Thousands protest Quebec tuition hikes

Thousands protest Quebec tuition hikes
Thousands of students gathered to protest against tuition hikes in downtown Montreal last Thursday. Photo: Reuters/Olivier Jean
Thousands of Quebec students gathered in the streets of Montreal on March 22 to protest a proposed tuition hike by the provincial government.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s government tabled its budget March 20, which included a plan to increase tuition by $325 a year for five years. For example, a law degree at McGill University will rise to $4,199 next year from $3,874 in 2011-12.

Various university faculties have decided to strike in opposition to the increase. Some students have refused to attend classes since mid-February and more and more schools are voting in favour of a strike or walkout.

But not all students agree with the strikes. Philippe-Olivier Daniel, a third-year law student at the Université de Sherbrooke, says he’s going to sue his school’s Association générale des étudiantes et étudiants de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines after its picket line prevented him from attending an important Chinese class. He sent a letter to the association demanding a refund for the portion of the $300 course that he missed. If he doesn’t receive it within 20 days, he’s going to sue.

Daniel claims the association has no legal ground for a strike, and by doing so they are infringing on labour laws. He is hopeful that other students in the same predicament will be inspired by his case and seek to file a class action lawsuit.

Having studied abroad, Daniel says he has substantial debt. “Losing $300 for me is not trivial,” he says. “It’s important that people respect the law. We’re in a country governed by the rule of law and if you act detrimentally to somebody’s rights, well you have pay for that.”

He also sent his demand letter to other student federations, including FEUS, the FEUQ, and the CLASSÉ, which he claims are also in the wrong. He says universities should be neutral places of education and student associations should not be politically motivated.

Daniel is president of the Coalition Étudiante pour l’Association Libre, which he describes as a platform for those who are dissatisfied with the status quo to express themselves. “We’re not a movement . . . we’re neutral,” he says. The coalition is not taking a position on the tuition debate but is encouraging students to sign a petition on the National Assembly’s web site.

He supports student activism but doesn’t agree with the way things are being carried out. “I have nothing against political activism, I’m all for it. I think it’s a good thing for society,” he says. “[But] this whole thing is really discrediting student activism as a whole because it makes every student look bad.”

Thursday’s massive protest followed similar actions by students, including Tuesday morning’s blockade of rush-hour traffic at the Champlain Bridge in Montreal. There are no reports of violence at Thursday’s protest unlike the one at McGill University last November.

Ian Clarke, a second-year law student and vice president external of McGill’s Law Students’ Association, says Thursday’s protest was better organized and those involved in the planning were communicating with the Montreal police force to prevent any violence.

Although the LSA chose not to take a side on the debate, Clarke is hopeful that the protest will have an impact on the government. “We’re not hoping to make tuition cheaper or free, the LSA is advocating for . . . the negotiation tables to open up again,” he says. He cites the example of a student protest in 2005 where the government sought to cut back the financial aid system but Charest eventually backed down from the plan.

The premier said the tuition hike has been in the works for years, and noted that Quebec students will only end up paying 17 per cent of the total costs. Even with the increase, Quebec will still have the lowest tuition fees in the country.

Clarke emphasizes that it’s not all about the money; it’s about how students are treated. “[The Quebec government] didn’t really negotiate in good faith to students; they really didn’t give us a chance to communicate our thoughts and values on the issue.”

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