What the rest of Canada doesn't understand about Quebec's student movement

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Far from intimidated in the face of politicians' insults and police brutality, Quebec students are feeling their strength. (Photo: http://artivistic.org/)

As 180,000 students continue their 12-week strike against tuition increases, and police respond with concussion grenades, pepper spray, batons, kettling and mass arrests, Quebec's major city is becoming ungovernable.

What was a fairly routine student strike has turned into what many are calling the Maple Spring.

Day after day, protesters wearing signature swatches of red cloth clog the streets of Montreal's downtown chanting anti-capitalist slogans. A minority has responded to police aggression by trashing government offices and corporate windows, building barricades and ripping up concrete to heave onto police lines.

This week, CLASSE, the main coalition of student unions, rejected Premier Jean Charest's attempt to defang the surging movement by spreading the tuition increase over seven years instead of five. Hours after the offer, thousands of protesters in a boisterous nighttime demo condemned it as an "insult."

Outsiders, it seems, are having trouble grasping why students with the lowest post-secondary tuition in the country (generally around $2,600 yearly) would be so exercised about the Charest government's increase of $1,625 over five years.

But the reality is, the hike portends a weakening of government commitment, and there's a long tradition here of pushing back when public supports are threatened. Quebecers are just plain more aspirational when it comes to social rights, something Charest had to reckon with in 2005 and 06 when labour forced him to back down on cuts and privatization and a student strike nixed cuts to loans and grants.

In the nightly mass demonstrations of the past week, one feels the frustration of a generation that is seeing the promises of social security their parents benefited from being taken away.

Furthermore, the narrative about making university a fee-less service like health care has deep roots here. "It's written in the most fundamental text of the Quebec educational system that there should be free education," says Simon Tremblay-Pepin, of the Institute for Socio-Economic Research and Information (IRIS), referring to the 1960s Royal Commission on Education, or the Parent Report.

That report, which led to the overhauling of the school system, created nine U of Quebec campuses and a vast network of free colleges known as Cégeps. The whole point of this Quiet Revolution in education, he says, was to break the control of the elites and democratize a society once dominated by Church institutions.

"Access to new universities was important because education was no longer a privilege, something just for a very limited number of people linked to the Catholic Church and the Liberal party," Tremblay-Pepin tells me.

As part of this initiative, he says, the province first regulated Quebec-wide tuition fees. The fees were initially intended as students' contribution to the cost of building the new campuses, but they were supposed to remain frozen, making up a decreasing proportion of university revenue. The commission called for the eventual elimination of all tuition fees. By 1995, however, tuition had increased by 228 per cent.

Until now, low tuition has had an undeniable impact on quality of life. As an IRIS report points out, students in Quebec carry a lighter debt load than elsewhere in Canada - average debt for students in their final year was $15,102 in Quebec compared, for example, to Ontario's $25,778.

And participation in post-secondary education is 9 per cent higher than in other provinces. Tremblay-Pepin also notes that because of ease of access, most parents have small or no college savings plans for their kids.

For Holly Nazar of Concordia U's Graduate Student Association, the protests are "about a whole vision of how we want Quebec society to be." The fee hike, she says, "has everything to do with ideology and very little to do with economic conditions. There are so many places the government can find revenue. It's a question of where you put the burden."

Interestingly, that's exactly the position of former co-chair of the Parent Commission, sociologist Guy Rocher. He and prof Yvan Perrier recently penned a widely circulated letter backing the student cause. The two call for a more equitable and fairer tax system as a way of abolishing university fees altogether.

"Free university," the two write, "is not a utopia. It would cost about 1 per cent of the entire Quebec budget, and reintroducing the tax brackets abolished between 1988 and 1998 would yield the necessary funds." Tuition, they charge, is a "regressive" tax.

That's not how Education Minister Line Beauchamp sees the issue. "The government of Quebec is firm and convinced that students should pay their fair share," she tells the press.

"The debate always comes back to this demand for a freeze on tuition. I want to be very clear. I will always refuse to ask all Quebec taxpayers to foot the bill," Beauchamp says.

Sitting across a café table in the Jean Talon Market, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for CLASSE, dismisses this logic. "The government knows, if they succeed in breaking the mobilization of students, other measures will be easier," he says, referring to attempts to destroy the welfare system and other public services.

So students and the government are locked in a game of brinkmanship, a clash over the direction of the province and whether higher education is a public good or a private advantage. "The Liberal party of Quebec has the majority of seats, but they don't have the majority in the francophone or youth population," says Francis Dupuis-Deri, a poli sci prof at U of Quebec at Montreal.

"For the last few years in Quebec, the political elite has been seen as corrupt and disconnected from the population. This explains the orange wave. Now you have this strong social movement taking on this elite."

And instead of being intimidated by the prospect, the young activists marching up Sherbrooke are feeling their strength. Says Philippe Morin of Profs Against the Hike, "The strike has been given a meaning: you can change history. People get hurt, get $500 fines on a student budget, are tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, and they're like, ‘You thought we'd back down? Well, we're not and we're going to go further.'"

Jesse Rosenfeld is a Toronto-based journalist.

This article was originally published in NOW Magazine and is reprinted here with permission. 

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