Students protested tuition increases at a March 5 demonstration in Montreal. (Photo: Zach Bell)
This piece originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence and is reposted with the author’s permission.
Last Tuesday, 10,000 people gathered at Victoria Square in downtown Montreal for the most recent chapter of Quebec’s historic student movement. Their presence was a protest of the long-awaited education summit, which ended with the disappointing, but expected, decision to increase tuition 3 percent annually, starting next fall.
Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois had promised the summit during her campaign last summer as a way to appease the more than 100,000 students who had taken part in the Maple Spring—a historic six-month strike against then-Premier Jean Charest’s 75 percent tuition hike. While Marois rode this wave of opposition into office—quickly repealing Charest’s steep hikes in September—her official stance all along was to index tuition fees to inflation.
Even before her election, many students accused Marois of opportunism. She famously sported a red square—the symbol of the student movement based on the slogan “squarely in the red,” referring to debt—and joined in pot-banging casserole protests. Then she abruptly dropped the acts of solidarity when they were no longer politically profitable.
While Education Minister Pierre Duchesne called the indexation plan a “compromise,” few students saw it that way. Martine Desjardins—the president of Quebec’s largest university student association, La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, or FEUQ—called the decision “disappointing.” She said that the university community is clearly asking for a tuition freeze, but that this option was given little attention at the summit.
Since the late 1960s, the policy has been to keep tuition frozen (with only occasional increases). So a per-year increase, albeit a relatively small one of about $70, is a symbolically significant reversal for the already debt-laden students. Yet, according to Desjardins, it is too early to know if the federation would be prepared to strike over it.
There are, however, some associations preparing to get back into strike mode. On February 26, the final day of the summit, a number of student associations—representing a total of 50,000 students—went on strike for the day. While some of the most active colleges of the Maple Spring did not strike that Tuesday, citing “strike fatigue,” a number of associations have motions to hold assemblies in the next couple of weeks to vote on a general strike. This would mean resuming the indefinite walkout from classes of last year—presumably if Marois tried to officially codify her indexation policy as law.