Quebec’s historic 2011 student strike resulted in the ouster of premier Jean Charest and the repeal of his 75 percent tuition hike, and now Montreal’s student federations are gearing up again to oppose the newly elected Pauline Marois’ decision to indefinitely raise tuitions at a rate of 3 percent annually.
When campaigning, Marois—who has been accused of opportunistically supporting the student movement—promised to repeal the 75 percent hikes. However, she remained committed to an indexation of tuition fees without spelling out the details. Marois pushed off the particulars to be resolved at a future education summit. After letting the student movement cool down for six months, Marois held the education summit during the last week in February.
Two of the largest student federations attended the conference in good faith, but were disappointed by the cursory dialogue that was painted as a “compromise” by the Education Minister. Although the new arrangement would raise tuitions substantially less than the Charest’s hikes (about $70 a year rather than $325), it is the first indefinite hike in forty years and is an unwelcome burden for the already debt-laden students.
The more militant union, ASSÉ, boycotted the meeting because the government refused to discuss free education there and instead organized a rally for Tuesday, February 26, the final day of the summit.
10,000 people showed up, significantly exceeding ASSÉ’s expectations. The march was unusually combative, manifesting the hot exasperation of the students who have sacrificed so much already only to have their voices ultimately ignored.
At 2:00pm in Victoria Square in downtown Montreal, protesters gathered behind a banner that read “Six mois de gréve pour ca? Non á l’indexation!” (Six months of strike for this? No to the indexation!”)
The demonstrators included seniors, students, children and families, and a black bloc.
Some protesters egged banks that were being guarded by police.
As the officers (popularly known as “riot police”) flanked the marchers, several truck drivers honked and residents waved flags in support of the students.
After two hours of marching, protesters started scooping up the muddy snow that lined the streets and hurling chunks at the riot police lining the streets. The idea caught on, and soon the cops were retreating as streams of snowballs smashed against their shields and helmets, the police horses rearing in consternation.
For the next half an hour, the protesters steadfastly demanded that the police get out of their way, shouting, “move!” and provoking the infamously callous cops with snowballs and even glass bottles. After charging repeatedly—only to have the students retake the area—the police called in reinforcements and used tear gas, plastic bullets and a flash grenade to clear the streets.
Here’s a video of the clash.
Medics aided those attacked with tear gas and pepper spray.
Even when the green-shirted provincial police arrived—who took pictures of individual demonstrators to arrest later—most marchers refused to back down.
The provincial cops pursued protesters into neighborhoods, dividing the march, which spilled into smaller streets. Citizens looked on as cops whipped protesters and even tried to steal their bikes-and as Quebec’s youth set up barricades in defense.
Last year, the student’s plight exploded into a general social movement when then-premier Jean Charest enacted Law 78 that prohibited assembly of fifty or more persons without pre-approval. However, many of their previous comrades have abandoned the students in recent months. In a widely cited survey by LÉGER Marketing, a large Canadian polling firm, 90 percent of seniors reportedly favor tuition increases.
The future is uncertain, and student unions are conducting assemblies now to determine their next move. Many students initially believed in a government partnership or election-based solution. But the persistent tokenizing of student seems to be convincing an increasing number of them that their vision for accessible education simply diverges from that of the state.
Zachary Bell is a recent graduate from University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies. At Penn, he was a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian, and covered topics like Greek life, gender and sexuality issues, On Campus Recruiting, university governance, and historical determinism in his bi-weekly “Critical Playground” column. As a freelance journalist, he has contributed to The Nation “Extra Credit” blog, Campus Progress, Toward Freedom, andOccupied Stories. Zachary publishes photo essays, video documentary, and political analysis about Occupy and other social movements on his blog: http://zacharyabell.com/. Follow him on twitter @ZacharyABell. He is proudly from New Haven and currently lives in Philadelphia.