It's been an eventful few days in Quebec. A peaceful student protest on Friday in Victoriaville turned violent, leading to several hospitalizations, with one protester reportedly losing the use of an eye, and arrests. Then, following a weekend of intense negotiating, a tentative agreement appeared to have been struck between students and the government. But according to various reports, the deal has failed to resolve the situation.
As of today, students renewed mandates for strikes, an outcome that appears to have surprised even some of the student leaders who signed off on the agreement. Martine Desjardin, president of student group FEUQ, said "we thought we had arrived at the beginning of the end", but "the end seems to be postponed".
Representatives for the Quebec students who have been protesting tuition hikes sat down with members of the Charest government on the weekend for a marathon 22-hour negotiating session. The two sides achieved a tentative deal in principle which maintained the government's proposed tuition increase of $254 a year for the next seven years, but also allowed for an equivalent reduction in mandatory university surcharges or administrative fees that cover student services and non-academic activities.
The deal would not have been ratified, however, without a majority of students voting for it. CLASSE, one of the groups that negotiated the tentative agreement with the government, carried out a series of votes yesterday among students at several Quebec universities, colleges and CEGEPs. Only one of those student groups (at CEGEP de Gaspesie) adopted the deal, and CLASSE says 94 percent of sociology students at Laval University rejected the deal, and 80 percent then voted to continue boycotting classes.
Prior to the negotiations, a demonstration took place outside a Quebec Liberal Party convention in Victoriaville on Friday, leaving two people in serious condition with head trauma. According to reports, six protestors and three provincial police officers were taken to hospital, and 106 people were arrested. Only four arrests took place at the convention centre, with the other 102 people intercepted on busses that were leaving the city.
Here's a summary of the basics of the seven-point agreement that was on the table (based on the Montreal Gazette's English translation):
1. The government will immediately create a provisional Council of Universities.
2. The Council will make recommendations to the government on a permanent Council and discuss which subjects will be part of the permanent Council's mandate.
3. The Council will evaluate how university money is spent and, if need be, how they can save money.
4. Any savings that come about due to those recommendations will be passed on to students via savings on student fees. A planned payment of $125 by full time students will be deferred until the recommendations are made to the minister.
5. The Council will be made up of six rectors, four representatives of student federations and associations, four representatives of the university unions, two representatives of the business community, one representative of the CEGEPS, one representative of the Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports, and the chairman.
6. The Council will file its recommendations by December 31.
7. If the agreement is voted on by the student federations' members and adopted, it is a framework for an end to the crisis and a return to classes.
CHEAT SHEET: Quebec Student Protests - April 30, 2012
After a failed attempt at compromise, student protests over the provincial government's proposal to raise tuition are continuing in Quebec, making this the longest strike in Quebec history. Over the weekend, student groups voted to reject the government's offer to stretch the hikes over seven years instead of the original five. The protests have also caught the attention of the international media - in the past few days, the situation has been covered by Le Monde, Al-Jazeera, CNN, and the New York Times, among many other news outlets, with some commenters connecting the protests with the worldwide Occupy Movement, and others referring to it as the "Quebec Spring" or "Maple Spring".
A lot's happened since Quebec's government announced the proposal as part of their budget back in March 2011: there have been massive protests, student strikes, and arrests. Here's an overview of the major points of the protests, and some links to the student and government organizations that are involved in the debate over whether the tuition increases should go forward.
What's The Hike?
Back in March 2011, Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand delivered a provincial budget that included a tuition hike of $325 a year for five years, for a total of $1625. That would bring average tuition for in-province students to $3800 a year, about a 75% increase over the current rate - but still significantly less than students pay in any other Canadian province.
According to the government, the extra funds raised would go to student aid (35%), with the rest financing an array of programs for Quebec universities. After he announced the hikes, Bachand defended them by saying "the competition for brains in this planet is quite high. If we don't start working our universities now, it will be too late".
As soon as the hikes were introduced, student groups argued that the new tuition rate would limit access to higher education and increase the debt burden, with the Canadian Federation of Students accusing the Quebec government of seeking to balance its books "on the backs of students", and saying the move would "bankrupt a generation and undermine Quebec's long-term economic stability".
The Government's Position
According to a website created by the Charest government, the tuition increase is intended to "ensure the quality of teaching and research" at Quebec schools, as well as "intensifying research" in order to improve the competitive position of the province's universities on the world stage. The site lists "providing leading edge technology infrastructures" and "improving student supervision by teaching academics" as two goals of the increase.
On Friday, premier Charest made his offer to increase the term of the increases to seven years, rather than the original five, and maintain the proposed 75% hike. He called the proposal "a responsible way to keep Quebec's universities well-funded and competitive" while also saying that he "will not bend" to protestors' demands that the tuition increases be abandoned altogether or significantly reduced.
What Do The Protesting Students Want?
The goal of the student protests is to keep tuition fees frozen where they are today. Activist website TuitionTruth.ca states that "university education will become less accessible" if the proposed increases come into effect, and that the effects will be felt most keenly by "groups that already tend to have more difficulty paying for university, including women, people of color, and the poor".
Protestors also believe that hiking tuition rates will cause financial damage to those who can afford to study. In his defense of the protests, Andrew Gavin Marshall points out that the average tuition for students in Quebec is $2,500, while the average debt for Quebec students is $13,000. In the rest of Canada, tuition costs an average of $5,000 and the average student's debt it $27,000. Marshall points to a Globe and Mail article that states this large debt load "is bankrupting a generation of students".
In part because they are fighting to stop tuition and the corresponding increase in student loan debt, student representatives rejected the government's offer to extend the hikes over seven years instead of five. Jeanne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for CLASSE (the most militant student group involved in the protests), said "the offer doesn't really respond to our demands". She went on, "The tuition hike is still there. We are questioning the legitimacy of the increase, and there hasn't been any compromise on that". CLASSE, representing a majority of student protestors, is now also calling for labour and other organizations to join them in a wider "social strike" across the province.
Violence And Police Reaction
Many stories about the protests have referred to violence and vandalism on the part of protestors, including broken windows and paint balloons thrown during this past weekend's demonstration. But there is also an apparent division between protestors who advocate civil disobedience, including vandalism, and those who believe the protests should remain peaceful.
An Ottawa Citizen article about this past weekend's protests refers to "video footage taken at Friday night's demonstration shows someone in a black mask breaking a window and the crowd turning on the young woman, who then fled the scene". The police apparently tweeted a thank you to students for their "collaboration".
MediaCoop blogger Tim McSorley suggests that the isolated actions of some protestors have been used as a pretext to dismiss the protestors as a whole, including those who were not involved in any violent action. He also suggests that police actions have been unnecessarily aggressive - in an opinion piece, McSorley talks about "reports of police on horses charging crowds, excessive use of pepper spray and gas, battoning and tear gassing". He says that the crowd's more aggressive tactics, including lighting a car on fire and throwing rocks at authorities, only happened after the police used force.
The Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (The Association for Student Labour Solidarity, in English) was founded in 2001 in Sherbrooke. The Association has about 45,000 members. The ASSE is the most radical of the student groups involved in the protests - they are calling for free education at all levels and for all, and the complete abolition of student debt.
This is the official government website explaining the tuition fees, including details of the proposed tuition increases in both French and English.
The Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ) was created in 1989, and includes 15 member associations and more than 125,000 student members. Their mission, according to their website, includes "defending a humanistic vision of education as a societal choice" by "fighting for accessible
Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) was founded in 1990. The focus of the FECQ is on improving living conditions for students, and as with their fellow student groups, they are advocating for a freeze on university tuition fees.
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