The 'denim-clad army' that fought changes to Quebec's grading policy

Thousands of Montreal students took to the streets in May 1982, as they protested a curriculum change that would make it harder for them to pass.

Thousands of students took part in protests against proposed change to pass/fail line in 1982

Students protest change to failing mark

Digital Archives

39 years ago
In 1982, Quebec students protested a plan to raise the mark between a pass and fail from 50 to 60 per cent. 1:32

Thousands of Montreal students took to the streets, as they protested an educational change that would make it easier for them to fail.

In 1982, the Quebec government was planning to make changes to the education curriculum, in a bid to upgrade the quality of a secondary school diploma.

One of those changes was a proposal to move the pass-fail line from 50 per cent to 60 per cent.

The students didn't like that, prompting the wave of protests that first caught the attention of The National on May 3, 1982.

'We have no hope'

Student Frank Secondi said many students struggled to get passing grades under the existing 50 per cent pass-fail system. (The National/CBC Archives)

"Students have problems getting 50 per cent and here they are trying to tell us to get 60 [per cent]," said Frank Secondi, a high school student who spoke to the CBC's Susan Copeland that day.

"They want us to have a future, but with 60 per cent, we have no hope."

All in all, the protest on the first Monday in May involved enough students to force the shutdown of 17 schools in Montreal.

"Some youngsters did have firm political motives, but others admitted to a touch of spring fever," Copeland reported on The National, as viewers saw sweeping shots of the huge mass of students involved in the protest.

"It was a lovely day to cut classes," she added.

Not just about the pass-fail line

Thousands of students took part in a protest that shut down 17 Montreal high schools on May 3, 1982. (The National/CBC Archives)

A small group of students met with an education official. They were told it was possible the change would be implemented gradually, rather than being in effect for all students in the coming school year.

Copeland told viewers the students were concerned about more than the grading changes.

"They say they're worried about the overall quality of education," she reported.

Their upset didn't go away, as further student protests followed in Montreal that week.

'Not power, but powerlessness'

More education protests in Quebec

Digital Archives

39 years ago
High school students in Quebec kept up their protests for days in May of 1982. 2:05

And The National was again airing a report on May 6, 1982, a day when a handful of students ended up being arrested.

"This is how the school day began this morning in Montreal — a denim-clad army of teenagers marching on a high school, trying to get the students to join them," the CBC's Don Macpherson told viewers, as the broadcast showed footage of the young protesters yelling to students in the upper floor of a school.

Macpherson said protesting students had been on the move that afternoon, gathering in parks and reading off their "mimeographed manifesto of complaints against the school system."

One student's comment indicated a concern over class size, not the pass/fail threshold.

"The classes are too big. We've got 30 kids to 40 kids in a class," she said. "We can't learn with that many kids in there."

Despite the students' efforts, however, Macpherson said they weren't gaining any ground in their dispute and neither were school administrators.

"What the student demonstrations are showing is not power, but powerlessness," said Macpherson.

"The students seem powerless to get the changes they say they want in the quality of their education, simply because the authorities won't negotiate with them. The authorities are powerless — powerless to prevent disruption in the classroom."

Not what students wanted

A day later, yet another set of protests shut down 19 schools in Montreal.

The Canadian Press reported one of those Friday protests involved an incident in which students broke two doors and more than a dozen windows at West Hill High.

"They kicked in two quarter-inch plate glass windows," the school's principal, Euan Crabb, told The Canadian Press.

"A concrete block was thrown through a classroom window."

Alas, for all the students' efforts, the pass-fail line was going to end up moving to 60 per cent, which is where it sits today for high school students in the province of Quebec.

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