Photo: Stefan Christoff

Tens of thousands of students are on the streets protesting moves by the Québec Liberal government to inflate post-secondary tuition fees by $1,625 in the next five years. A serious grassroots battle is underway as students hold major street protests, sit-ins, and direct actions.

Currently, over 65,000 students in Québec are on an unlimited general strike under the banner Ensemble, bloquons la hausse/Stop the Hike. Over a dozen additional student associations and unions are voting in the coming days whether to join the quickly expanding protest movement, now at the centre of political debate across the province.

Montreal is alive with dramatic protests. Tens of thousands took to the streets in a major demonstration last week, the largest strike action to date, emptying the schools of students. “Qui sème la misère, récolte la colère!” echoed off buildings on St. Catherine street in downtown Montreal, a popular rhyming French language slogan roughly translating to “Whoever sows misery harvests anger!”

After winding through downtown, a splinter protest moved to block the entrance to the Jacques Cartier Bridge. Riot police were quickly deployed, attacking students with batons and unleashing pepper spray indiscriminately at the bridge entrance and on surrounding city streets, as broadcast on CBC nationally.

This clash was a direct reminder of the 2005 student strike, which employed both direct action and popular protest, successfully halting attempts by Jean Charest’s Liberal government to cut $103 million from student bursaries.

To symbolize the dollars being cut and their willingness to deploy a diversity of tactics, students dispatched 103 live mice in Charest’s offices. This political tone was propelled by l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante in 2005 and is again today in 2012.

Red squares across Montreal

A symbolic red patch, representing the student movement in Québec, is now common on city streets, pinned to winter jackets and backpacks. Even historical landmarks are connecting with the strike movement: the illuminated cross on Mount Royal was draped last week with a giant red cloth.

Creative actions continue to emerge. Students from Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) took to the metro for an “underground” protest last week. Clothed head-to-toe in red, the students formed lines along métro platforms as la ligne rouge, a remix on the names of Montreal’s metro lines, à la ligne vert or la ligne bleu.

Student union and organization offices across Montreal are adorned in red squares, in paint and in cloth. At Concordia University, the offices of the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, a key student organization promoting gender equality and empowerment, has covered a large front window with a giant red square. Also at Concordia, the respected Simone de Beauvoir Institute, a centre for feminist studies in Montreal, officially endorsed the strike movement.

A major protest is booked for March 1 in Québec City and more protests are expected on the streets in Montreal over the coming weeks.

Broader Québec struggles

Key to the momentum of the current Québec student strike is significant political support from community organizations and unions. The social movement collaboration is represented in the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics, the coalition that moved to blockade the Montreal Stock Exchange for several hours on February 16.

On a sunny, winter morning, hundreds of protesters locked arms and formed a human chain across the doors to the Stock Exchange. It was a protest in support of the student struggle against tuition hikes but also against policy shifts toward the privatization of public health care, specifically the new obligatory health-care fee for Québec residents.

Responding to the blockade, police in riot gear employed pepper spray and batons against protesters, mere steps away from the financial district park where Occupy Montreal was encamped in the fall.

Widely under-reported, the mass action outside the Montreal Stock Exchange is not only connected to the current student strike, but points to a burgeoning unity across social movements in Québec that are posing a major challenge to austerity-driven policies.

Banners representing community-driven struggles, like the critical fight against the rapid-fire gentrification in Montreal, are common within the student strike protests. The Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain, a Québec-wide network campaigning against poverty and for social housing, held a strong protest in Montreal on February 4. It culminated with hundreds of low-income protesters holding a teach-in inside the lobby of the Place des Arts and included speeches by l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudeante (ASSÉ) members.

Demands driving the strike in Québec are rooted in important struggles to ensure accessible education. As the Québec student strike moves forward, however, students and other protesters in Montreal are taking steps not only against policies in Québec, but are opposing Conservative economics in general. These early critical steps are local to Québec, but recent actions in Montréal have a potential to inspire a broader grassroots challenge to the austerity economics being unleashed by conservative politicians across Canada.

Can the Québec student strike be the spark that starts a fire?

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based community activist, musician and writer who contributes to Follow him on Twitter: @spirodon.

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Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a journalist and community organizer based in Montreal.