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The ASSE, parent organization to the Maple Spring's CLASSE, had been remarkably quiet of late, staying largely out of the media spotlight and explaining that they were preoccupied with preparations for the Quebec government's summit on the future of higher education. On Monday morning the other shoe dropped, as spokesperson Jérémie Bédard-Wien delivered an incendiary message to media assembled at an ASSE organized press conference.
Bédard-Wien took the mic to deliver an ultimatum to the Parti Québécois government which the radically democratic student group had voted to throw down during their weekend congress.
ASSE will only participate in the summit if three conditions are met: that the government keeps its promise that nothing would be off the table at the summit, and agrees to consider free education; that the summit consider other options for tuition than just hikes and indexation; and that the government commit to not including quality assurance provisions in the proposed council of universities.
“These expectations are not unreasonable," Bédard-Wien explained at the press conference. "The government has told us repeatedly that everything would be on the table ... If Minister Duchesne is honest, he will respect these promises and he will meet our conditions."
“During the summit, everything must be on the table. It is the difference between an open debate and a PR exercise," the ASSE spokesperson added. “ It is not a question of money, it is a question of principle. Indexation to the cost of living represents a never-ending tuition hike.”
At their weekend congress, the ASSE also voted to return to the streets with a major demonstration during the education summit on February 26th, where students will call for "open, accesible and free education."
In conversation with rabble.ca, Bédard-Wien promised that the 26th would be the largest demonstration since the election of a PQ minority government in September.
"Students are angry, and they feel that their trust in the PQ was misplaced. Free education must be on the table for us to open a meaningful debate at the summit. We are not demanding free education, we are demanding a debate. A debate which is as open as possible, where we can discuss the fundamental questions which arise from the Maple Spring. If we exclude any progressive policies or options, then the space opened by the summit won't allow for debate and the summit will only serve to legitimize decisions made not by consulting partners in education, but by consulting the finance cronies this government is listening to."
Bédard-Wien promises that any move to index tuition will elicit a forceful reaction from the students he represents. "If there is indexation, we will have no choice but to continue building pressure to defend what we have won over six months of struggle last spring."
It is unlikely that the ASSE would take such a forceful stand if they did not feel that they had the full support of the students they represent. This appears likely from the speed with which RSVP's have rolled into the Facebook event for the action on the 26th. As of 5 PM Tuesday, after a little over 24 hours, almost 1,800 people had confirmed their attendance. Meanwhile, a low key video was making the rounds, suggesting that a return to the streets was imminent.
"By choosing indexation," said Bédard-Wien. "The government is refusing to recognize the importance of free education. The government should consider lowering tuition at a more rapid pace, which they can afford, and which would allow up to 27,000 more students to attend university, according to their own statistics. This should be the priority, instead of the continued attack on universities that another increase would represent."
A number of schools have already voted to hold a one day strike on the 26th, with more slated to vote in the coming days. Despite the absence of student federations FEUQ and FECQ, which represented roughly 30% of striking students during last year's Maple Spring, many observers expect the demonstration to draw a substantial crowd, which will likely be in the 10,000+ range.
Late Tuesday the ASSE received support from a most unlikely source, as the CAQ, a right-wing and pro-tuition-hike provincial party which came third in the fall election, called on the PQ to respect their promise and consider all options at the summit. This pot stirring by the CAQ will no doubt increase pressure on a minority PQ government which has already earned an unenviable reputation for flip-flopping, a mere five months into their term.
For more information on the ASSE's ongoing campaign for free education, visit their bilingual campaign website at: gratuitescolaire.info