For the second consecutive day, student associations voted almost unanimously against a tentative agreement with the government and supported further strike action as the wave of protest against last Saturday's deal on tuition-fee hikes appeared unstoppable.
As the strike enters the 13th week, the crisis is hitting community colleges the hardest. Strike votes in universities occur within each faculty and department, while they are taken in community colleges as a whole, paralyzing entire institutions and potentially impacting the lives of thousands of students for months to come.
"Students are beginning to panic. Some have come to see me with tears in their eyes fearful of losing their session," said Pierre Leblanc, director of the St-Hyacinthe college of general and vocational education known under the French acronym CEGEP. He made the comments to journalists after students at the CEGEP voted more than 60 per cent against the agreement.
Some students need their college diploma to enter university in the fall, but will have to wait and perhaps even lose their bursaries. Others wanting to enter, say, the police academy, which accepts new students only in the fall, will have to wait until the following year. Those expecting to graduate from a nursing program with the possibility of a paid internship this summer will lose the opportunity.
"It is having a catastrophic impact on thousands of students," said Jean Beauchesne, head of the federation of Quebec colleges. "The inability to get a diploma or delaying entrance to the work force is simply disastrous for many students. And I haven't begun to count the number of dropouts this strike will cause."
The situation was critical for several colleges where directors face an administrative nightmare as they prepare to announce this week that the winter session, which should have been completed by now, will have to resume in the fall.
That means two cohorts of students will cross paths next fall: those completing the spring session and those starting the fall session, creating a domino effect that will impact the entire postsecondary education system for at least a year.
Of the 48 publicly funded CEGEPs in Quebec, 17 are currently on strike. They represent a total of 75,000 students out of the 175,000 enrolled in CEGEPs.
As the students vote, negotiations are at a standstill. The government reiterated that it will not back down on its plans to raise tuition fees, but left the door open to further talks on how savings in university spending could be used to reduce student costs.
"I want to give the following assurances that we are undertaking all necessary efforts to create a space for discussion. That is our objective … to create that space where we could continue dialoguing without falling into violence and intimidation," Premier Jean Charest said in the National Assembly.
Some caucus members are supporting the hard-line approach, including former education minister and university director Pierre Reid, who blamed the students for the current stalemate.
"The student movement is infiltrated by students who do not take education seriously. That's the true problem. And it's hard for a government to deal with leaders who have no credibility," Mr. Reid said.
Student leaders said the remarks only served to inflame an already tense situation. Many students were equally upset over the way police handled the violent confrontation during the demonstration in Victoriaville last Friday outside the Quebec Liberal Party meeting.
Minister of Public Security Robert Dutil acknowledged that the anti-riot squad used plastic bullets. During the violent clashes, at least two of three seriously injured students were reported to have been shot with plastic bullets at short range.
Some groups, including the Quebec Solidaire party, are now calling for a public inquiry into the use of plastic bullets, known as plastic baton rounds and reported to be potentially fatal when shot either in the head or the neck.
"I can't explain why they were used," Mr. Dutil said. "Police determine what weapons they use during these types of events."