It seems like only yesterday when the 2012 students strikes swept the streets of Québec in response to the Liberal government of Jean Charest proposal of raising tuition fees by 75% over the next 7 years. The students mobilization in Québec sustained the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America. May 22, 2012 marked the 100th day of the strike, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the street of Montréal in what has been described as the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
The consistent fight of the Québec students movement succeeded in defeating the Liberal Charest government which was defeated in the next election. The new Parti Quebecois government cancelled the tuition increases on September 5, 2012.
Fast forward in 2015, the new liberal government of Philippe Couillard haven't learned the lesson from their defeat in 2012. In a move to balance their 2015-16 budget the Couillard liberal government is on a roll to cut and slash healthcare, pension benefits and education budgets. This time again the students movement in Québec is taking up the challenge to lead the struggle!
Students in Québec leading the fight against Austerity
In a press release from December 2, 2014, Finance Minister Carlos Leitão said Québec was on track to get rid of its $2.35-billion deficit by 2015-16.
“We are determined to return to a balanced budget in Québec as of next year, and we will do so through tight control of spending,” said the Minister of Finance.
The Couillard government announced in December it would cut $700 million in public service jobs, $300 million in payments to municipalities and $200 million to the health-care system, as well as hiking fees for car insurance, eliminating the province's universal fee for daycare and scaling back the allowable tax deduction for union dues.
On October 31, 2014, 50,000 people took to the streets of Montréal in a Halloween day march against austerity entiteled “L’austérité est une histoire d’horreur” (Austerity is a horror story).
As many as 25 student associations, representing 45,000 students province wide, voted for a strike mandate to participate in this march ,according to the student union Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).
On March 21, 2015, braving the snowy weather over 5,000 people marched in the streets of Montréal as part of a demonstration entitled “Popular Protest Against Austerity and the Petro Economy”.
“Today, we’re proud to launch a raucous spring,” said Fannie Poirier, spokesperson for the Spring 2015 protest committee. “Austerity measures have been presented as the lesser of evils to confront a deficient economy. But what we’re seeing … is a massive impoverishment of the population, full-frontal attacks on working conditions and a loss of security for society’s most vulnerable people.”
As many as 25 Quebec student associations participated in the two weeks strike including the CEGEP du Vieux-Montréal, Concordia University, Laval University, Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.
Finance Minister Carlos Leitão delivered the 2015-16 budget on march 26, 2015. The tabled budget registerd an increase of only 1.4 per cent for health and social services and 0.2 per cent for education. This seemingly increase in spending, amounts essentially to a cut once you factor in inflation and normal cost increases.
According to the Montréal Gazette, this education budget will mean $45 million less for all of the school boards in the province, $21 million less for the CEGEP system (public post-secondary education collegiate) and $10 million less for universities. The federation of Québec school boards estimates that after factoring in only inflation and normal operating costs, the system needs $350 million more a year to keep its head above water.
Rather than raising taxes for large business, fighting against corporate tax avoidance or cutting down the outrageous salaries and severance packages government higher-ups receive, the liberal Couillard government is cutting funding away from health, education and social services. On top of this austerity cuts the finance minister Leitão promised to gradually reduce the corporate tax from 11.9 per cent to 11.5 per cent.
The student movement in Québec sees the cuts to education as part of a broader attack by the government on Quebec’s social services and a degradation of working class life.
In an interview with VICE news Fannie Pommier, a political science student at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and member of Comité printemps 2015 said "In 2012 there was a fight against the $1,625 tuition increase, which itself was an austerity measure. We've been cutting back on public services since the 80s (and) what we've seen is global impoverishment. We are demanding the immediate withdrawal of all austerity measures proposed by Couillard's government."
Protestors met with brute force
While the finance minister presented his budget hundreds of students gathered outside of the national assembly in Québec City to peacefully protest. According to the student union ASSÉ eight buses filled with students from Montréal travelled to Québec City to join the protest. Police officers in Québec City used tear gas on protesters and declared the protest illegal. Riots police were deployed and an 18-year-old Québec City post-secondary CEGEP student, Naomie Trudeau-Tremblay, was shot in the face point-blank with a tear gas canister.
This brutal use of force by the police to crackdown on protesters continued. Reports surfaced of violent attacks on demonstrators by riot police, the use of police dogs against protesters and the mass arrest of 274 protesters at a march in Québec City on March 24.
On March 27, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association issued a press release expressing their concern on the police use of force and mass arrests to shut down protests in Montréal and Québec City. The CCLA reiterated that “free speech, expression and protest are constitutionally protected rights in Canada – and must be upheld and protected.”
The Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM) imposed a court injunction on students protesters and started proceeding to expel nine students for their involvement in protests at the university. UQAM’s rector, Robert Proulx also approved a $500,000 contract with a private security company that is being employed for the duration of the student strike. Students said this money could of have gone to program funding or stalled union negotiations.
According to ICI Radio Canada student activist Hamza Babou was arrested and held 10 days in custody before his court hearing on April 17, 2015. Babou, 23 year old, faces 14 charges after being arrested for participating a protest at UQAM. He was denied bail in a controversial ruling by municipal court judge Justice Denis Laberge.
“It is exceedingly rare to hold a defendant in custody at this stage, especially for summary offences, because they are presumed innocent,” Babou's lawyer Veronique Robert told La Presse. Babou has been a main organizer within the university’s student strike movement against austerity at UQAM.
And the Struggle continues...
Despite the violent police crackdown and the fear mongering tactics used by the Couillard's government to stop the protests, over 30,000 people gathered in Montréal on April 2 for the #manif2avril national day of action. Over 130,000 students were on strike for the day of the demonstration, organized by the student union ASSÉ.
Richard-Alexandre Laniel, a spokesman for ASSÉ said the protest measures will continue.
"We are calling on the current strike movement against austerity, against hydrocarbons and against political repression to keep going," he said.
On April 11, over 25,000 people marched for climate action in Quebec City, as well as 15 other Canadian cities including Vancouver. It was the largest environmental protest ever in Québec City and one of the largest climate rallies in Canada’s history.
On march 31, the executive committee of Québec student union association ASSÉ suggested to its members a "strategic withdrawal" by delaying their strike actions until after the summer in the wait of a general strike of public sector and trade unions.
The Comité Printemps 2015 criticized the recommendation on a post on their website "Being overtaken by its base should always be good news for a union, rather than a threat to the strategic plan of a paternalistic leadership."
During the ASSÉ congress held on April 6, ASSÉ members disagreed with delaying the protests and the six executive members responsible for the "strategic withdrawal" letter apologized and handed their resignations. ASSÉ's interim spokesperson, Hind Fazizi, told VICE news that what went down in the congress meeting is about values and accountability.
"We wanted to say it loud that accountability is something very important for us. But there is no confusion in our association because we also voted for a detailed action plan for the rest of spring and summer."
"It's not a student strike, it's a social strike. It's totally different than 2012. It was the greatest student strike. It's not comparable. Movements in Quebec have always been led by students, that's why media is focusing on us. But it's not about us it's about everyone." Fazizi added.
Students have been calling for a social strike on May 1st, International Worker's Day.
Despite the unenthusiastic support for actions on May 1 from the leadership of labour federations, many unions locals are planning to join the students on strike.
Nurses union as well as teachers at several CEGEPs, including Joliette, Rimouski and Sherbrooke, have voted for a strike on May 1st .As many as 3,000 home daycare operators will also be joining the one-day strike.
Québec students are leading a dignified path to defend not only their right to an accessible education but the rights of all against a provincial and federal government that puts profit before people. They are the vanguard of struggle against capitalist austerity in Canada.
Richard-Alexandre Laniel, a spokesman for ASSÉ said “We are launching this as a long term struggle against a government that is trying to ruin our living conditions. He (Couillard) can expect us to struggle against for the years to come."
The Québec students movement consistent organizing against austerity is setting an example for students and workers in Canada about how to fight, to organize, to educate, to mobilize and to win.
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