Five hundred demonstrators took to the streets last Thursday to protest Provincial Bills 38 and 44 – legislation that will change how Quebec’s universities and CEGEPs are governed. The demonstration is the largest to date on the issue, uniting multiple college and university associations that represent over 130,000 individuals.
The demonstration was organized by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), with official participation from the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université, Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ), the Syndicat canadien de la fonction publique, and the Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TACEQ) – of which SSMU is a founding member.
Students, professors, and staff from across the province were in attendance. Buses brought students from Outaouais, Sherbrooke, and Quebec City, while students at CEGEP Marie-Victorin in northeast Montreal missed classes and went on strike for the day to protest the proposed legislation.
McGill students were also present, though VP External Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan noted that SSMU did not organize a specific meeting place for students.
“We didn’t organize a place for all of us to come as one group, but I definitely had a pretty successful postering campaign, so the message is definitely out there…through Facebook, the [SSMU] web site, and the [SSMU] list serv, and so students were aware of it,” he said, adding, “I think that ultimately [this] affects McGill and that we should act in solidarity with our counterparts in other universities, with the unions that work in our schools, and universities.”
If passed, Bills 38 and 44 will change the composition of Quebec university and CEGEP boards of governors. Bill 38 requires that independent members compose 60 per cent of universities’ boards, in addition to an appointed government representative, while Bill 44 adopts a 65 per cent independent quota for CEGEPs. Both types of institutions would also have to adopt strict rules on the disclosure of public information.
While the Ministry of Education believes that the changes will improve governance and transparency, others see the legislation as a sign of further private and commercial control of the province’s educational institutions.
Demonstrators chanted, “Le savoir n’est pas marchandise; l’école n’est pas une entreprise,” as they marched along Ste. Catherine through downtown Montreal. Some students dressed in suits, ties, and white masks marked with dollar signs. Others handed out newsletters informing bystanders of the reasons for the demonstration.
Mathieu Melamcon, a graduate of Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and vocal demonstrator, commented, “We thought that this was completely illegitimate to put private institutions at the head of our universities because those people have no idea how to run our colleges. We prefer to have public institutions that are ruled by public servants because those people have the…[incentives] to search for our best interests, and not the [profitability] of our institutions – which is not in our opinion a business.”
Jean Trudelle of FNEEQ, a union of CEGEP teachers, part-time university teachers, and graduate students employed at McGill, also joined the demonstration. He commented that the changes would drastically alter how CEGEPs and universities are governed.
“The institutions are governed based on group participation of teachers, support staff, and professors, and also students. All those groups have in a way or another, access to the way things are run…. [The Ministry of Education] want to restrain the participation of people from the inside, to the profit of people from the outside…and we all think that [institutions] should be governed the other way around,” Trudelle said.
Vaughan Dowie, Executive Head of Public Affairs at McGill, commented that while McGill already has more than 60 per cent independent representation on its board of governors, Bill 38 could have serious implications for student representation. The bill also legislates how long each member is required to serve: three years for members, and two years for students.
“The McGill tradition has been that the presidents of SSMU and the McGill Post-Graduate Students’ Society have seats for one year – and if it’s two years, that might mean that the current president of the society would not be able to sit on the board,” said Dowie.
Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne introduced the bills in an effort to bring sound governance to all public institutions. The legislation is viewed by many as a response to the mismanagement of real estate by UQAM’s board of governors, which resulted in $400-million bailout by the provincial government.
Jonathan Rioux, External Affairs coordinator for the Association étudiante du Secteur des sciences de l’UQAM argued, however, that the legislation is not an appropriate response to the UQAM debacle.
“It is very ironic. I know they say that it is a reaction to UQAM being $400 million in debt, but as you can see, in most of the news, the people who voted for the acquisition were the external members. The internal members, students and teachers, voted against,” Rioux said, adding “Unlike companies, universities are made to create knowledge, and act toward tomorrow’s society, so it is very important that the people who take action are directly connected to the reality of the university. You cannot ask people who work nine to five to make decisions that won’t be influenced by [their] positions.”
The Ministry of Education held a consultation on the bills this month. Kim Ledoux, spokesperson for the Ministry, said in an interview after the protest that Courchesne took opposition into account.
“She listened carefully to all the groups, she is open to some modifications and changes, and she indicated this many times, when the consultations were happening. The majority of the groups are agreed with the principles of the bills,” said Ledoux.
Demonstration organizers Christian Pépin and Étienne Guérette for ASSÉ said, however, that they were unsatisfied with the consultations and that there was too much opposition for the bills to go forward.
“I think if we don’t get the Minister’s attention now, that that will demonstrate that she is not listening to people who are doing the CEGEP and university, and that will show her arrogance toward the union movement and student association movement,” Guérette said.
Guérette also speculated that given the Liberal majority in the National Assembly, many expect that the bills will pass. In that case, Guérette promised a larger mobilization, and that student unions will continue to challenge the legislation at their respective councils.