VANCOUVER, Canada – Police repression coupled with draconian measures to limit peaceful protest have failed to stop a student strike in Quebec that has shuttered most of the province’s universities and colleges since February.
The provincial government of Jean Charest proposed hiking tuition fees $1,625 over 5 years. Charest says that the government needs to hike fees to meet increasing costs.
Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in the country, and students graduate with smaller debt loads than young people in the rest of Canada.
However, the four main Quebec student unions have united to fight the tuition increase. The majority of students at the province’s campuses voted to stop attending classes and go on strike until the centrist Liberal Party Charest government withdraws the tuition increases.
Students have made it clear that their campaign is part of a broader struggle against right-wing austerity measures and for a better society with accessible and free education.
Over 300,000 students across the province have at one time or another boycotted classes. Two hundred thousand students are currently out of classes, engaging in daily (and nightly) protest marches and occupations across the predominantly French-speaking province of 7.1 million people.
Many teachers support the students and are attending demonstrations, challenging administrators and refusing to give classes. They have formed Teachers Against Fee Increases.
The provincial labor movement also backs the student strike and has provided material and moral support.
For those engaging in or supporting the strike, wearing or carrying a red square has become a popular symbol identifying support for students.
The Charest government has adopted harsh measures to deal with student strikers. Police are attacking peacefully protesting students with pepper spray, tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets. Thousands of students have been arrested.
Student striker Francis Grenier lost most of his eyesight when a sound grenade was thrown into his face. Maxence Valade lost an eye from a rubber bullet, and Alexandre Allard was in coma for several days from a rubber bullet to the head.
Anonymous Quebec posted a video on the Internet showing police brutally against student protestors. Amnesty International is circulating a petition against police violence.
Four students have been charged under anti-terrorist laws enacted after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The provincial government recently passed Bill 78 that limits the right to peacefully protest. The bill requires students to notify police eight hours in advance of demonstrations, including duration and route, for actions larger than 50 people. It also forbids anyone from, directly or indirectly, delaying or impeding access to classes; makes student organizations responsible for preventing students from protesting; imposes large fines to student groups and labor unions that organize unauthorized demonstrations; allows police to change the route or location of demonstrations; punishes anyone who helps or induces another person to commit an offense under Bill 78; and prevents student protests in front of post-secondary institutions.
Critics have called Bill 78 a draconian measure to restrict freedom of speech and assembly. Louis Masson, president of the Quebec Bar Association, commented, “the bill constitutes a violation of the constitutional and fundamental rights of citizens.”
Instead of intimidating students, Bill 78 has increased their resolve. Large protests continue to be held and students and their supporters refuse to recognize Bill 78.
The student movement and union supporters have initiated a court challenge, backed by 140 organizations, against Bill 78 to strike down provisions restricting freedom to peacefully assemble and protest. Students are asking for an emergency injunction to set aside the law until the constitutional questions can be heard.
The public is beginning to openly support the student strike. In the last week, thousands of moms and dads, grandparents and children have been flooding the streets in the early evenings across Quebec, banging pots, lids and colanders-like the Argentina’s cacerolazos (protests) during the 1990s against neo-liberal measures-in support of the students and to express opposition to right-wing austerity measures.
Despite mounting protests, the Charest government remains adamant that it will not cancel tuition fee increases. A new round of negotiations have begun this week between the student movement and the government to resolve the conflict.
Last month, a tentative agreement was signed between the government and the student movement whereby tuition fee increases would go ahead but university and college fees would be lowered by an equivalent amount. The Charest government then started back-pedaling on its promise and students returned to the streets.
Photo: Thousands of students march through the streets of Montreal protesting tuition hikes, May 23. Ryan Remiorz /The Canadian Press/AP