Higher education students in Quebec declared victory as newly elected provincial Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Quebecois announced that she was cancelling a proposed tuition increase. Last spring hundreds of thousands of university and college students in Quebec went on strike to protest the tuition increase proposed by the outgoing Liberal Party government. Quebec has some of the lowest higher education tuition rates in Canada, and students wanted to keep it that way.
“It’s a total victory!” said Martine Desjardins, president of Quebec’s largest student organization, the Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) to the Montreal Gazette. “It’s a new era of collaboration instead of confrontation.”
More than a year ago, Raymond Bachand, finance minister of the Quebec government, announced that a tuition increase would become effective when the 2012 school year began and that tuition would increase every year until 2017.
Student groups immediately began organizing and in November held their first national rally against the proposed increases.
The strike began in February when social science students at Universite Laval went on strike. They were soon joined by some faculty members from the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.
By the end of March, students all over Quebec were on strike and mass rallies and demonstrations were taking place throughout the province. Some of the strikers took action aimed disrupting the economy such as the rush hour sit-in on Montreal’s Champlain Bridge.
Police tried to break up another sit-in by throwing flash-bang grenades near demonstrators. One exploded close to one protesters face, and he lost an eye.
Students held their first mass rally near the end of March in Montreal where 100,000 students and their supporters marched peacefully to protest the tuition increases.
Despite efforts to defuse the strike, support continued to grow. Students and their supporters wore patches shaped like red squares to demonstrate solidarity.
In May another mass demonstration in Montreal took place. Organizers estimated that 300,000 to 400,000 people took part in the demonstration, which organizers called the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada.
Other actions took place throughout Quebec, and solidarity demonstrations were held in Paris, New York, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.
While some of the accounts of the strike suggest that it was a spontaneous response to the tuition increase, the fact is that students in Canada are highly organized and have a long history of fighting for their rights.
Three student groups led the organizing activity that resulted in the strike: FEUQ, the Federation et Etudiante Collegiale du Quebec (FECQ), and the Coalition Large de’l Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Etudiante (CLASSE).
The groups acted together well before the strike began. They held mobilization workshops where participants received information about the issues and solidarity networks were built.
Several labor unions including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Confederation de Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) supported the students’ strike.
After the government announced that it was canceling the tuition increase, CUPE President Paul Moist congratulated the students.
“This is a historic moment. Through many months of harsh criticism and oppressive government tactics, the students showed incredible solidarity and strength,” Moist said. “They showed us that we can make change happen in this country—that the people do have a voice.
“Many CUPE locals proudly donated to the student cause. I think today we can all take a moment and enjoy this victory. But the fight isn’t over.”
The fight isn’t over because the government is proposing to tie future tuition increases to the cost of living, a measure rejected by all three of the student organizations.
One of the organizations, CLASSE, said that it wanted to make a university education accessible to all by abolishing tuition.
Speaking at a rally celebrating the students’ victory, Jeremie Beddard-Wien, a spokesperson for CLASSE called for a tuition-free higher education system that is also free from corporate influence.
“(There) are societies that have made progressive political choices for public services to be accessible,” Bedard-Wien said, “That we have tuition here is a political choice that can be reversed.”