Nearly 30,000 students braved the rain in Montreal on 10 November to protest against the rise in university fees due to be implemented in 2012 – an increase of $1,625 over five years - a leap of 75%. This increase represents the most significant attack on the right to education since 1990.
During these new protests, the like of which has not been seen since the student strikes of 2005, the whole student movement (in the ASSÉ, FEUQ, FECQ and TACEQ unions) united and mobilised in a massive national demonstration. More than 200,000 students from all over Quebec – half of all post-secondary school students – voted in favour of the walkout.
“It’s an historic movement,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson of the Association for Student Union Solidarity (ASSÉ), the only student association calling for free education.
Support outside the student movement
The national demonstration received the support of more than 130 union and community-based organisations. A strong union participation was noticeable at the rally.
Several MPs from the right-wing Parti Québecois, as well as an MP from a new left party Québec Solidaire, Amir Khadir, were also present. “It’s a mobilisation which has gone beyond the usual limits of the student movment,” Nadeau-Dubois told La Presse Canadienne newspaper.
During the day, hundreds of students from outside of Montreal organised picket lines in front of their university buildings, especially in Quebec, Sept-Îles and Rimouski. Further education and secondary school students also participated in the day of action. More than 100 protesters occupied the administrative centre of the McGill University, Montreal, following the end of the demonstration. They were evicted by riot police using pepper spray. Four people were also arrested by the police when the demonstration was ending.
The government remains unmoved
The provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest has stayed firm in the face of the demonstration. Line Beauchamp, Minister of Education, Leisure and Sport, said to La Presse Canadienne: “They have taken to the streets and demonstrated their anger, now Québécois students should resolve themselves to paying a fair proportion of the cost of their education.” The main bosses’ organisations issued a joint statement on the day of the protest to call on the Quebec government to stick to its policy to increase fees.
The daily newspaper, Le Devoir, revealed on 13 November that the government has launched a propaganda war on the internet to promote the fees rise. The government also set up the site www.droitsdescolarite.com on 12 November, at the cost of $50,000. The key words ‘FEUQ’, ‘FECQ’, and ‘student strike’ were also bought, in order to steer searches onto the government’s site.
Next step: all-out student strike
For ASSÉ, the demonstration on 10 November constituted the last warning to the government before embarking on an all-out strike over the winter. From 14 November, 31,000 students already had the mandate for an all-out strike or for the right to ballot on such action.
It has also launched the Broad Coalition of ASSÉ (CLASSE), with the aim of coordinating the action of the various student associations during the all-out strike. This will come into being when a threshold of 20,000 students from seven associations on three campuses is reached.
A union façade
The ASSÉ is, at present, the only student association pushing for an all-out strike. According to an article in La Presse Canadienne (21 November), the leadership of the Federation of Collegiate Students of Quebec (FECQ) intends to propose that the government should cancel tax credits on tuition fees in exchange for a freeze on fees. The abolition of these tax credits represents a saving of $154m for the state, while the increase in fees would bring in $191m per year by 2016. This position will be debated in the FECQ congress in January.
For its part, the leadership of the Federation of University Students of Quebec (FEUQ) says that could be worth considering in the long term. During its February 2011 meeting, research advocating the abolition of tax credits on fees – which was the origin of the FECQ position – was presented by Pier-André Bouchard St-Amand, FEUQ president during an all-out students’ strike in 2005. At that time, a rotten deal was stitched up behind closed doors between the two student federations and the Quebec government, to the detriment of the strike led by the ASSÉ.
For the struggle against fee hikes to develop this time, requires militant mass action, the stepping up of strikes, and for students’ mass action to be democratically decided and controlled by the rank and file. It is also necessary to link up with workers, who also face new rounds of attacks from the Liberal government.