There appears to be no end in sight for what is now the longest strike in the history of the student movement in Quebec.
After close to eight weeks, leaders of the protest against university tuition fee hikes appear more united, more defiant, and more combative than ever despite court injunctions ordering picket lines to be dismantled and a concession offer by the government on student loans. There are more rallies planned this week.
With 175,000 students out of a province-wide total of more than 400,000 on strike, leaders of the protest movement are playing havoc with Premier Jean Charest’s pre-election strategy.
“We know that we are in crucial period where colleges and universities have to juggle how they manage the spring session after a two-month strike,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec Federation of University Students, in an interview. “We are in a pre-election period and we can see that the government is anxious to settle the issue and get students back in the classrooms. They certainly don’t want us on their heels throughout an election campaign.”
The students are demanding that the government back down on implementing the tuition fee hikes of $325 a year for five years and negotiate the accessibility and funding of universities. Their determination has become a source inspiration for other student movements in the country whose debt load and tuition fees far exceed those in Quebec, which has the lowest in Canada.
At the University of Ottawa, students disrupted a board of governors meeting last week to protest tuition fee hikes. The Canadian Federation of Students were in close contact with the leaders of the Quebec movement to examine whether their strategy could be used in other provinces to protest rising tuition fees.
“We are keeping up the pressure until we get a meeting with the government,” said Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the College Student Federation of Quebec, on Sunday. “We are beginning to see cracks in the government’s armour. If they want a way out of this crisis, they will have to sit down with the students.”
But the Charest government has refused to come to the bargaining table, insisting that tuition fee hikes were non-negotiable. Instead it extended an olive branch last week, announcing changes to the student loan program allowing reimbursements to be proportional to income and extending credit to students of families whose annual income is above $60,000.
The student leaders responded by categorically rejecting the announcement, calling it “arrogant” for failing to address their demands for a complete review of post-secondary education funding, including free tuition.
The students are currently weighing the effects of the court injunctions against the strike in recent days. In three separate rulings, the courts have issued temporary injunctions for three post-secondary institutions requiring students to end picket lines and allow classes to resume.
If anything the court injunctions has strengthen the students’ resolve to pursue their battle and force the government’s hand.
“At the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, student associations in a number of faculties reacted to the injunction by voting to continue the strike. The rulings angered the students and enforced their belief that they were fighting a just cause,” Ms. Desjardins said.
The student leaders remained convinced that if they can stay united and maintain the pressure for a few more weeks, the government will bow to their demands.
On Monday, university student associations meet to evaluate their strategy. Demonstrations are being planned each day this week, including one Thursday with the Quebec women’s federation and another on Saturday to mark the 9th anniversary of the first election of Premier Jean Charest’s government.
The coming events provide a build-up to what is expected to be another major demonstration marking Earth Day on April 22 that may rival the estimated record 200,000 protesters that marched in the streets of Montreal last month.