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A security guard battles with student protesters as they burst in prior to the National Bank Financial Group annual general meeting in Montreal April 4, 2012. Media reports state the police arrested about 50 students on Wednesday as they continued their protest against tuition hikes in Quebec. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters/Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
A security guard battles with student protesters as they burst in prior to the National Bank Financial Group annual general meeting in Montreal April 4, 2012. Media reports state the police arrested about 50 students on Wednesday as they continued their protest against tuition hikes in Quebec. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters/Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Cracks start to show in Quebec's student solidarity Add to ...

When 2012 is added to Quebec’s long history of student strikes, they may recall Friday, April 13 as the day a remarkably peaceful and disciplined campaign finally turned.

Whether it veers next week toward victory, surrender, violence or compromise is anyone’s guess.

More than 165,000 Quebec students are striking against Premier Jean Charest’s plan to hike tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years in the biggest and longest student action ever seen in a province known for student activism. A strike most thought would drift toward an quick end is now two months old.

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“The strength of the student movement caught everyone off guard. Few saw it coming. The students are well-organized, disciplined, astute and tenacious,” said University of Montreal sociologist Guy Rocher, who has studied student movements since the 1950s.

On Friday, the students may have made their first serious misstep. Around 8 a.m., a couple of hundred students gathered on Montreal’s Mont-Royal Avenue. Instead of marching in front of the bistros and bars along the tony street, as they have done scores of times in dozens of locations, they suddenly descended into a nearby subway station.

The group split up and emerged at several stops to the north, where school buses sat idling to take some of them to an assault on the office of Education Minister Line Beauchamp. The ploy to avoid police surveillance worked. As panicked office staffers dialled 911, televisions were smashed and walls were kicked in before police arrived and sent the vandals running.

Next week, tens of thousands of students will learn if their academic year will be cancelled or extended, and whether the government and administrations will succeed in forcing many of their schools and faculties to reopen.

While most Quebeckers call the student protest a strike, it’s not a job action many Canadians would recognize. Instead of withdrawing services from an employer like a labour union, these strikers are boycotting classes for which they’ve already paid. And contrary to appearances on Montreal streets, where protests have become a routine road obstacle, only about 35 per cent of the province’s 460,000 students have walked out. The majority of students have quietly gone about completing class work and are now writing exams.

But 165,000 students is still a massive number, and the ramifications are huge.

Quebec students have long had the cheapest tuition in North America, and even with the hike their rates would remain among the lowest, at around $3,800. But a good deal elsewhere is not good enough for students in a province that has long had free education at its system of publicly funded pre-university colleges, known as CEGEPs.

According to Prof. Rocher, tuition imposed on university students in the 1960s was supposed to be temporary. Higher education was supposed to eventually be brought in line with the colleges. Some student groups have been demanding free tuition ever since.

Several times since the 1960s, massive student protests have forced governments to back down from planned tuition hikes and cuts to bursaries. Tuition has only been raised a handful of times in the past 30 years.

“Student demands to this day stem from the Quiet Revolution, where in the 1960s Quebec set itself apart from the rest of Canada by offering tuition-free college education. Which helps explain the type of student union organization here that you don’t find in the rest of Canada,” Prof. Rocher said.

Tom McGurk, a graduate student in geography who is part of a small strike at Concordia University, said that for strikers, “it’s really important in Quebec that education not move out of the realm of a public good and into an agenda that makes education a service to be sold, based on what’s marketable.”

A few cracks are starting to show in student solidarity and discipline. At Concordia University this week, students trying to take exams engaged in fights with strikers blocking their way. A small group of counter-protesters who want their school to open in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, about an hour west of Montreal, were bullied into silence with a shower of curses and threatening letters.

“It’s not just here, people are going on Facebook and bullying people,” said Vickie Courchesne, a 19-year-old Valleyfield student who was just rejected from her preferred program combining law and international relations at the University of Ottawa because she won’t be able to submit her marks on time.

Ms. Beauchamp, the education minister, is adamant the protest movement is losing steam and said intimidation tactics will do nothing to dent the government’s resolve.

“We are firm about the tuition fee hikes,” Ms. Beauchamp said. “We have no intentions of backing down.”

But for Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for CLASSE, one of the more hard-line groups, that intransigence is fuelling anger. “It's certain that the more the conflict endures, the more people will be impatient. Tension is rising, we see it in the street every day,” he said.

“The government is not listening, and it makes people angry. More it goes on, the hotter it will get.”

Total students on strike:

165,000 of Quebec’s 460,000 post-secondary students

College students on strike:

85,000 students at 22 of 48 colleges

Consequences:

Eleven colleges are facing a critical situation as students have been on strike for a consecutive five-week period. If classes don’t resume by the end of next week, the schools face the possibility of extending the session until the end of June and completing the courses by the end of August (when CEGEPS reconvene for the fall session). It would entail major disruptions for the fall session as well.

University students on strike:

80,000 students from 153 student faculty associations

Consequences:

Some 43,000 students have missed 31 consecutive days of classes and are at risk of losing their session. Each university has their own solution to save the session. The Université du Québec à Montréal said that if students resume classes by May 7 they will be in a position to complete their courses by June 22. At the Université de Montréal, students were told that if they get back to class within two weeks the courses will be completed around June 15. However, after that the courses will be suspended.

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