Quebec Tuition Hike Threat Sparks Social Movement

by Jasmine Green

As of April 12th, student associations representing over 171,000 students from Quebec’s universities and CEGEP programs have gone on strike and organised protests in opposition to the recent government decision to increase tuition fees by 75 percent over five years. It began with 30, 000 students on February 13th and grew  to reach  192,000 students in 39 days. This nine weeks student strike is the longest in Canadian history.

March 22 tuition protest (Ziyan Hossain - Oohlala Mobile)

Major peaceful protests, some met with police violence, have been taking place in Montreal and have resulted in hundreds of arrests. On March 7, CEGEP student Francis Grenier suffered an eye injury as a result of a clash with the police.

Student associations at various universities have been going on strike to demand that the Liberal government reverse its decision to increase tuition fees by $325 a year, for a total of $1,625, by 2016.

“The main focus of the strike is tuition fees,” said Hugo Bonin, a student in Concordia’s women studies program whose association is on strike. “But I think this is an opportunity to politicise a lot of students and people across Quebec.”

While there seems to be an overwhelming support for the strike among the student community, a few CEGEPs and student associations voted against the strike, most notably  the student union at Dawson College.

Quebec’s tuition fees are currently $2,519 per year on average, the lowest in the country. Even with the proposed changes, Quebec’s tuition will remain lower than the Canadian average of $5,366. This has been a common point of criticism against the strike.

But Bonin disagrees.

“Tuition fees are lower in Quebec than the rest of Canada, but so is the student debt, which is a good impact of low tuition fees,” he said. “This [along] with the free CEGEP years has resulted in a 9% higher enrollment than the rest of Canada.”

The student movement in Quebec has a lengthy history of strikes, the most recent successful strike being in 2005.

On March 22, 200,000 people took to the streets, in opposition to the hikes. There still has not been any options for negotiations between the liberal government and the student union CLASSE, as they have been requesting.

Line Beauchamp, Quebec minister of education,  refuses any renegotiation of the hike. As the strike goes on, the demonstrations have begun to incorporate the blockage of economic power centres as part a strategy to increase the pressure on the government to negotiate.

Students have begun to call for general strikes, and have been receiving widespread support from everyday citizens in their protests. Most recently, on April 14th, 30, 000 people took to the streets in Montreal calling for a broader social mobilisation in the province, referring to it as the “maple spring”.  Other slogans such as: “the strike is student, but the struggle is a popular one!” show that the classist nature of this strike is clear to the movement and therefore supported by society at large.

In the context of governmental austerity, this struggle is perhaps the most decisive yet. CEGEPS and Universities have begun ordering students back to classes, going against democratic decisions of general assemblies. Injunctions are beginning to be imposed on picketers of classes by universities. Nevertheless, the movement has not let the intimidation tactics break the strike, as massive outpour of support comes from fellow students and even professors.

“In Ontario, education is no longer accessible,” Nicole Desnoyers, a campaign organizer with the University of Ottawa “I think that Ontario students getting a victory to lower tuition fees is partially dependent on Quebec students being able to block this tuition fee hike.”

The issue of student poverty and student debt is an increasing concern for students. If the trend of tuition hikes continues, there is a fear that universities will witness higher dropout rates, especially of students from lower income families.

“This struggle is being led by the people who will be hit the hardest by the strike: parent-students, women and working class students with loans up to their ears,” notes Louisa Worrell, a student in the University of Quebec in Montreal UQAM “For these people, the hike will be the difference between attending university  or not. That is why the struggle will win;  we have no other choice.”