“ …a corrupt elite, an elite that sees education only as an investment in human capital, that sees a tree only as a sheet of paper and a child only as a future employee.” (Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE [Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante]).
“…the CLASSE has excluded itself…you cannot take on acts of serious social and economic disruption with impunity …” (Line Beauchamp, Québec Minister of Education)
This is how both sides were expressing themselves after a three-day truce, the time to begin negotiations after a ten-week student strike that mobilized more than 200,000 students. Representatives from the three student associations including the FEUQ (student federation of Québec universities), the FECQ (student federation of Québec cégeps), mediators, and Minister Beauchamp were at the table for barely two days. Then, after a demonstration in Montréal on Tuesday, April 24, with vandalism and looting, the minister showed the door to Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the representative from CLASSE the most radical branch of the associations. The other reps, Martine Desjardins (FEUQ) and Léo Bureau-Blouin (FEQC), left the hall in a gesture of solidarity that has never once faltered. Not once.
An acute student crisis has shaken Québec for two months. A crisis punctuated by student rumblings in the streets in several cities. Students united in solidarity, determined and often supported by their professors. Articulate representatives who stay the course and are learning about media realities the hard way. Other students, opposed to the strike, are taken hostage by the decisions of their associations. Thugs take advantage of the mass movements to create havoc. Unions and public personalities join the demonstrations. Police, overwhelmed and under great pressure, are present at more than 150 student demonstrations in Montréal alone. Tear gas grenades, pepper spray, police clubbed on bicycles, officers on horseback and in plain clothes, arrests, bridges blocked, subways delayed, vandalism and destruction, picket lines respected and not respected.
Staggering costs. The spectre of the administrative nightmare of a cancelled or extended semester. No takers for summer jobs, internships cancelled or postponed. Injunctions given to some students who fear losing their academic year. Some institutions defy the injunctions. Husky security guards in university corridors. Semantic disputes and discussions over the words “denounce” and “condemn”.
The constantly present feelings and emotions create gaps and divide teachers, students and administration. Journalists are committed for or against. The written press collapses under the weight of letters to the editor. Social networks feed the conflict and/or call for calm.
Opinions and emotions ignite and shake up the population. It is a profound social challenge.
Three united student representatives, their solidarity never in doubt, are persistent and stick to their guns. The government remains unshakeable.
Such is and has been the social climate during this turbulent spring.
Tuition hikes are at the heart of the matter. The gradual increase announced by the Charest government would raise fees from $2,168 to $3,793 per year, or $1,625 annually spread over 5 years. Student associations decry the increase at their general meetings, but according to Minister Beauchamp the increase is written in stone. The increase should be cancelled in favour of a freeze in tuition rates or even free tuition, say the students. At the time of this writing (April 26), the government is offering to spread it over a 5 to 7 year period in order to resume negotiations. Negotiations that exclude Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
During a weekend of consultations with their members (April 28-29), the three student associations are rejecting this offer and calling on the government to engage a mediator and resume negotiations with the three representatives. No exclusions accepted. CLASSE reinforces the mandate of its representative Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
The three associations make a decision: to hold demonstrations every night until the end of the strike.
Premier Charest announces that the Liberal Congress, planned to take place in Montréal during the first week in May, will now be held in Victoriaville to avoid congestion. The students are renting busses and arranging transportation to Victoriaville.
The students are also asking for better management of the universities. The idea of an upcoming election is being put forward. The premier responds that this idea is simply “grotesque”.
The Québec students’ crisis, described as the “Maple Spring”, is being covered by many international media.
The government proposes to improve student loan programs and set up a
repayment plan proportional to income after graduation. They propose to decrease maximum parental income to $35,000 from $45,000 so students have better access to loans and bursaries in the province’s Educational Assistance Plan. Cost: from $35 to $45 million per year. Proposals rejected.
After boycotting classes, several schools declare themselves on strike. Events are held throughout the province, the biggest on March 22 mobilizing 300,000 students in the streets of Montréal, while another 378,000 are on strike elsewhere in Québec. A peaceful demonstration.
After weeks of demonstrations, some peaceful others violent, Line Beauchamp invites the three student representatives to enter into discussions. The first night there is a violent demonstration in Montréal. The minister then excludes the CLASSE, fuelling the students’ anger. Negotiations will resume if and when its representative clearly condemns violence.
Nadeau-Dubois reiterates the position that his association “denounces” all forms of violence, but that he has no mandate to “condemn” it.
After two weeks of demonstrations and consultations, the minister asks for a 3-day truce to resume discussions – a truce during which no demonstrations are to take place. She accepts Nadeau-Dubois at the table. On April 25, there is an eleventh-hour demonstration in Montréal that degenerates into violence and vandalism. For the first time, the crowd of students shout disapproval at the rioters.
The next day, the minister terminates negotiations and declares the CLASSE and Nadeau-Dubois in particular responsible for the violence, excluding them from all future talks.
The two other representatives reaffirm their solidarity: no negotiations without Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, and without the CLASSE.
The mayor of Montréal, concerned with the image projected image of his city, expresses his frustration.
Several associations of professors, intellectuals and the Parti Québécois ask the government to impose a one year moratorium on tuition fees and establish a plan on the State of Education in Québec.
Students in Toronto take to the streets in a show of solidarity.
At the time of writing (April 29), all are holding their positions.
It is a deadlock. Still.
Cégep directors estimate that costs associated with the strike will erase benefits gained from tuition hikes for the first years to the tune of $40 million. This estimate includes teachers’ salaries, overtime for administrative staff, and hiring security guards.
The government is providing an additional $350,000 to Cégeps to cover the salaries of contract teachers.
The Sûreté du Québec has paid out $1.5 million in overtime to date.
Salaries paid unnecessarily to teaching faculty and others: $95 million.
Police officers across the province to cover demonstrations, social upheaval and other: $120 million.
[Translated by Susan Spier]