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Students and State Square-off on Affordable Education

by Adam KostrichAlana RoscoeAndy Crosby


 

Quebec’s political landscape has changed, nearly seven months after tens of thousands of students took to the streets on strike against a 75 percent tuition hike. Out of the ashes of a war waged on public education, Premier Jean Charest was defeated in the Sept. 4 provincial election. 
 
Following the minority victory of the Parti Québécois, leader Pauline Marois announced that they would rescind the hike and turf the controversial special Law 12 , more popularly known as Bill 78.
 
The demand for accessible education is not without its historical context. Out of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s arose a demand for universal, free post-secondary education. 
 
As a compromise, annual tuition fees were frozen at $540 per year before tripling to $1,668 in 1994. This rate was frozen again until 2007, when Charest’s Liberals implemented a $100 per year increase that brought tuition fees to their current annual rate of $2,168.
 
The trajectory of tuition freezes and increases was catalyzed by frequent student unrest and strikes, ensuring that tuition remained low. Since 1968, students in Quebec have gone on strike on ten different occasions, the most recent being in 2005 where the red square - le carré rouge - was adopted to symbolize high student debt. 
 
In March 2011, Quebec’s provincial government announced that tuition fees would increase by $325 annually over a five year period, bringing the rate of tuition to $3,793 by 2016-17.
 
Students met the tuition fee increase with indignation, linking it to larger issues of increasing austerity and social injustice. La Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), the largest student group, declared that “equal access to public services is vital to the common good,” as laid out in its manifesto. 
 
The student movement was largely opposed to the “user-pay” and “market-based” principles of neoliberalism, further linking the fight for accessible education alongside struggles against colonialism, sexism, and racism.
 
After nearly a year of campaigning against the government’s proposed tuition increase, students at Université Laval walked out of classes on Feb. 13, 2012. 
 
By March, tens of thousands of students from across Quebec had voted to strike in large general assemblies that led to frequent and mass public demonstrations. These actions included economic disruptions such as blockading ports, bridges, and banks, and the targeting of Liberal Party offices and meetings.
 
The reaction by municipal and provincial police forces was swift and violent. Hundreds of riot police patrolled Quebec’s cities, making thousands of arrests over months of protest and inflicting numerous injuries on students and their supporters. 
 
Two students lost their vision after being hit by police projectiles and dozens of others were hospitalized over months of protests.
 
Police were particularly violent when confronting demonstrators outside Liberal Party events in Montreal and Victoriaville. Opposed to industrial mega-projects like the Plan Nord, students were further angered when Charest joked to a room full of economic and political elites at the Palais de Congrès that they would send students to work in the North. 
 
In Victoriaville in early May, police reportedly fired over 250 rounds of tear gas.
 
Demonstrations increased in size and frequency from March to May. The largest demonstrations in Canadian history occurred on March 22, April 22, and May 22 with upwards of 200,000, 300,000, and 400,000 participants respectively. I
 
In late April, students began to hold nightly demonstrations, which at times saw tens of thousands pour into the streets.
 
Amidst the uncompromising protests, disruptions, and government setbacks, such as Education Minister Line Beauchamp’s resignation in mid-May, the Liberals proposed emergency law Bill 78 in an effort to crush the strike. 
 
The law criminalized the strike by enhancing police powers and restricting freedom of assembly and movement. It imposed stiff penalties on students and student organizations not cooperating with police and sought to undermine the strike by suspending the winter semester. 
 
The majority Liberal government, with support from the right-wing Coalition Avenir de Québec, immediately passed the special law on May 18, the same day it was tabled. Police made over 1,000 arrests across the province within the next week.
 
Despite international condemnation surrounding the emergency law, authorities pushed further with the help of corporate media to frame student activism through the lens of domestic terrorism. Canada’s spy agency Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) became involved to probe “possible threats to national security posed by groups.” 
 
Four people still face multiple charges, including serious charges under anti-terrorism legislation, for allegedly shutting down Montreal’s metro system using smoke bombs.
 
In the face of government attempts at suppression and largely unsympathetic mainstream media coverage, students have nevertheless enjoyed a broad base of support across civil society and the general public, including unions, teachers, and parents. Many people in Quebec’s cities still don the red square.
 
This article first appeared in the Leveller volume 5, issue 1. 

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