On Thursday, dozens of students occupied the Montreal office of the Quebec Ministry of Finance, while approximately 100 students demonstrated in the building’s entrance to protest impending tuition increases.
Quebec Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand announced on March 17 that tuition will increase $325 per student per year for five years, starting in 2012. Tuition fees are scheduled to reach $3,793 by 2017, almost double the current fees but still below the Canadian average.
The demonstration was organized by the l’Association pour un solidarité syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), which has 45,000 members.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, ASSÉ director of communications, explained that the objective of the occupation was two-fold.
“We gave a letter of our claims to the minister that explained our discontent to the minister, our most fundamental disagreement regarding the tuition hikes announced last week,” he told The Daily in French.
“It was to give this letter to the minister and let him know that if he doesn’t go back on his decision we would undertake a much greater movement in the months to come,” Nadeau-Dubois continued.
Rue Frontenac reported that dozens penetrated the building through an emergency exit and entered the fifth floor offices. According to Nadeau-Dubois, a bodyguard pushed an activist into the glass door. One student was injured by the shattered glass.
Daniel Lacoursière, a spokesperson for the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM), said that this claim was still under investigation, explaining that surveillance cameras were not working, “so we need statements from different witnesses.”
During the demonstration, Nadeau-Dubois left the premises, fearing further action from the building’s security.
“Unfortunately we went to the offices to undertake a pacifist action but the security in the building reacted in a pretty violent way, so violently that we had to go down to the main hall and have a peaceful sit-in because we were worried about our safety,” he said
A red banner was hung in the main atrium of the mall, reading, “Bachand, tes hausses de tariffs fous-toi les dans le cul!” (Bachand, take your fee hikes up the ass!)
Some protestors were hit with pepper spray. Lacoursière did not confirm if it was the police who used the spray, but said that this too was under investigation.
“If it is police that used the pepper spray, not saying that it was not used, so I have no report of that at this point. An investigation will give us more information about that,” he said.
SSMU VP External Myriam Zaidi explained that explained that the Quebec Student Roundtable (QSR) would not be calling for occupations of offices any time soon. “But it would hypocritical of student representatives to condemn occupations, given that those are what got us seats in the Board of Governors and Senate,” she said.
Arts Senator Tyler Lawson pointed out that in 1997, about 18 students held out for three days, after which ancillary fees were cut in half.
“Tactics substantiate power, and a lot of occupations are pacific, so no one gets harmed,” he said.
Zaidi explained that in the case of a province-wide strike, a special general assembly would be called with 500 students required to make quorum. In such cases, however, she predicted over 1,200 students would show up out of the SSMU membership of around 21,000.
“SSMU is usually the last one to [join a strike] – the movement happens and McGill follows,” she said.
“Surveys commissioned by the administration have shown that McGill students are very privileged, [Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton] Mendelson recently couldn’t grasp why so many students came from upper classes or parents who went to university. Not to put all students in the same bag, but when you are less exposed to students having a hard time, it’s harder for you to feel affected.”
Nadeau-Dubois said ASSÉ is calling for a provincial demonstration March 31 in Montreal.
“This action is really the last straw that we’ll give the Charest government to warn him to back down on the tuition hikes. If he refuses to do so at that time, well then we will embark on a mass mobilization, and we’re ready to go all the way to overcome it,” he said.
FECQ occupies Simard’s office
Around thirty students affiliated with the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) occupied the premises of Serge Simard, Quebec delegate Minister for Natural Resources, in Saguenay– Lac-St-Jean the same day.
Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of FECQ, explained that the occupation was peaceful and that everyone dispersed when the police arrived.
He described how students in the area had met with Simard a few months ago to present their demands, and engaged in discussions with Minister of Education Line Beauchamp, but feel that there demands did not make it to the Quebec National Assembly.
“There has been no overture on their side, so we must take action,” said Bureau-Blouin. “We are going to protest until the Quebec government stops hiking tuition fees.”
“Almost every student has to [leave] their homes to go to university, not like Montreal or Quebec where students can live at their parents house. Students have extra costs to afford university…for 70 per cent of students in Lac-St-Jean, it is the first time of their family history that a student is going to university, so post-secondary accessibility is really fragile,” he added.