicare services.
“Although the Charest government is so far showing its rigidity, it is our impression that the relationship of forces is increasingly in the students’ camp,” Coalition spokesperson Francois Saillant told the media. Saillant is also a leading member of Quebec Solidaire, Quebec’s main left-wing party.
[Reprinted from Richard Fidler's blog, Life on the Left.]