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Quebec students strike back

The University of Ottawa shows support to Quebec Students

by Crystel Hajjar

As of Mar. 5, student unions representing over 125,000 students from Quebec’s universities and CEGEP programs have gone on strike and organised protests in opposition to the recent government decision to increase tuition fees by 75 percent over the next five years.

Major peaceful protests, some met with police violence, have been taking place in Montreal and have resulted in multiple arrests. On Mar. 7, CEGEP student Francis Grenier suffered an eye injury as a result of a clash with the police.

Student associations at various universities have been going on strike to demand that the Liberal government reverse its decision to increase tuition fees by $325 a year, for a total of $1,625, by 2016.

“The main focus of the strike is tuition fees,” said Hugo Bonin, a student in Concordia’s women studies program whose association is on strike. “But I think this is an opportunity to politicise a lot of students and people across Quebec.”

Both Concordia’s graduate and undergraduate student unions have voted to go on strike as of Mar. 12 and Mar. 15 respectively, representing a total of 26,000 students. While there seems to be overwhelming support for the strike among the student community, a few CEGEPs and student associations voted against the strike, most recently the student union at Dawson College.

Quebec’s tuition fees are currently $2,519 per year on average, the lowest in the country. Even with the proposed changes, Quebec’s tuition will remain lower than the Canadian average of $5,366. This has been a common point of criticism against the strike.

But Bonin disagrees.

“Tuition fees are lower in Quebec than the rest of Canada, but so is the student debt, which is a good impact of low tuition fees,” he said. “This [along] with the free CEGEP years has resulted in a nine percent higher enrollment than the rest of Canada.”

The student movement in Quebec has a lengthy history of strikes, the most recent successful strike being in 2005.

“In the past, student strikes in Quebec have gotten a lot of victories and I think it is an effective way of bringing forward the demands to the government,” said Anne-Marie Roy, a member of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO)’s Board of Administration (BOA), its highest governing body.

The Quebec strikes have been gaining wider support from student unions across the country. At the University of Ottawa, the SFUO is preparing material to inform students about the reasons for the strike. Roy says the SFUO is making plans to openly show support and solidarity with Quebec students. Such actions include distributing information material and red clothe squares (the symbol of the student strike), and encouraging students to contact the Quebec government demanding that they reverse their decision.

“The issue of tuition hikes is an issue that students face across the country, so it is really important to show solidarity with students in Quebec,” said Nicole Desnoyers, a campaign organizer with the SFUO. “We need to be ready to take action because this is something that can happen in Ontario or on our campus at any moment.”

On Mar. 18, Roy will be bringing a motion forward to the BOA to formally endorse the strike in Quebec. The motion will be voted on at the meeting and will pass if it gets the support of half of the board plus one.

“In Ontario, education is no longer accessible,” she said. “I think that Ontario students getting a victory to lower tuition fees is partially dependent on Quebec students being able to block this tuition fee hike.”

The issue of student poverty is an increasing concern for students. If the trend of tuition hikes continues, there is a fear that universities will witness higher dropout rates, especially of students from lower income families.

In the coming weeks, student associations in Quebec will be holding general assemblies to decide on future actions. A major rally to demand a tuition freeze is also scheduled on Mar. 22.

This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 4, No. 6 (March/April. 2012).

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