Over 2,000 CEGEP and university students marched through downtown Montreal last Thursday to protest the Charest government’s education policy in a demonstration that ended in a police clampdown and five arrests.
The same day, student and student -faculty associations at 11 Quebec post-secondary institutions joined a one-day strike for a provincial day of action. The day was organized by the Association pour un Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) – with support from the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) – in protest of Quebec Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand’s St. Patrick’s Day budget.
The tabled budget provides for a 25 per cent increase in funding for university operating revenues, to be mainly financed by a 75 per cent hike in tuition. This hike will see students paying almost $3,800 in basic Quebec tuition by 2017.
Alex Trahan, a theatre student at UQAM, spoke to The Daily as he sat in front of riot police guarding Charest’s office on McGill College, where protestors had symbolically cut through wads of yellow caution tape.
“Today is just a warning strike. We considered a longer strike, but it probably wouldn’t be effective until the fall,” he said.
As part of the day of action, around seventy students organized a sit-in at the Montreal offices of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) housed in the Loto-Quebec building at 500 Sherbrooke O. Thirty to forty students made it past security; the remainder sat in the lobby.
One receptionist fractured her wrist while trying to block the doors during a student rush, according to embedded Rue Frontenac reporters.
A UQAM student who only wanted to be known as “Frank,” was part of the occupation and said that it was intended as a political action against CREPUQ’s stance, and that there was no intention to harm employees. He added that the occupants received no formal eviction notice but left the CREPUQ offices after an hour.
Hundreds gathered at the entrance of 500 Sherbrooke O, chanting “liberez nos camarades” at the riot squad guarding the doors while occupants and employees looked on from the glass windows.
After asking those assembled outside the CREPUQ office to disperse, police charged at demonstrators, journalists, and photographers with batons, bottlenecking them against police cars parked immediately below the building steps.
The riot squad fired stun grenades and pepper spray at unarmed protestors – most of whom fled east along Sherbrooke and south on City Councillors. A handful of protestors were tackled to the ground and one man was packed into a police car.
ASSE coordinator Élise Carrier-Martin felt the use of force was disproportionate. “It was completely unnecessary to do that because we were already leaving,” she said in French.
Eyewitness reports confirm that similar arrests happened earlier during the march.
Police spokesperson Raphael Bergeron declined to comment on the method of arrests, but said that three warnings were given during the altercation at 500 Sherbrooke O.
Five people were arrested on charges of mischief, contempt of police officers, and breaking municipal bylaws. Four were released Thursday night on promises to appear in court.
One man went to court Friday on charges of mischief.
CTV reported that police are investigating an officer who knocked down an elderly woman during the earlier part of the demonstration.
CREPUQ agreed on a pro-tuition hike stance last fall, arguing that funding for Quebec universities falls short by $620 million in comparison to other Canadian universities. McGill Principal and CREPUQ member Heather Munroe-Blum has said that the organisation’s position has been increasing tuition rates “while maintaining a strong commitment to accessibility.”
“The system of loans and scholarships is inadequate, and will not be adequately increased to ensure genuine equality in access. Although the government might claim they are expanding financial aid, there are a lot of barriers to admission,” she said.
Although Education Minister Line Beauchamp was unavailable for comment, a government spokesperson said that her position was not going to change as a result of Thursday’s actions.