Despite exams and the first major snowfall of the year, thousands of university and CEGEP students from across the province demonstrated yesterday in Quebec City against the second Rencontre des partenaires en éducation, a meeting of provincial government ministers, university administrators, and student and labour unions.
Around fifty McGill students travelled to the provincial capital to join the protest on a bus chartered by SSMU, while over 60,000 university and college students, mostly members of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) were on strike across the province.
The number of McGill students at the protest was lower than the eighty-person turnout organizers originally expected. SSMU VP External Myriam Zaidi, one of the organizers, attributed this to the timing of the Rencontre.
“A lot of people cancelled at the last minute because they thought they would manage studying for their exams and the closer it got to the date the more they realized they hadn’t done enough work,” she explained.
The main march led by ASSÉ noisily made its way through the streets near Quebec’s National Assembly, while a smaller rally organized by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) stayed outside the Hilton hotel, where the Rencontre was being held.
After around an hour of chanting slogans against tuition hikes, austerity measures, and Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government, ASSÉ’s march joined the rally in front of the hotel before dispersing at around 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, after half a day of talks, representatives from student, professor, and labour unions walked out of the meeting due to what they saw as the government’s unwillingness to negotiate on proposed tuition hikes.
These included representatives from Quebec’s two largest student lobby groups – FEUQ (along with its CEGEP counterpart FECQ), and the Quebec Student Roundtable (QSR, also known as TaCEQ), of which SSMU is a founding member.
ASSÉ, the province’s third major student lobby group, decided to boycott the meeting and concentrate their efforts entirely on protesting.
At the meeting, the Conférence des recteurs et principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ), along with provincial finance minister Raymond Bachand and education minister Line Beauchamp, called for a fee increase of approximately $500 per year for three years beginning in 2012, according to La Presse.
Current tuition for Quebec residents stands at approximately $2,415 per year. The CREPUQ proposal would bring annual tuition fees to around $3,900.
Joël Pedneault, a QSR representative at the Rencontre and U3 McGill student who walked out of the meeting, complained about a lack of dialogue.
“The meeting was insufficient to have the kind of debate that should be happening about the future of Quebec universities, which is more than just a one day thing, so everyone just walked out,” he said.
“People are talking past each other. Some people are saying we should be increasing tuition fees to the Canadian average – you have people saying we shouldn’t be increasing tuition fees at all. There’s a complete lack of consensus about anything really, so there’s no use being in that meeting right now,” Pedneault continued. “We [QSR] were putting forward the fact that we’re against all tuition increases.”
Around the same time as the walkout, a small group of protesters broke away from the main march and entered the hotel complex through a food court before being kicked out by Sûreté du Québec riot police.
Carol Fraser, U3 Arts, was one of a handful of McGill students who tried to get closer to the Rencontre itself. “We were trying to get into just the lobby. People were very peaceful – some people were yelling at the police, but nothing more than that,” she said.
Police were quick to escort students out of the Hilton complex, but did not arrest any of them. The Gazette reported that students inside the Hilton attacked police with wooden sticks and police responded with batons, however it is unclear if the incidents were the same.
The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, although the CBC reported that a single student was arrested earlier in the day for disorderly conduct.
Despite disappointment in the Rencontre, which Zaidi described as an “illegitimate meeting” and a “rubber stamp,” on planned tuition hikes, the VP External believed the protests “went really well. There were thousands of students, as expected.”
She predicted intensified student opposition to fee increases in 2012 when tuition will be allowed to rise faster than the current 50 dollars a semester. “I definitely foresee a general student strike, because these hikes are unlike anything we’ve seen before,” she said.
Despite McGill’s less prominent role in the Quebec student movement, Zaidi pointed to the University’s high international population as a potential source of activism.
“McGill is somewhat of an international university and one thing that I noticed that got to students here at McGill more than elsewhere in Quebec is what’s been happening in London, in Ireland,” she said, referring to recent protests against austerity measures and tuition fee increases in Europe.