About two dozen students began twelve hours of almost non-stop marching through downtown Montreal this morning in protest of impending tuition fee hikes.
Dubbed the Manifestation Générale Illimitée (MGI) and organized by the independent student group Rouge Illimitée, the day of action involves twelve planned marches, leaving every hour from Square Victoria. According to the demonstration’s Facebook page, the day is designed to “turn the downtown core into a Protest Playground.”
“Now is not the time to back down,” continues the Facebook page. “We’re finished with the ‘training’ marches – after more than a month of protest, it’s time to hit hard!”
The first march left at 7:30 a.m. and headed north from Square Victoria before looping east around Place du Canada. The second march left an hour later and headed in the opposite direction. By the second march, the group had grown to roughly thirty people. Marches later in the afternoon swelled to well over one thousand.
A temporary staging point was set up at Square Victoria. A tent was pitched, with protesters printing on t-shirts and making signs. A number of live performances were held in the Square throughout the day.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, a temporary coalition of striking student associations formed under the Association pour un solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), spoke to the the purpose of the day of actions.
“The idea was to do something original, to organize multiple marches throughout the day to put the most pressure possible” on the provincial government, said Nadeau-Dubois in French.
Daniel Lacoursière, spokesperson for the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM), said they were going to “set a perimeter [for the day] and make sure traffic can circulate safely.”
The beginning of the MGI coincided with a student blockade of the Tour Banque Nationale next to Square Victoria. Around 9 a.m. police declared the blockade illegal, and riot police dispersed the protesters with pepper spray.
Richard Painter, an insurance broker who works in the building, had gotten into an argument half an hour earlier with some marching students on the corner of University and de la Gauchtière while he waited outside the building.
Painter spoke to The Daily after the confrontation, saying he thought students in Quebec “have a very good deal right now.”
“I don’t sympathise too much with them, because they have the lowest student fees in Canada. I think they have a right to protest, but they don’t have a right to stop us going to work,” said Painter.
The scheduled tuition hikes would raise tuition fees by $325 a year for five years, an overall increase of $1,625. Quebec base tuition would remain below the Canadian average after the five years.
According to l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), almost 180,000 students are currently on strike across the province. At over six weeks, this strike is the longest student strike in Quebec history.
Tristan Lamour, a student from France who participated in some of the afternoon marches, said he thought the strike is “an interesting movement,” but that he didn’t think the students are going to win.
“I think the movement is very strong, but I have an impression that it is just a very good symbolic action,” said Lamour in French.
Last week, Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp offered to implement a revamped student aid program to appease the striking students. The plan would extend student bursaries and allow students with an annual family income over $60,000 to borrow under the aid program.
Quebec’s major student federations unanimously rejected the government’s proposal on the grounds that it did not address the tuition hike and would increase student debt.
— with files from Laurent Bastien Corbeil