Quebec student protests not just about tuition but battle against ‘greedy elites’
Defiant Quebec students had announced the second of what they vowed would be nightly protest marches until the Education Minister “stopped being childish” and agreed to negotiate an end to their 11-week strike over tuition.
But the weather was not co-operating, and as the appointed hour approached Thursday night, a cool drizzle fell on a mostly empty downtown park designated as the meeting point.
Just as it seemed the action would be a dud, the park started filling with people sporting the red square that is the symbol of the student movement. The march began, the crowd swelled and soon they would number over a thousand as they took over major downtown arteries for the next three hours.
“À qui la rue? À nous la rue!” they chanted. Whose streets? Their streets.
Quebecers have never been shy about taking to the streets to air their grievances, but the student demonstrations that have captivated the province this spring are in a different league. Multiple protests occur every day in Montreal alone, with three in the last week turning violent.
Premier Jean Charest announced Friday that, as a concession, he is prepared to spread the $1,625 tuition increase over seven years instead of the previously planned five. He said the annual increase would amount to 50 cents a day after tax credits. Student groups replied immediately that the gesture was inadequate.
How is it that so many people are so worked up about a relatively minor increase in tuition fees? In spending time talking to protesters, one thing becomes clear. This movement, if it ever was, is no longer just about tuition.
Véronique Boulanger-Vaugeois, 30, had ducked out of the rain for an espresso before the march began. She has a degree in social work from Université du Québec à Montréal but is currently unemployed. She recently decided to take a more active part in the student protests after recognizing its potential for broader societal change.
“For me the student movement, the student strike is just one part of everything we have to resolve,” she said. “The student movement is one in which the youth give us the energy, give us the power to refuse what is going on right now.”
Specifically that includes the tuition increases — she has fought for free university since her own student days — and the Liberal government’s northern development plan known as Plan Nord. But there is more. She also sees the protest as a refusal of “the entire capitalist, neo-liberal context that over time ends up having a very harmful impact, both locally and internationally, on the environment and on humanity.”
The previous night’s protest had left shattered windows and prompted police to use tear gas and pepper spray. Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay had despaired that his city was being disgraced around the world. Ms. Boulanger-Vaugeois, however, was unmoved by the mayor’s appeal for calm. “He should hold back his dogs. His dogs are the police,” she said. “It’s not the students who are causing destruction; it’s the police.”
Pictured: The student protest movement has become an outlet for a sweeping range of grievances. Graham Hughes for National Post.