With the feet of hundreds of thousands of students marching on the streets of Québec’s cities for the last three and a half months, it’s no surprise who the first victim of the movements strength would be. On Monday May 14th, after 14 weeks of ongoing protest by Québec students, Education Minister, Line Beauchamp, announced her resignation stating, “I am resigning because I no longer believe I’m part of the solution.” This comes one week after students overwhelmingly rejected a provincial government brokered deal attempting to appease the student strike movement.
Hours after Beauchamp stepped down, Québec Liberal Premiere Jean Charest swore in the replacement, Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne. Even if the resignation is simply an attempt to put the students’ blame on the previous minister while ushering in the new one, it still shows that the pressure of Québec’s students on the government has won them a small but important victory.
Charest Government Austerity Package
On November 10, 2011 more than 30,000 students marched in Montreal to protest the proposed 2011-2012 provincial budget. The budget, seen as an austerity package most clearly and controversially relating to education, was passed in March 2011, which proposed a tuition fee increase of $325 per year over a 5-year period. In the end of the five years, students would see a total tuition fee increase of $1,625. That equals a 75% increase overall, meaning paying $3,793 per year for a full-time university student.
On March 17, 2011 Liberal Finance Minister Raymond Bachand delivered the 2011-2012 budget speech outlining the government’s plan to reduce the current provincial deficit by burdening students with a tuition fee increase. “To those who fear this adjustment will act as a deterrent on university participation, I have this to say: there is no evidence of a link between university participation and tuition fees,” stated Bachand defending the budget, “students should pay their fair share.” Is it possible the student strikers have missed something? Perhaps they would cease their protesting if the government could some how prove the budget deficit was their fault! Needless to say Bachands words fell far short of comforting to hundreds of thousands of students and hundreds of thousands more that will in time become students. The reality is that students are not at fault for the deficit, so why are they expected to cover the bill?
On March 22, 2012 one of the biggest student strikes in Québec’s history saw almost 200,000 students miss or leave class in order to protest. Their demand of “No tuition hike!” rang out across Canada and to many parts of the world where international media presented the struggle. Action has continued on a daily basis in Québec with protests, conferences, forums, banner drops, occupations, sit-ins, and the list continues.
On May 15, 2012 several strike actions by students swept the province. Despite tear-gas and percussion grenades used by the riot police, students continued their protest blocking highways, colleges, and meetings of some of Québec’s wealthiest corporations.
As riot police broke through the protesters at one student blockade at Lionel-Groulx college, North of Montreal, The National Post newspaper grabbed some comments from the activists which included, students, staff, teachers, parents and children, “People will say we were repressed!… (You were) hitting people with billy-clubs, gassing young people.” The police pulled people out of the protest one by one with the aid of chemical deterrents in the protest declared illegal early that morning by the government. Five were arrested and one was injured during the police crackdown.
That crackdown and the ones before it however, are just the beginning. On Wednesday May 16th, Premiere Jean Charest is expected to outline the course of the government towards the students and possibly enact new legislation illegalizing the strike. One of the leaders and spokesperson for strike-leading student group, CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told the National Post, “It would be a major step backward...You can’t end a strike like this with police force.” But Sgt. Ian Lafrenière from the Montreal police begged to differ, “If you do something criminal, it will not be tolerated any more.” So it seems if the next step of the government is to illegalize the majority peaceful movement we will see a much heavier hand from the police and government.
Who’s Gonna Give First?
On May 7th and 8th students voted 83% against accepting a deal proposed by the Liberal government of Charest. "Everyone comes out of this a winner", stated Charest before presenting the proposal. The deal was an attempt to reduce the immediate impact of the government’s austerity measures by levying in the cost increases being implemented against Québec students over an extended period of time. The most significant part of the deal is maintaining the hike but instead of over a five year period it would stretch out to seven years. Unfortunately for the government, students don’t buy the seven year plan any more than the five year plan. It seems that after 14 weeks of daily manifestations of student anger towards the tuition fee hike, the message has not been received by the Liberal provincial government within their austerity perspective. Students don’t want a drawn out disintegration of their right to an education. They want no disintegration! The students marching in their hundreds of thousands are marching solely in opposition to any fee increase.
But the government will certainly not stop in their attempts to kill the movement through negotiations, delays, meetings and ‘deals’. The overwhelming student rejection of the deal shows a good sign of where the movement is standing at this stage in the struggle.
This is not the first time Québec’s students and the government have gone to battle. Québec’s students have a proud history of struggling to maintain the accessibility of education in their province.
In 2005, the provincial government proposed a cut of $108 million from student loans and bursaries. In response more than 200,000 students took to the streets in protest. The strike would set an example for Québec’s students and people in Canada about how to fight and win. With a mountain of pressure from students against the governments plan, the government withdrew the cuts and the funding was maintained.
A Victory for Québec’s Students is a Victory for all Students in Canada!
The proposed tuition fee increase in Québec is nothing new for that province. It is certainly nothing new for the rest of Canada. In fact the rest of Canada has already seen increases far passing that of those proposed in Québec. In some provinces including BC, before the current tuition fee freeze went into effect, the cost of education at a number of colleges and universities was raised by more than 100% within a couple of years. At the moment there is a shaky freeze limiting institutions from raising the tuition fee levels in BC over 2% per year. The 2% may seem small but that’s in addition to the more than 100% rise only a few years ago.
Tuition fees are not the only thing on the rise in this country. Student debt is skyrocketing. The accumulated student debt in Canada will soon reach $14.5 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), just more than half the cost of Canada’s unpopular war and occupation in Afghanistan.
The blame for unbalanced budgets and austerity measures is not the fault of the students. It is the fault of the government of Canada and the provincial government in Québec. With the more than $22 billion Canada has spent in Afghanistan, as well as $150 million spent on bombing Libya to kill innocent people and destroy infrastructure, Canada could eradicate student debt, provide a free education to all currently enrolled students and then some!
Injury to One, is Injury to All! Unity is the Key to Win!
Students in Canada must take as an example the striking students of Québec. If the government is trying to raise the cost of education in a province that time and time again has firmly rejected their attempts, we can certainly expect further cuts to education in the rest of Canada and increases to the cost.
The Québec student movement has demonstrated beautifully and powerfully its’ strength. It has shown an uncompromising attitude against the Charest government in its attempt to lay to rest their struggle, and an uncompromising attitude to pursue their rights and demands.
The reality is, this country could afford to provide a free, quality education for all. So why should we demand anything less?
Former Québec Education Minister Beauchamp got one thing right. She was absolutely correct when she stated, “I no longer believe I’m part of the solution.” What she missed in her statement was that the only way to be part of the solution in Québec is to be on the streets fighting alongside the students.
The student strike in Québec has demonstrated to every corner of Canada and beyond that ‘we’ve gotta fight for our rights.’ There is no other option but for students, workers and all oppressed people in Canada to defend the students of Québec in their fight for their right to a dignified education.
NO TO AUSTERITY!
FREEZE THE FEES IN QUÉBEC!
FREE AND ACCESSIBLE EDUCATION FOR ALL!
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