The students are back on the streets again. This time it is to protest the Parti Québécois’s (PQ) Summit on Higher Education, which took place on Monday and Tuesday. The one-and-a-half-day summit was a place for discussion about Quebec’s higher education system between 61 different organizations from the education and professional sectors, as well as leaders from student federations. Topics on the table included the quality of education and university governance, the research collaboration between schools and communities, the development of university funding, and strategies for the accessibility of education and student retention. The controversial topic of free education was taken off the table beforehand, prompting prominent student group the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), a student federation representing 70,000 students, to boycott the meeting.
This skepticism grew after the Minister of Higher Education Pierre Duchesne asked universities to retroactively cut $124 million from their budgets by April. McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum also said that the summit was a “farce,” and called the meeting “choreographed” in an interview with Le Devoir two weeks ago.
Last year during the student strike, the PQ showed solidarity with the movement and opposed the Parti libéral du Québec’s (PLQ) proposed tuition hike from $2,168 to $3,793 over the course of 2012 to 2017. The PQ won the provincial election on September 4, and immediately scrapped the proposed tuition hike and began planning the education summit.
On the second day of the summit, the PQ announced that they would be increasing tuition fees by 3 per cent annually, starting September 2013. According to Marois, this is the “most just” and “fairest” solution for society. The increase would amount to $65, although many media outlets have reported a $70 indexation. In fact, the $70 figure is an average of the increases over the next five years.
During the Summit discussions, demonstrators took to the streets both days to show their grievances with what is perceived to be the government’s empty gesture. Violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators ocurred both days, with the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and flash-bangs. Altogether, 14 demonstrators were arrested.
Inside the Summit, which was held at the Arsenal, a contemporary art gallery in Griffintown, civil society groups, student leaders, and representatives from professors’ unions and administrative bodies tackled the four aforementioned areas of discussion during the 12-and-a-half hour meeting.
Corine Trubiano, a student at the Collège de Maisonneuve who was at the protest, told The Daily in French that she did not feel the Summit represented the student population fairly.
“I’m here because I’m angry that the idea of free education is being excluded from the Summit. The ideas they are talking about have been pre-determined; I find that this isn’t including the entire population. ASSÉ and other student associations are not represented here today,” she said.
Over 1,500 protesters took to the streets to protest the two-day summit. The Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) declared the protest illegal before it started marching south from Cabot Square, where protesters gathered at 4:30 p.m. Riot police and police on bicycles flanked the march almost immediately, along with buses filled with more riot police.
The march snaked through residential streets in St. Henri before arriving at the Summit. SPVM and Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers filled the parking lot in front of the Arsenal, blocking the entrance. A helicopter circled above, while peaceful protesters chanted anti-police slogans.
La Presse reported on Sunday that the SQ was present at the summit at the behest of Premier Pauline Marois and would be called on if the SPVM felt it needed reinforcements.
“The police presence is completely absurd here. We aren’t living in a police state. Their huge numbers are just increasing people’s anger. It’s brutal, and it’s creating a violent image for our society. That isn’t necessary,” Trubiano said in French.
According to SPVM spokesperson Jean-Bruno Latour, one person was arrested for armed assault after launching a projectile at police. Two people were fined – one for refusing to disperse, and another for putting stickers on a building.
While the SPVM had no information regarding the types of projectiles used, CTV speculated that the projectiles could have been snowballs and paint-filled ping pong balls.
Police chased protesters down to Place des Arts, where some were shoved aside from the Complexe Desjardins and held for a short time. At one point, police fired a sound bomb, also known as a flash-bang, to try to get protesters to scatter.
There were reports that an SPVM officer was injured by tear gas, but the SPVM did not comment on this by press time. Several journalists, including a Concordia University Television (CUTV) correspondent, were pepper sprayed.
The majority of protesters dispersed by around 7 p.m.; however, a group of around 100 protesters regrouped at Place Émilie-Gamelin and started another march east along Ste. Catherine. This protest was immediately declared illegal, and police announced over loudspeakers that everyone had to walk on the sidewalk, or would be “broken up.”
By around 7:15 p.m., this small protest scattered at Beaudry metro. Here, riot police took a break at a local fast-food restaurant and were met with jeers from onlookers.
In a significantly larger protest organized by ASSÉ, 10,000 students rallied against the government’s plan to raise tuition annually and were met with rocks, teargas, and flash-bang grenades.
“The Summit was definitely a failure,” Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesperson for ASSÉ ,told The Daily in French. “It failed to answer some of the questions that were raised during the Maple Spring and lacked any sort of depth.”
The demonstration was immediately declared illegal by the police. Approximately 3,000 protesters began to march despite warnings, as the crowd eventually grew to around 7,000.
Starting in Square Victoria, protesters marched peacefully past McGill University and up St. Laurent, before turning east on Pine. Fights flared after demonstrators proceeded down St. Denis and launched snowballs at lines of riot police. Police responded violently and clashes continued near Square Saint-Louis, where demonstrators fought back by linking their arms in a human chain and advancing on police lines. Heavy reinforcement from the SQ intervened to disperse the crowd.
Demonstrators from multiple groups were present, including McGill’s Art History and Communications Studies Graduate Students Association (AHCS GSA). AHCS GSA originally voted to boycott the summit in solidarity with ASSÉ. It was the only student association at McGill to do so.
The protest eventually dispersed, and 13 arrests were made.
3 per cent?
The numbers and words being used by the PQ are misleading. The proposed 3 per cent indexation that many media outlets have reported is linked to the hypothesis that disposable household income will increase by 3 per cent per year. This will lead to a $65 increase next year, but the increase for the following years would be greater. By September 2018, the yearly increase will be at $75, and the total increase in tuition fees will be close to $421.