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The winter of our discontent: A backgrounder on Quebec's tuition hikes and student movement

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More than 100,000 post-secondary students in Quebec have a one-day strike mandate to protest tuition fee hikes on Nov. 10, while thousands more will vote on approving one in the next few days.

It's the latest action from a significant student movement whose protests have sometimes resulted in the occupation of government offices and devolved into tear-gas-laced clashes with riot police.

The fact that students in Quebec are so vocal about their funding and rights while paying some of the lowest tuition in Canada have led some to paint them as "reactionary" and spoiled. This September, Montreal Gazette columnist Henry Aubin went so far as to label students the province's version of the Tea Party, likening them to the fringe American group in that they "see any increases in their financial contributions to government as heinous" and that their demands could weaken society.

The current ire against the government is the result of Finance Minister Raymond Bachand's promise to raise tuition in Quebec in order to increase funding for universities and help reduce the province's debt. Starting next fall, tuition will increase by $325 a year over a five-year period, resulting in a new full-time tuition price tag of $3,793, for Quebec residents, in 2017. University administrators have applauded the decision, as many been saying they are grossly underfunded. But while the total increases will likely keep Quebec as one of the two or three provinces with the cheapest tuition, students are still crying foul.

And if this upcoming protest fails to capture the attention of Premier Jean Charest and his Education Minister Line Beauchamp, it may come to a general strike in the winter, with more protests and and clashes.

Strikes and union organization have been a constant on the student movement scene in Quebec for decades since the 1960s, when the province's student union movement began in earnest. As heady post-colonial and anti-war protests were taking place around the world in the '60s, students in Quebec were getting more active about issues at home and abroad.

"It was a convergence of international and local factors," explained Fred Burrill, a community organizer and former student leader, referencing what led to the burgeoning student movement. Burrill, who wrote about the history of the movement in the '60s and '70s as an undergraduate at McGill University a few years ago, said that students adopted "student syndicalism" from post-war France, where students are empowered to organize like labour unions -- with the right to strike, of course.

"But at the same time in Quebec, there was this pretty intense pressure in terms of a burgeoning demographic of people who wanted to go to school, but had no place to go to school," he added. It was a dearth that left a few thousand people without a spot in class. Students went on strike in 1968, which led to the creation of the Quebec network of universities, which includes best-known example Université du Québec à Montréal, or UQAM, and the first tuition freeze.

As well, 1964 saw the formal founding of the Ministry of Education, which created a need for a formal lobby to meet the minister to advocate for student needs, according to Benoit Lacoursière, a former student activist and member of the founding executive of l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ).

Lacoursière, now a teacher of political science at Collège de Maisonneuve, said that the Quiet Revolution, or la Révolution tranquille, explains a lot about the mobilization in the student movement. In a huge cultural shift and democratic awakening of sorts, the Catholic Church's long hold on power in the province diminished, and a secular education system became a hallmark of the new Quebec.

In 1967, the CEGEP system was founded, adding another tier to post-secondary education. High school graduates are enrolled in vocational and pre-university programs for two to three years, and today, pay little more than $100 a semester on tuition, not including books and supplies. According to Roxanne Dubois, national chairperson of Canadian Federation of Students, CEGEPs give students a taste of more affordable education -- something they'll want to fight for.

"Many will have an interest in pursuing university, and when you have a situation like [we do] now, where you have tuition fees increasing in Quebec, then you will obviously have a base of students that have the ability to organize and be activists in [supporting] access to public education," she said.

While the movement has seen breakthroughs, it has experienced weaker moments as unions have come and gone.

"Like student populations, there's some waxing and waning. Organizations are born, radicalized, get a bit entrenched, get a little bureaucratic and then die," said Burrill.

There have been several different bodies that have represented students over the years: the Union général du Québec, Association national du Québec, and today, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, and its CEGEP sibling, Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec. Today, in addition to FÉUQ and FÉCQ, there's ASSÉ, a more radical member organization founded during a quieter period in 2001.

The three illustrate a division between student groups, noted Burrill. Groups tend to split into either the more militant camp, like ASSÉ, or lobbyist groups, like FÉUQ and FÉCQ. The latter tend to be recognized by the government when it comes to negotiations, which has caused tensions between groups who would otherwise be united for the same cause.

ASSÉ was shut out of the government negotiations during the 2005 general strike, but the groups are striking a more harmonious stance today. "We don't want a repeat of 2005, which is why we've proposed to other organizations that we sign an agreement that promises that we won't have a similar division," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for ASSÉ.

Despite the tension in 2005, the general strike proved mostly successful. Students rallied when the current government tried to transfer $100 million worth of bursaries and grants into loans. More than 200,000 students went on strike, taking over university buildings and eventually blockading the Port of Montreal. The strike ended when the government backed down and abandoned the loan conversion plan.

Likely, said Lacoursière, some of the masterminds of 2005 will be around to help today's student organizers, who are continuing to pursue individual union strike mandates this week. But whether 2011 will be a repeat of 2005, and be enough to change the government's mind, win public support and fully rally nearly 200,000 Quebec students, has yet to be seen.

Sarah Deshaies is the Canadian University Press Quebec Bureau Chief.

This article and photo was reprinted with permission from the Canadian University Press newswire.

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