At around 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, the remnants of a 400-person demonstration against impending tuition hikes were milling around in front of Roddick Gates, wondering what to do next.
“Alright, we’re going into McGill!” shouted one protester in English.
With that, the crowd poured loudly onto campus, walking up to the Arts building as McGill Security reached for walkie talkies, breaking the seal on tuition protests this year at McGill.
The march started almost two kilometres away in Square St. Louis, where students – predominantly from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and local CEGEPs – gathered and began marching south down St. Denis.
“It’s kind of a spontaneous movement which takes its root in the anger that students in Quebec felt about the high increase in [tuition] fees,” said Mathieu, a UQAM student who asked to be identified only by his first name.
“We think that as a project of society, we should push towards free education so everyone, from the poor to rich, have the same right to post-education,” he continued.
Last March, Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand announced that tuition for university students will increase by $325 a year for five years starting in September 2012.
The McGill administration maintains that the increases are necessary to address the underfunding of Quebec universities.
By 2017, when the hikes end, Quebec tuition will still be lower than the Canadian average. The University has budgeted a $6 million deficit this year, with the goal of breaking even by the 2014 fiscal year.
However, students are concerned any tuition hikes could threaten accessibility. As the march entered Berri-UQAM metro station, chanting in French through various UQAM buildings, Andrée Bounbeau, another UQAM student, said she had already been hurt by hikes of $100 per year since 2007.
“I think that education must be free, it must be accessible to everyone. So I just hope that a demonstration like this can occur more often so we can put pressure on the government,” she said.
Bounbeau, who graduates at the end of the school year, said she was protesting as much for herself as for future university students who will have to pay the higher fees.
“When I talk to parents they tell me, ‘Oh, I’m so glad that you’re doing this, because you are doing this for our children, and we are very afraid we won’t be able to pay the fees,” she continued.
Ariane Turmel-Chénaud, a student at the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal, said it’s the younger students about to enter university who will be impacted most by increased tuition.
“I am in CEGEP and I want to go to university next year. I have no idea how I will pay my tuition. That’s how it goes. If there’s no way to go, well, poverty will not be a choice,” she said in French.
Not all students oppose the tuition hikes. As the demonstrators poured back outside, heading east on René Lévesque, André, an UQAM Business School student – who asked that only his last name be used – sat on a nearby bench going over class notes with a friend.
“[Demonstrating], that’s mostly for the Humanities and the Social Science [students],” said André. “We are in Business, so we don’t vote for that.”
“I think [tuition increases are] a good idea, seriously, because I think we take the students for clients instead of to be the fixture of the society,” he continued.
It was on René Lévesque that green pins supporting the striking McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) began appearing. Dave Howden, Labour Relations Officer for the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE), attended the demonstration.
“I think it’s important to keep [solidarity] going in multiple directions and remember that students are struggling for cheaper and higher quality education at the same time as MUNACA workers and other workers at McGill are fighting for better working conditions and more access to means of existence,” he said.
“McGill and the government and various structures that we’re up against are always looking for ways to pit those interests against each other, but they’re not contradictory interests. We all share an interest in having a quality workplace, a quality learning environment for the students where we can all do without being crippled by debt,” Howden continued.
Marie Thomas, an administrative coordinator with Midnight Kitchen (MK), attended the demonstration after MK tried to organize a McGill contingent.
“I think tuition should be free for everyone,” she said. “I think the MUNACA issue is just part of a bigger issue of justice, social justice issues, in the education system.”
Reactions to the protest
In an interview with The Daily the next day, SSMU VP External Joel Pedneault – who was not present at the demonstration – said he saw it as “a really positive thing that they came up to campus,” but noted that it wasn’t the first time Quebec university students had come onto campus, giving examples of instances in 1968 and 1969.
Two engineering students, collecting donations for breast cancer research outside Roddick Gates, explained their reactions to the march turning up McGill College and heading towards them last week.
“That’s a big-ass protest coming our way, and we’re kind of in the middle of it,” said one.
A recent McGill graduate who witnessed the protest, international student Ziyad Shukri, said he doubted the demonstration would be very effective.
“I was a student at McGill, every year my tuition went up by five to eight per cent, and I used to pay, it started off as $514 per credit, and it ended up being $660 by the time I graduated. So tuition hikes are something really normal,” he said.
Once the march crossed into McGill, student reactions were mixed.
Michael Sherman, a U3 Arts student also watching the demonstration, said he wasn’t very familiar with the student’s issues.
“I wish I knew more about what’s going on, because it seems pretty intense,” he said.
As marchers gathered, chanting “McGill avec nous!”, few McGill students joined the protest. Micha Stettin, Arts representative to SSMU, was one of them. He addressed the demonstrators through a megaphone.
“I want to say, first of all, that McGill is with you,” he said. “This isn’t about English versus French, because it’s more important than that.”
Pedneault said McGill students often don’t feel included in the issue because of either a lack of information on the subject, or because of the language barrier in Quebec.
“Hopefully [Tuesday’s demonstration will] draw attention to what’s going to be a big fight in student action this year,” he continued.
As the remaining demonstrators crowded the steps in front of the Arts building, two officers from the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) watched from a few feet away, mounted on bicycles.
“This is a manifestation, so we are just following the manifestation to be sure that they won’t break anything and everything will be all right,” said one officer, who also said the SPVM had been in contact with McGill Security.
Both Howden and Mathieu pointed out the correlation between the large police presence and tuition increases.
“It’s about the choices the government chooses to make, where they choose to cut money and where they chose to invest money,” said Howden. “We see police budgets rising, as an example that money could be going into education or to lower tuition.”
“What do we want as a society, more cops? Or more hospitals, more school?” asked Mathieu.
“[They say] ‘when you open a school you close a prison.’ Actually the government is doing the exact opposite. So we think to show our opposition that we should take out onto the street to inform the government that their position is not the only one in society.”