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Classes were closed at a University of Quebec in Montreal building on Thursday after clashes with police the night before caused extensive property damage, the latest development in broader protests against austerity measures in the province.
Protesters occupied the J.-A. DeSève Pavilion on the downtown campus for four hours, barricading hallways with smashed vending machines and upturned desks and chairs, before police stormed the building and dispersed the crowd with tear gas, ending the occupation just after midnight.
On top of the anti-austerity protests, Quebeckers will see another influx of demonstrators this Saturday for the Act on Climate March in Quebec City.
Conflict at UQAM
Photographs and videos posted on Twitter show Montreal riot police smashing in a window to enter the building to disperse more than 250 students, some of whom were chanting “Liberez nos camarades” (free our comrades), the Montreal Gazette reported. Earlier in the day, police arrested 22 students for violating a court-mandated university injunction that outlawed protesters from disturbing classes.
Students staging the sit-in were also angered by statements made by UQAM rector Robert Proulx. “As you know, we are bound to give our courses to the students. It’s an obligation of the university,” he told Radio-Canada, defending his request for the injunction and calling the police. During a tense standoff between students and police on Wednesday afternoon, professors stepped in between the students and police to defuse the tension.
Hashtags to follow
UQAM protests: #occupationUQAM
Montreal police: #SPVM
Saturday’s climate protest in Quebec City: #ActOnClimate
The Liberal government: Mr. Couillard maintains that belt-tightening measures are necessary to balancing the budget. In March, the Liberal government tabled the province’s first balanced budget in six years.
#Manifencours, or #Manifestation: A hashtag used for the demonstrations by protesters and Montreal police on social media.
Association for Student Union Solidarity: This group, known under their French acronym, ASSÉ, was one of three groups most actively opposed to the Charest government’s tuition hike in 2012. It has taken part in organizing protests in 2015. Six of its executives – who believed students should delay their protests until fall – stepped down earlier this week, after clashing with more hardline members of the group from UQAM and other downtown community colleges that didn’t want protests to be delayed.
Comité Printemps: A committee opposed to the ASSÉ and other student union representatives. They plan almost nightly protests and advertise them on social media.
Fondation 1625: A student group that has spoken out against some tactics used by protesting students, such as blocking classrooms and preventing students from accessing them.
Maple Spring redux?
The UQAM student strike is part of a larger movement against austerity measures by the Liberal government of Premier Phillipe Couillard.
Three years ago, the so-called Maple Spring of 2012 mobilized student protesters on the issue of rising tuition fees. The Liberal government of the day lost the election to the Parti Québécois, and the tuition hikes were cancelled. This time, under a different Liberal government, the students are targeting cuts to public funding, in sectors like education and health care. The students are joined by community groups and activists from the health and education sectors, as part of a movement dubbed Printemps 2015 (Spring 2015).
But whereas the Maple Spring saw a mammoth turnout by students to overturn then-premier Jean Charest’s proposed $ 1,635 tuition hike, this year’s movement has been undermined by divisions within the student leadership and a splintering of protest groups. Although around 60,000 students walked out of class last month to protest the austerity measures, there have been prominent student groups opposed to the strike.
What students say
Elisa Besner-Ali, a student at UQAM, believes that despite the cleavages in student leadership, the 2015 movement is stronger than Maple Spring had been. “What’s different this time around is that mobilization did not come from ASSÉ or student federations, but from Comité Printemps 2015,” she said. “The people aren’t elected student representatives. It’s an initiative from the base that’s been organizing and mobilizing against austerity since fall 2014.”
At a press conference held Thursday morning, a group of students and professors denounced the administration’s actions. René Delvaux, a UQAM student, said “they created this situation.”
Ms. Besner-Ali believes the movement will come into its own over the coming days. “As opposed to mandating our elected executives, we are now doing it ourselves.”
A climate confrontation
With provincial and territorial premiers gathering in the provincial capital this weekend to discuss climate issues, opponents of oil-sands development will wear red and march through downtown Quebec City on Saturday afternoon. The Comité Printemps is among the groups planning protests at the Council of the Federation event.
With reports from Ingrid Peritz