The Quebec Spring

Striking students in the Canadian province of Quebec are vowing to escalate their fight against an increase in tuition fees after police used tear gas, shock grenades and arrested dozens of protesters this Friday.

By Mark Bergfeld

For more than ten weeks now 170 000 students from approximately 180 local unions have been on an open-ended student strike which has shut down the Port of Montreal, ministerial meetings and nearly all classes in post-secondary education across the province.

Quebec students who pay the lowest tuition fees across Canada are faced with a 75% tuition fee increase. Currently, the average annual cost to attend a Quebec university is $2,519. Even if the planned increase were to go ahead, Quebec students still would pay less than in any other Canadian province.

But student protesters are highlighting the fact that Finance Minister Raymond Bachand’s provincial budget of 2011-2012 will cut public and accessible healthcare, hydroelectricity and education. Ironically, Bachand labelled these ‘sacred cows of Quebecoise society’.

Over the last nine years in power the Liberals have pursued to restructure society in the interest of the rich. Tax cuts for corporations have gone hand in hand with increasing the retirement age to 67. After trade unions suffered a blow in 2005 it was announced that student fees were to increase.

Over the course of five weeks, students engaged in a ‘general strike’ causing significant economic damage to the provincial government. Yet, the majority of the student unions and associations cut a deal with a severely weakened government which had been scarred by two years of continuous opposition by trade unions.

Despite 110 000 out of a grand total of 185 000 striking students rejecting the agreement in their general assemblies the strike was put to an end. With full privatisation looming this time round students do not want to see a repeat of 2005 which saw them go back to class empty-handed.

Students have learnt some important lessons. They are organising on a departmental basis which has strengthened the overall organisation of the strike. This has also helped them to hold the centralised unions to account.

The high point of the ‘Quebec Spring’ has been the 200 000-strong demonstration in Montreal on March 22. On the day, students successfully blocked the Port of Montreal for several hours, a tactic recently used at the Oakland General Strike in November.

More importantly, the two largest public sector unions called their membership on to the streets for the mobilisation. Following the biggest student demonstration ever, students called for a week of economic disruptions bringing inner cities’ traffic to a standstill while also mobilising 30 000 parents in support of the students’ demands.

While the mainstream media claims that the Liberal government has “extended a hand” by offering students an “increased bursary and loan programs” the government is intent on breaking the movement once again. Premier Jean Charest said: “The decision has been made and we will not back down”. This has only strengthened the determination of student strikers, and led them to forge new alliances.

Students are organising solidarity with locked out Rio Tinto Alcan workers and with hundreds of Aveos employees who recently lost their jobs.

Friday’s protests saw environmentalists and students come out together. They stormed the top floor of a conference centre in which Charest was to unveil further details of his ‘Plan Nord’, a mining plan which will see a 1.2-million-square kilometre stretch of indigenous land be sold off to big business.

At the same time, other students stormed a meeting of the federal Immigration minister Jason Kenney for his anti-gay and anti-immigration stances.

While the display of resistance has inspired activists far beyond the provincial borders of Quebec, the movement is confronted with difficult questions. The strike’s success has meant that the return to courses will be at least delayed until mid-June at which point professors will be taking time off from regular teaching. Despite the fact that this means that students will have to retake the academic year and might not be able to graduate, students are clear about one thing: “If the strike continues, students are certain to win the fight”

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About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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