Tens of thousands of people assembled on McGill College last Friday to protest the Liberal government’s austerity measures, which include severe cuts to education and healthcare. Undeterred by the fact that the demonstration was swiftly declared illegal by the police, demonstrators marched for over two and a half hours, making their way down Ste. Catherine and to Montreal’s Old Port, where the demonstration eventually dispersed.
“It’s important to be here because austerity cuts are affecting everyone in Quebec, students included,” Kelly, a Women’s Studies student at McGill, told The Daily. “Over $200 million has been cut from university funding from the province, and that translates to over $14 million being cut at McGill.”
Organized by a large coalition that includes the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), the event drew thousands of students. Buses from CEGEPs and universities were observed picking up protesters at the demonstration’s termination point.
“It was great seeing […] 50,000 people out on the streets,” ASSÉ co-spokesperson Camille Godbout told The Daily. “It was great to see all the groups mobilizing against the austerity cuts. We have today 82,000 students on strike across the province so [it was good] seeing other groups, unions, and community groups coming down to Montreal.”
“It’s important to be here because austerity cuts are affecting everyone in Quebec, students included.”
“The province, as far as I know, didn’t consult people before putting this budget forward,” said Kelly. “They didn’t give people in Quebec a choice about it, that’s why everyone’s angry about it and coming to resist and show the province that this is not the way to do things.”
Kelly was part of a small McGill contingent of around twenty students. A larger contingent from Concordia, numbering around 100 students, was also present.
“We [at the Concordia Graduate Students’ Association (GSA)] do have a mandate, actually, to support free education,” GSA VP External Mohammad Jawad Khan told The Daily. “So I believe right now is not the right time to [make] budget cuts [for] the university and the government. Unfortunately, Concordia has wholeheartedly accepted them.”
Christian, a demonstrator, called the austerity measures anti-democratic. “Austerity measures are a cut at the level of social democracy,” he said. “It is not only a divestment in the [form] of money in the strictest sense, but a divestment [from] the [social] capital.”
“[Instead of the democratic process] right now, it is the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and international banks who are [driving] national economies,” Christian noted.
Although the protest had been declared illegal, police intervention was minimal. Contingents of officers in riot gear walked with the crowd, and a number of officers on bicycles escorted the demonstration. Demonstrators were observed conversing and interacting with the officers at the scene.
Godbout suggested that the lighter-than-usual police presence was a product of the demonstration’s opposition to the controversial Bill 3, which would require higher contributions to the pension fund for many police officers and other public service employees in Quebec.
“We stand in solidarity with all the workers who are touched right now by the [changes in the] pensions. Clearly we still stand against police brutality, but maybe [the pensions have] something to do with the fact that [the police] acted more lightly than usual,” she said.
Indeed, a group of several hundred firefighters representing the Association des pompiers de Montréal (ADPM) participated in the protest. The ADPM made headlines in August when a group of its members disturbed a City of Montreal council meeting in protest of Bill 3. Six firefighters were fired and dozens more suspended following the incident.
In order to emphasize their dissatisfaction with the government’s policies, hundreds of protesters took to the streets again on Friday night following the main demonstration. This time, several arrests were made.
A collective organization committee called the “Comité large printemps 2015” has also been formed, through which students and workers will continue to organize and escalate pressure tactics, potentially leading up to a strike.
“History in Quebec has shown that past strikes have been really effective in getting the government to change what they’re doing,” said Kelly.