About 50 student protesters calling for free tuition occupied the office of the Vice-Chair of the Committee on Labour and the Economy Friday, as other demonstrators targeted what they called symbols of privatized education.
The three-hour occupation of the office of Gerry Sklavounos, also the Liberal MNA for for Laurier-Dorion, was part of a day of economic disruption organized by the radical student group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).
The day’s actions, which also included a demonstration at the Economic Institute of Montreal (IEDM) and a Bank of Montreal, sought to pressure institutions and companies, which ASSÉ says have an increasing financial hold over postsecondary education.
“ASSÉ considers that the only way for companies to participate in education is to pay their fair share in taxes,” ASSÉ spokesperson Hubert Gendron-Blais wrote in French in a press release.
“We are showing where the money is and putting pressure in those areas,” said one student before the march began.
After the demonstration made brief stops at the IEDM and a Bank of Montreal, the students headed to Sklavounos’s office at 7665 St. Laurent around 11:00 a.m., where they staged a sit-in.
Despite a significant police presence, the occupation lasted three hours and concluded with a meeting between Sklavounos and two representatives from ASSÉ, whom the group had elected at the beginning of their occupation. The students eventually left peacefully.
The demonstration was timed to coincide with last week’s resumption of classes for UQAM and many Montreal CEGEPs after the winter holidays. ASSÉ is also mobilizing support for an unlimited strike for free education this semester, in response to the Quebec government’s lifting of the freeze on provincial tuition freeze.
“We didn’t have an economic disturbance, but we did inform the media about the lack of finance and the effect on institutions,” said Marc-André Faucher, the information secretary for ASSÉ. “This is just a small step.”
Just three minutes into the sit-in, seven police officers arrived and over five police cars sat outside. By the time the occupiers left the building, nearly 15 officers lined the building’s stairs and guarded the street entrance.
Because Sklavounos’s office is considered a public space, students were allowed to remain, but the police stipulated that anyone who left the building would not be permitted to re-enter. Sklavounos invited the demonstrators to sit on the floor before moving to a private room.
Snacking on granola bars, water, and trail mix, the students perched on desks and office chairs, exploring an open room and peering into drawers. Several inscribed a message on a whiteboard to hang in the window, which overlooked a four-lane street. Others constructed a banner out of sheets of paper and taped those to the window as well.
Shortly after the students arrived, an officer requested to meet with a representative from ASSÉ for negotiations at 2:00 p.m. The students then held their first of many impromptu votes to approve the negotiation time and to elect two representatives.
The student occupiers even ordered pizza shortly after arriving. But when the pizza arrived, the police did not allow the deliverer to drop it off. Upon learning of the situation, the deliverer, who was familiar with ASSÉ, left the students a calendar as a symbol of his support.
At one point, the police offered to allow the pizza into the building in exchange for the negotiation meeting to begin 30 minutes earlier at 1:30 p.m., but the students refused. Throughout the sit-in, police continually offered different times and terms for negotiation, which prompted the students to repeatedly call meetings.
Just after 1:00 p.m. the police claimed that an eviction notice was imminent. Although several students left, the remaining protesters then held their final and longest meeting, debating whether to wait for the eviction or to leave on their own terms and sacrifice the opportunity for a meeting with Sklavounos.
“We didn’t come here to order pizza,” one student, who supported staying, said in French.
With overwhelming support to wait for eviction, the students then voted to discuss ASSÉ’s general platform with Sklavounos, rather than focus solely on free education. Sklavounos spoke with the two elected representatives, who presented him with ASSÉ’s platform.
After approximately three hours, the students left the building chanting.
“We’re actually a little disappointed with the turnout,” Faucher said. “But we’re happy today didn’t end on a street corner.”
“Our goal is to get the word out, to disturb peace.”
Earlier in the day, a small group of demonstrators blocked the entrance to the IEDM and were dispersed by police after 10 minutes. Others proceeded to a Bank of Montreal in Plaza St. Hubert, slapping stickers and spraying graffiti on the entrance.