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55,000 Quebeckers protest Bachand budget

Students rally against tuition hikes amidst province-wide fear of austerity measures

On Saturday, March 12, at Place du Canada, an estimated 55,000 people gathered to protest Quebec finance minister Raymond Bachand’s budget, which will  be released today. The budget is expected to include tuition increases for all students studying in Quebec, along with other cuts to public services and a $200 health tax.

The march, which ended outside of Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s office on McGill College, attracted approximately 100 McGill students who stood in solidarity with other protesters, some coming from as far as Saguenay–Lac–Saint-Jean.

“The budget must be equitable. We are gathering against an anti-social justice and anti-union government,” declared a Confédération des syndicates national (CSN) spokesperson in French, over loudspeakers, to the rally. “We are in solidarity with the unions in Wisconsin,” she added, referencing the weeks of protests in opposition to the recently passed Wisconsin bill collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Amir Khadir, Québec Solidaire member of the National Assembly for the Mercier riding, was present at the demonstration.

“We don’t expect, frankly, that Mr. Charest and Mr. Bachand will change the global orientation of the liberal government that has been downsizing public services and increasing the burden of middle class, of lower income people,” said Khadir.

“But there is a need to unite people, there is a growing capacity in our society to say no to government policies and government decisions,” he continued.

Holly Nazar, a councillor on the Graduate Students Association at Concordia and member of Free Education Montreal, predicts that the budget will include a $500 or $1,000 per year increase in tuition fees.

“This time,” she said, “we can’t settle for a compromise, we have to settle for a real commitment – we are really losing what Quebec is supposed to be, and what Canadian society could be.”

“I predict the budget will be on the same lines as last year, which in my mind is pretty monumental as it started changing the course of Québécois society,” explained Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan, former SSMU VP External.

Last year’s budget introduced plans to increase tuition starting in 2012, along with other significant cuts to public services.

“We have to build on the uproar and dissatisfaction of the government so the government cannot go further in its determination to implement new liberal policies. It carried these to the extreme in its budget in 2010,” said Khadir.

Protesters came to share their grievances from across Quebec. Three to four hundred buses brought in protesters from outside of Montreal. The array of complaints brought together unions from different sectors.

“It’s a cause that unites everyone,” said Luc Vandal, president of the Shawinigan CEGEP teachers union, in French.

“I think there is a pretty good variety of groups. It is rare to see student federations – ASSÉ [Association pour un solidarité syndical étudiante],  TaCEQ [Table de concertation étudiante du Québec] – together in the same way,” said David Chamberlain, former VP External at Université Laval. “Social groups, the major unions – it’s the right time.”

Myriam Zaidi, SSMU VP External, along with members of the McGill student mobilization group Mob Squad, organized a bed-in on Friday night in order to prepare students for the upcoming protest. About fifteen to twenty people came to help make protest signs and join in movement building exercises.

Organizers had expected a much larger attendance, and had organized a series of workshops with the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society, and the Montreal Media Co-op, among others. However, due to the low turnout, these did not take place.

“It’s a cool type of event to hold – it creates strong ties between people. Bed-ins can be an intense moment of politicization for people. They end up connecting a lot of issues that they might not have connected before,” said Joël Pedneault, incoming SSMU VP External and current vice-secretary general of TaCEQ, who was present at the bed-in.

The next day, thirty McGill activists, carrying signs with slogans such as “McGill Students in Solidarity,” “We won’t pay for their crisis” and “Stop hibernating, spring of resistance,” met outside Shatner ahead of the march. They were joined by members of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) and members of the PGSS.

In total, Zaidi predicted that there were a hundred McGill students at the demonstration.
Émilie Fillion-Donato, SSMU political affairs coordinator, told The Daily, “This is a good turnout for McGill, usually I don’t think the McGill population is super mobilized.”

Some people, such as former McGill student Aimée Cloutier, were not as impressed by the turnout.

“I think it’s really important to be here, I’m a little surprised there are not more people. McGill’s a large university,” said Cloutier in French.

Zaidi expects that having students mobilized around wider Quebec issues will put pressure on the McGill administration.

“The administration is definitely banking on the fact that the University is a bubble. They are lobbying intensely for tuition increases, having students not know what is going on outside of the University is to their advantage. Seeing McGill students mobilizing in solidarity with the Quebec student movement will definitely help,” she said.

“People in power see McGill as an elite institution, so when McGill students start to raise their voices to say they are fed up about things, we tend to get listened to,” Pedneault added.

A banner that read “No Tuition Hikes” was hoisted onto the Roddick gates by members of the Mob Squad during the protest.

The demonstration proceeded relatively peacefully. However, before the demonstration started, a group of ten people dressed in black were surrounded and arrested by approximately forty riot police on horseback. Originally charged with conspiracy and possession of weapons, all ten were released on Monday.

—With files from Adrian Turcato and Rana Encol