In a day of action, thousands of students gathered in Philips Square and marched through downtown Montreal Thursday afternoon to protest tuition increases set to begin this September. The demonstration marks the start of the Quebec student movement’s general unlimited strike.
In honour of the day of action, 47 student associations, representing about 68,400 students, were on strike for the day. 44 associations, representing about 53,750 students, are currently on strike, and 16 associations, representing about 11,500 students, have a strike mandate but have not yet gone on strike.
The march at times numbered up to 15,000 students. The Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) organized the demonstration, and spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said he was “totally surprised” by the turnout.
“I think we were waiting for a few thousand people and we’ve got thousands and thousands of people,” said Nadeau-Dubois.”
As of 2:45 p.m. the demonstration was trailed by between 17 to 20 police vehicles, including a van of riot police, an ambulance and a van labeled “Support logistique.”
At Berri-UQAM metro station the demonstration splintered down to about 1,500 demonstrators who continued marching towards Jacques Cartier Bridge.
“The protest technically ended at Berri-UQAM station,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous. The student said that some demonstrators wanted to continue the march.
Those demonstrators who continued reportedly marched towards the bridge – though most did not reach the bridge, according to the student.
Many of those taking part in the splinter demonstration encountered riot police near Papineau metro station.
“We weren’t fully kettled,” said the student, who was also present during the splinter demonstration. Most demonstrators marched away from the riot police. “We just came to the conclusion that there was no point in getting pepper sprayed,” said the student.
According to the student, approximately 50 to 75 riot police surrounded the remaining demonstrators leading them into Place Émilie-Gamelin beside Berri-UQAM metro. Between 5 and 5:30 p.m. the number of demonstrators had “fizzled” to 500, the student added.
“They started banging their shields,” however, the student added that the demonstration was “really peaceful.”
However, some reports state that some demonstrators blocked access to the Jacques Cartier Bridge just before rush hour at around 4 p.m. After a standoff, police dispersed the blockade with shields and pepper spray.
“They [demonstrators] were asked to leave, and were then removed by the riot squad,” said Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) spokesperson Anie Lemieux.
According to Lemieux, the blockade ended at 5 p.m. Lemieux said there were no injuries and one arrest for disturbing the peace, although it is unclear if the arrest was related to the blockade.
Demonstrators present when riot police intervened at Jacques Cartier Bridge were not available to comment on the intervention.
The Quebec government announced in March 2011 tuition hikes of $325 a year for five years starting this September. The increase will raise base Quebec tuition to $3,793 by 2017, still among the lowest in Canada. Nadeau-Dubois estimate there were now around 55,000 students on strike in protest of the hikes.
“We’ll be more and more thousands on strike in the upcoming days and weeks. I think now this government has no choice, it has to listen to us, and it has to stop increasing tuition fees,” he said.
According to the CBC, a non-confidence motion on the proposed hikes will be debated in the Quebec National Assembly on Tuesday. Nadeau-Dubois said Premier Jean Charest and the provincial government had yet to engage in any kind of negotiations.
“I think if [Charest] wants to ignore us he can do it now, but from next week we’re going to be more and more thousands of people in the streets. Very soon there’s going to be a point from which he cannot stop us from protesting,” said Nadeau-Dubois. “He will have to negotiate with us; soon he won’t have the choice.”
Nadeau-Dubois said he hoped McGill students would soon join the strike.
“I think with the protest today we have the proof that everyone in Quebec can mobilize,” he said. “I think McGill is going to be taken by the wave soon.”
The McGill Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) voted in a special referendum last week to amend the referendum so the AUS could join CLASSE, and thus go on strike itself. Catherine Simard, a U2 Psychology student who attended the protest, said she hadn’t heard much about the strike at McGill.
“Someone came to talk to me about it last Friday, but that’s all I’ve heard,” said Simard.
“The province can afford to have lower tuition, it’s just that they don’t want to, because it’s easy to take money from students because they don’t have many ways to sway public opinion,” she continued. “[McGill is] as much a part of the province as any other university, and we should do our part.”
The AUS held two General Assemblies (GAs) last semester, and quorum was lost on both occasions. AUS now expects to hold another GA within the next few weeks to vote on whether or not to strike.
Jaime Maclean, a member of the AUS mobilization committee, presented a motion at the most recent AUS GA to form a strike committee. The motion did not pass due to a loss of quorum.
“I’m not sure exactly what the motions at that General Assembly are going to be, but hopefully it goes better than the last GA was, in terms of following a procedure that works, instead of the last GA where it was just prolonged and not organized very well, and not run very well,” said Maclean.
“In AUS we’re not used to having GAs, so it’s really tough even to hold a GA,” she continued. “The AUS executive, they’re not very good at that either, and it’s really slow going in that respect.”
Maclean also commented on the student strike.
“For us not to be involved is to forsake the rest of the Quebec student movement. These issues do affect every McGill student because tuition will be going up, and, in Quebec, student strikes do work – it’s the reason that Quebec’s tuition is lower than the rest of Canada, for now,” she said.
National Assembly member Jean-Martin Aussant filed a petition February 17 to call on the government to back down on tuition hikes after pressure from the Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ), a Quebec student lobby group of which SSMU is a founding member.
The petition is available until May 16, and had collected 19,049 signatures when this story went to press. With enough signatures, the petition can be brought up for debate in the National Assembly. Nadeau-Dubois was skeptical about the efficacy of the petition.
“At the point we are now, I think a petition is not what is going to convince this government, but maybe it can help, and if it can help we’re going to sign it,” he said.
– with files from Erin Hudson