On December 6, exactly two weeks from today, college and university classrooms in Montreal will be empty and the streets and squares of Quebec City will be full. Student governments representing 33,000 students, mostly from UQAM and Montreal CEGEPs, have voted in recent weeks to strike on the day the provincial government is expected to unveil its plans for tuition hikes. Thousands more are expected to march in the provincial capital under the banners of the three major student lobbying groups, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), the Quebec Student Roundtable (QSR), and Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).
There have been fissures between the groups all year, notably over whether Quebec universities are underfinanced or if their funding is simply misappropriated. But on December 6, at the yearly Rencontre des partenaires de l’éducation, they say all differences will be set aside.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, ASSÉ’s director of communications, said in French that he hoped the protests in Quebec City would be “as big as possible,” and that “people will come, no matter what their organization.”
FEUQ president Louis-Philipe Savoie echoed the thought: “The more the merrier,” he said, speaking of the protest.
“I’m not going to go out and say that, after December 6, suddenly all the national associations will suddenly agree on every single political point,” said Joël Pedneault, a U3 Arts student at McGill and vice-secretary general of QSR, of which SSMU is a founding member. “However, what I do think might come out of December 6…is that there might be a little more coordination between the national unions.”
The protests of the three groups are already coordinated to some extent. Pedneault described how the protests would unfold in an interview with The Daily.
FEUQ and FECQ – its CEGEP counterpart – will stage a rally in front of Quebec City’s Hilton Hotel, where the meetings are taking place. Around the same time, ASSÉ will lead a march, beginning in front of the National Assembly and heading towards the Hilton, where ASSÉ and FEUQ will converge. The QSR contingent will also join the fray at this point.
Nadeau-Dubois said he thought between 1,000 and 2,000 protestors would take part in ASSÉ’s portion of the protest. A number of the group’s member associations will be on strike that day, making a big turnout more likely.
QSR’s numbers will likely be smaller. “Since there probably won’t be any strike vote in any of [QSR’s] member association’s, you could probably expect a little bit [fewer] people to show up,” Pedneault said.
SSMU has plans to make a splash at the protest, however. Before sitting down with The Daily, SSMU VP External Myriam Zaidi had to finish a phone call with a T-shirt designer: “Take off the bracket – ‘not a privilege’ – and leave ‘Education is a right,’” she said. She was putting in an order for a hundred T-shirts to be worn by McGill undergrads at the Rencontre, and debating what message they should bear. They will be dark blue, with yellow text.
The number of T-shirts Zaidi is ordering synchs up with the number of students she hopes to squeeze into two fifty-person-capacity buses bound for Quebec City on December 6.
ASSÉ is the only invitee boycotting the meeting, calling the Rencontre “illegitimate.” None of the major student groups have much hope for the day-long event, it seems.
Pedneault said that government officials would be “making arbitrary decisions about what direction Quebec’s universities should be going in one day…[giving] a month’s notice to all the people who are going to show up to the meeting.” The date of the Rencontre was announced in a press release on November 4.
Savoie added that FEUQ has tried to voice their positions to the Ministry of Education, notably in an early October meeting with education minister Line Beauchamp. Savoie said the meeting was unproductive and that Beauchamp “really wasn’t in control of her issues.”
Throughout the year, the minister’s office has told The Daily that Beauchamp was not yet familiar enough with her portfolio to give an interview.
Despite their skepticism about the meeting, some representatives from FEUQ and QSR will be inside – meeting with Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand and Beauchamp, among others – while their colleagues protest outside.
Savoie said he was not concerned this tactical mix would undermine FEUQ at the meeting.
Pedneault said he and the two other QSR representatives who will be in the Hilton might walk out of the meeting if the government announces that they will raise tuition, which they are expected to do. “Our response will be proportionate to how scandalous their revelations are,” he said.
Student leaders acknowledge, however, that they are facing daunting obstacles in organizing a mass protest on such short notice, and in the thick of exams.
Savoie said the awkward timing means students will have to work harder to mobilize. “It just means we have to wake up earlier and go to sleep later,” he said.
The protests are unlikely to match the scale of student demonstrations in London and Dublin in recent weeks. Pedneault offered that the absence of concrete, imminent plans for tuition hikes might be holding the size of the planned protest in check. “People don’t feel that urgency of mobilizing, even though they feel the necessity of mobilizing,” he said. “You can mobilize a lot more people when it’s urgent, when it’s happening right now.”
Pedneault and Savoie are also doubtful that student protestors will clash with police on December 6, as students did in London earlier in the month.
Savoie said he hoped to lead “protests that are in order, that are safe for protestors.”
“We’re not here to breaks things…or to riot. We’re not here to scare the population,” he added.
Pedneault agreed, but with a caveat. “I think I speak for all the national associations when I say we’ll distance ourselves from [illegal] tactics. But we would understand why they’re using them, you know. They’re denouncing tuition hikes [and] the illegitimacy of that meeting,” he said.
ASSÉ’s Nadeau-Dubois said he expects police to crack down on the protests. “We know that more and more police use force to break political dissent,” he said, referring in part to this summer’s G20 in Toronto. ASSÉ provided financial and logistical support to protestors at the summit, where over 1,000 people were arrested.
“We know [the police] will try to intimidate us,” Nadeau-Dubois went on, adding, “We won’t fold in the face of police repression.”
“We hope everything will go on with order and calm. But we won’t judge how people express their anger.”