Quebec: Over 200,000 demonstrate against tuition fees hike

Government austerity, police repression…the students’ struggle is everyone’s struggle!

A huge demonstration took place yesterday, Thursday 22 March, in Montreal, Quebec, against a 75% rise of tuition fees forced through by the provincial government led by Liberal leader, Jean Charest. The different student associations report over 200,000 people were on the streets, in what is considered as a potential turning point of a mass student strike which began in early February. This is the strongest show of strength by the student movement, so far, and probably the biggest demonstration in Quebec for decades. The news broadcaster CBC commented: “The parade of protest was so long that its front end would be a full neighbourhood – or even two – away from the tail end.” A helicopter view of the demo can be seen on this video:

Some commentators now talk of a “printemps erable” (a French expression for “maple spring”), in reference to the “printemps arabe” (Arab spring). Up to 300,000 university and college students are reported to be on strike. The number of students taking strike action increases daily, along with support for the movement among the wider population of Quebec. Non students marched in solidarity with students during yesterday’s protest. Even some right-wing student leaders said that the struggle was “only starting”, reflecting the huge pressure which exists for a victory of this movement, with the complete withdrawal of the government’s plans.

Below we publish an edited translation (from French) of the text of the leaflet produced by Alternative Socialiste (CWI in Québec), widely distributed within the movement, explaining how such a victory can be achieved.

"Together let’s stop the hike"

Nearly half of the students studying at colleges and universities in Quebec, over 215,000 students, are now on indefinite general strike. A high percentage of the population supports them. The students are protesting against tuition fees increase and attempts to privatize the education system. During their dispute, they have faced attacks from the ruling establishment and media, as well as increasingly repression from the State forces.

The fight against the rise of tuition fees shows the need for workers and young people to fight back against budget austerity. The last Liberal budget shows that, as always, the government delivers for the private vultures, while, at the same time, makes cuts to public services hitting the majority of the population. It is important to show solidarity with the student movement, and to link up this movement to a broader struggle against the general policies of the provincial Liberal government.

As the students have been saying again and again, there is no justification to make us pay. The problem is that the wealth created through the labour of the working class and the training of young people is not used to benefit society, as such, but rather at concentrating more wealth in the hands of those companies that exploit the workforce (which students will join or already are part of, that is if they have the chance to get a job). And instead of using the huge profits of big companies and banks to ensure accessible and quality public services for all, the government prefers to mortgage our future and to take even more from our pockets, while granting private companies public subsidies, tax exemptions, etc. The rising costs of our education and of our services are accompanied by other government policies aimed at serving even more the interests of private companies, such as new privatizations (for example, through the legislative bill on the ‘governance of educational institutions’) and the sale of natural resources.

Attempts to discredit students

Since the decision was made to raise tuition fees, we have seen a variety of maneuvers by the ruling class to try to discredit the students and to undermine their strike. Whether it is the government’s declarations that the students are not doing their “fair share”, or the numerous prejudices and myths which are circulating in the mass media daily, they have been repeatedly exposed as blatant lies.

Moreover, the authorities are using violence against students. The government and some school administrators provoked teachers and students by calling on them not to respect the students’ picket lines and urged them to cross picket lines. They have also called on security guards and police to intimidate the student strikers. Police brutality against peaceful demonstrations has been brought to new levels. On 1 March, in Quebec, the riot police did not hesitate to use pepper spray and teargas on protesters who had gathered in front of the National Assembly. On the following Tuesday, in Montreal, police fired grenades at point-blank range at protesters gathered in the city centre, following an occupation of the offices of ‘Loto-Québec’ and CRÉPUQ (Conference of Rectors and Principles of Quebec). During this violent police action, a student, Francis Grenier, was seriously injured. The police prevented Grenier from receiving first aid and he now risks losing the use of his right eye. All of these events are not isolated. They show that the notion of ‘freedom of expression’ is something quickly forgotten by the ruling class when it does not suits them to protect their interests.

Despite all these attempts to silence the students, and to impose on them neo-liberal policies, the students are more determined than ever to continue their struggle. In Montreal, various events, protest actions and demonstrations have taken place every day since the beginning of the strike. Now the students need the active support of the wider population, and especially of the working class, not only to win the current education battle but to stand together and to build a united front against the austerity policies, in general. A national demonstration on 22 March, in Montreal, will be an opportunity to show this sort of solidarity and make concrete steps in that direction. Already several teachers and trade unions have expressed support for the student strikers, but that needs to happen in a concrete way and for others to do the same. Otherwise, if isolated, the student movement could falter. The Liberals would benefit from this course of events and continue with their policies, possibly resulting in a ‘discount’ agreement concluded with the bureaucratic leaderships of the FECQ (Quebec Federation of College Students) and FEUQ (Quebec Federation of University Students), as we saw during a students’ strike in 2005.

The increase in tuition fees is part of a general rise in the precariousness of social rights. This is among the many reasons why Socialist Alternative (CWI in Quebec) supports and is actively involved in the current student strike. Below are the demands that we believe must be defended by the movement, to not only stop the rise in tuition fees but also to counter the government’s attacks on living conditions.

-Stop the rise of tuition fees. For free education, at all levels!

-Against regressive measures, such as the postgraduate tax

-For the unity of the student movement. Refuse any ‘discount’ agreement with the government

-End the privileges of college administration bureaucrats and the lack of representation of students, teachers and workers

-For the management of universities and colleges by students, workers and teachers

– End youth unemployment! For guaranteed, decent jobs for graduates

-For the unity of social struggles against the policies of the ruling elite and their rotten system

-For a one day national general strike. Students and workers, unemployed and pensioners, all united against austerity!

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March 2012