The 100-day mark of the Québec student strike, the longest student strike in the history of Canada, recently passed on Saturday May 22, 2012. To mark the occasion, estimates of up to half a million people came from all over Québec to the streets of Montreal. The demand of the participants remained the same: No Tuition Hike! However the composition of the protest had greatly changed. In response to the recent passing of emergency Bill 78, a move by the Charest Liberal government to illegalize the strike, everyone from families with children to senior citizens came to the streets banging pots and pans, chanting and demonstrating their solidarity with the student strike movement.
"This isn't a student strike, it's a society waking up," read one of the lead banners in the march. So it appears, as of now, the Charest governments’ attempts to quash the protest have failed. They have only served to facilitate the entry of a larger section of Québec and Canada’s population into the mix.
The student strike movement, which began in February 2012, came together in order to protest austerity measures proposed by the Québec Liberal government of Jean Charest. The government was hoping to fill its budget shortfalls by burdening students to cover the costs of financial mismanagement by the Charest government. So, they proposed raising tuition fees 75% over the next 7 years. Students didn’t accept the budget, and leading up to, during and since its passing, Québec students have waged a dignified battle for their right to education.
Bill 78: Legislation or Declaration of War?
“What a mess! What a terrible mess!” stated Pauline Marois leader of the Parti Québécois to the Legislature speaking against Bill 78. “This is where the premier, the leader of the Liberal party, has led Québec. We are debating a special law against our children, against our youth.”
So what is inside the bill? Bill 78, sarcastically titled “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend” seeks to limit and illegalize students’ ability to protest. Within the Crackdown Bill, any gatherings of 50 or more people will have to be authorized by the police. Also the “date, time, duration and venue of the demonstration as well as its route, if applicable; and the means of transportation to be used for those purposes,” must be provided to police eight hours in advance of the activity.
The legislation also approved leveling fines against individuals and organizations found to have broken the law. Between $1,000-$5,000 could be fined to an individual, between $7,000-$35,000 for a student leader and between $25,000-$125,000 for student organizations. With fines like the ones the Charest government is planning to lay against protesters, they may be able to bail themselves out and implement the tuition freeze students are fighting for!
“Bill 78 is an affront to basic freedoms that goes far beyond what is permissible under provincial, national or international human rights laws,” stated Javier Zúñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International, which has taken issue with the Bill. “It is unreasonable and unacceptable to require citizens to apply to the authorities in advance any time they wish to exercise a basic human right. Québec’s National Assembly should rescind this restrictive law immediately,” Zúñiga continued.
Students are not alone in their protest against Bill 78. Denis Barrette, one of the 700 lawyers who protested against the Bill on May 28 in Montreal stated, “There are so many vaguely worded parts to this law… It gives an incredible amount of discretionary power to police. It also makes the education minister judge and jury when it comes to deciding if student groups are legal.”
In response to the passing of the Bill, the May 22 protest, illegal under the Bill’s provisions, became the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history with hundreds of thousands of people breaking the law.
So far, more than 2,500 protest participants have been arrested by the police, which has sparked condemnations, including from the United Nations. The government of Québec now has less than 60 days in order to respond to a UN report condemning the violence and explaining their reasons for the use of brutal and excessive force against protesters.
Charest Government Breaks off Negotiations… Again!
On Thursday, June 4, after 4 days of talks between the Charest Liberal government of Québec and the four Québec student associations representing the striking students, Education Minister, Michelle Courchesne, broke off the second round of negotiations. "For them it was the freeze, the moratorium or nothing", stated Courchesne after the failed negotiations. Within the negotiations the government had offered the students to cut the hike from $254 per year to $219 per year. In the end of that proposed ‘deal’ students would be expected to pay $1,533 at the end of a seven-year period against the original $1,625 tuition fee hike over a 5-year period. The four student groups flatly rejected. The government returned shamefully again with an offer reducing the first year payment increase to $100 with the formerly proposed $254 increase in the following 6 years.
“The offer we got – and this isn’t a joke – is a tuition hike of $1,624. It’s a bit insulting,” stated Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson of the Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale (CLASSE) at a press conference after the negotiations.
Again thousands of students and their supporters took to the streets long into the night opposing the Québec governments ‘deal’ and reaffirming their commitment to fight against any increase in tuition fees.
Education or Grand Prix: Are we on the right track?
Since the negotiations collapsed, there has been no shortage of government spokespersons and mainstream media attempts to create fear amongst people in Québec and Canada about the continuation of the strike, which Québec Premier Jean Charest has called a “threat to all Quebecers.”
With headlines filled with plenty of stories about business owners in Montreal claiming a loss, such as the Toronto Sun’s “Montreal tourism fears summer chill from Québec student strike”, the Québec government and major Canadian media sources are trying to frame the rich as the victim and the people struggling for accessible education as the executioner.
"We are going to hand out (pamphlets) so that tourists who visit Québec will know what's going on here, and so they understand why they see images of protests on television every day," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, before tens of thousands took to the streets on Saturday June 2 in a rainy but energetic protest. What a threat eh?! Students are going to intimidate tourists with information about the strike!
Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) told the CBC, "It was towards the end of negotiations [with the government] that they tried to make people believe we wanted to disrupt the festivals this summer."
As a consequence of the governments’ campaign the opening celebration of the Grand Prix Formula 1 car race in Montreal has been cancelled, claiming threats by the students to disrupt it. It is clear what the Québec government is trying to portray: if you want a fun filled summer… don’t support the student strike!
However the student strike movement has committed itself to continue peaceful action over the summer months and many more layers of Québec and Canada’s society is helping to fill the streets.
Viva Street! We Must Defend & Extend the Québec Student Strike!
Although the Québec student strike has gained incredible amounts of support Canada wide and internationally, there is still a certain lack of solidarity from places which Québec students should be able to rely on. The official opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has sat idly by as the movement has grown. Other student organizations and unions across Canada have been lacking in support as well. It is true that many have sent and are continuing to send financial donations to help with legal costs incurred by the strikers, but what is needed in Canada and internationally is a movement of solidarity that, like the Québec strike, can defend our dignity as students and oppressed people.
While Québec students have been able to fend off increases to the cost of education time and time again, the rest of Canada has seen decades of continued hikes.
According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), “At the beginning of the 1990s, average undergraduate tuition fees in Canada were $1,464. Today, these fees have risen more than three-fold to $5,138.” Startling figures considering that Québec students are currently fighting to maintain a cost, which is less than the Canadian average in the early 1990s!
Québec students are marching a dignified path in defense of their right to an accessible education. If we in the rest of Canada are paying in some provinces, over 3 times more, where is our fight?
The key to defending the Québec student strike, outside of Québec, lies within our own struggle in each province of Canada, in the U.S. and around the world.
In 2008 the Prime Minister Harper Conservative Government released the “Canada First Defense Strategy” which had included a 20-year program for military upgrades. The upgrades will end up costing taxpayers in Canada $490 billion. This is in addition to the more than $22 billion spent on the war against the people of Afghanistan and the $150 million spent on bombing the people of Libya which claimed the lives of at least 30,000 people.
We need to demand a ‘Canada Education First Strategy’! With the government of Canada spending billions upon billions on war, it becomes clear why education is not their priority.
Our priority as students, working and oppressed people in Canada is education, jobs healthcare and a dignified life.
MONEY FOR EDUCATION, NOT FOR WAR!
ABOLISH BILL 78!
FREEZE TUITION FEES IN QUÉBEC!
FREE AND ACCESSIBLE EDUCATION FOR ALL!
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