Quebec rallies against a tuition fee increase
// Claire Vulliamy

While the ongoing teachers’ strike continues to make headlines in B.C., Quebec is host to a strike of a different kind. As of Mar. 5, 123,265 students have rallied together – and with that number growing daily, the Quebec student strike is a force to be reckoned with.

It all began in March of last year, when the Quebec Liberal government, under Jean Charest, tabled a budget that included a 75 per cent increase in tuition over the next five years. This amounts to an increase of approximately $325 per year, beginning in Sept. 2012. Demonstrations had been held previously for a “fair budget”; however, the announcement led to an intensification of student action.

Most recently, students in Quebec have embarked on a “general strike”, which means that students across the board, regardless of institution, are participating or welcome to participate. Various student groups have joined in, the latest being that of Concordia University.

Many others have plans to begin striking later in March. On Jan. 21, two associations who represent a large number of the student groups in Quebec, Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ), made a decision to schedule the beginning of their strike on Mar. 22.


Since the announcement of the tuition hikes on Mar. 17, there has been widespread backlash from Quebec students. Protests have taken place regularly, and more recently there have been encounters with riot police, even resulting in injury. On Mar. 7, a protest culminated in an attempted occupation of the offices for the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ). Riot police attempted to break up the crowd of demonstrators blocking the building.

“It was really peaceful, except for when we were at Loto-Québec when the police set off flash-bombs,” Noémie Roy-Gibeault, a student at the protest, told The Link.

Later, reports came out that a student had been hit in the eye with a stun grenade, and would potentially lose vision permanently. On McGill’s Tuition Truth blog, it was reported that his loss of vision had been confirmed. Four protesters in total had to be taken to the hospital.

This is just one incident in a series of clashes. On Nov. 10, 2011, approximately 30,000 students in Montreal boycotted their classes and went on a march through downtown Montreal. The march ended at McGill, and some students decided to stage a peaceful occupation of McGill’s James Administration Building, according to the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).

Meanwhile, others stood outside and formed a human chain. The police were called to the scene, and some protesters began throwing items such as sticks and water bottles. Later, the riot squad arrived and protesters, including those that were peaceful, were indiscriminately hit with batons, pepper spray, and tear gas, reports the McGill Daily.

A professor, who was walking by and stopped to observe the events, was also dragged into the action. As quoted in the McGill Daily, “Three Montreal riot police came at me, clubbed me in the ribs and stomach with a baton, knocked me over – I don’t know if it was a club that knocked me over or one of them pushing me, you know, it all happened so fast – I popped right back up and they pepper sprayed me in the face.”

Again on Feb. 24, students marched through downtown Montreal. The march was organized in part by The Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE or Coalition large de l’ASSÉ), who are involved in a large part of student action, and have also spearheaded protests regarding tuition fees in the past. At its peak, an estimated 15,000 students were participating in the march. A smaller group that continued to march towards the Jacques Cartier Bridge in order to block it had a standoff with the riot police, where pepper spray was used.

CLASSE spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeu-Dubois, was impressed by the turnout: “We’ll be more and more thousands on strike in the upcoming days and weeks. I think now this government has no choice, it has to listen to us, and it has to stop increasing tuition fees.”


The Simone de Beauvoir Institute, a feminist organization related to Concordia, has openly opposed the tuition hikes.

Gabrielle Bouchard, a student at the Institute who spoke at a press conference, explained that “this amount of money will be more expensive for a woman than for her male colleagues” as women’s wages remain lower than their male counterparts.

The Canadian Federation of Students, at a national level, has expressed their support for the student strikes. In an open letter addressed to Line Beauchamp, the Minister of Education in Quebec, they said, “Of all students in Canada, those in Québec have been able, until now, to benefit from a system where education is recognized as a priority that must be funded by the government. This is, according to us, the only way to build a system of post-secondary education that allows students to have access to it regardless of their socio-economic background and of the province in which they study.”

Here at home, CFS-BC is also well aware of the events.

“Canadian Federation of Students B.C. supports the strike action of Quebec students. We sent a letter of support already and we hope to see them succeed,” says Zach Crispin, the organization’s chairperson.

Beauchamp has continued to say that the government will not back down on their decision. Global News quotes Beauchamp’s aide, Hélène Sauvageau as saying, “There is no plan to change the tuition increases … It’s being done to assure the quality of teaching here.”


In an article published in Montreal’s Gazette newspaper, Alex Woznica wrote that the tuition increases “are quite reasonable,” as they bring the fees back to 1968 levels, adjusted for inflation. What’s more, he says, is that Quebec tuition will still be the lowest in the country.

“I think that that’s really wrongheaded, I think there’s no reason that people shouldn’t be upset that they’re harming the best post-secondary system in the entire country,” Crispin says.

Quebec’s average yearly fee for full-time students is $2,415 a year, whereas the Canadian average is $5,138. These low levels are the result of a tuition freeze that lasted from 1994 until 2007, until it was removed by the Liberal government under Charest.

While some groups argue that the tuition hikes are only fair, one of the main groups involved in the action taken against the hike, l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), believes that tuition should be free for everyone and that education is a “fundamental right of our society, and not a privilege.”

The government has also said that with the tuition increase comes an increase in funding to universities, and more student aid. However, as reported by Maclean’s, while tuition fees will increase at a steady rate, university funding increases won’t. The largest tuition increase will come in the 2014-2015 academic year.


This is not the only time students have gone on strike in Quebec. Most recently, in 2005, students led by ASSÉ went on strike to protest the $103 million cuts made to student bursaries. The government instead took that money and put it into repayable loans. At its peak, the strike was 230,000 students strong, and the pressure put on government forced them to reverse their action.

The first general strike occurred in Quebec on 1968 in protest of multiple issues within the education system, including over 4,000 students being barred from postsecondary due to a lack of resources.

In an interview with Dominion magazine, Sophie Schoen of ASSÉ explains, “Low tuition in Quebec is a direct result of the major student strikes.”

In 1996, the government under the Parti Quebecois was planning on raising tuition fees. In response, the students went on strike.

“It wasn’t as massive as the strike in 2005, but it did force the government to step down from their decision to raise tuition,” says Schoen.

She believes that the ongoing mobilization of students is essential, and that while strikes are difficult to organize, “a strike is what it takes.”

“It’s really important that people understand this point, that an organized student movement is the only barrier to having a situation in Quebec in which inaccessible education is the norm,” says Schoen.


B.C. had its own tuition freeze until 2002, when Gordon Campbell came into office and deregulated tuition, meaning that post-secondary institutions could determine autonomously how much they wanted to charge.

“Our government, the Liberals, deregulated tuition fees, and so tuition fees skyrocketed that year across the province and then continued to do so for another year,” says Crispin.

At the time, B.C. had the second-lowest tuition fees in the country at $2,592 a year for the average undergraduate. After removing the freeze, tuition jumped up to $4,735 a year in a two-year time period.

The CFS campaigned against the deregulated fees, says Crispin: “Students mobilized across the province, called it a day of action, [and] put a lot of pressure on the government.”

The victory was won in 2005 when the cap was put in place that meant that tuition could not rise faster than inflation, which is at a rate of two per cent. Currently, B.C.’s tuition fees are just under the Canadian average, but above five other provinces: Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island. Furthermore, it is the only province without a provincial grants program.

Another victory was the removal of tuition fees from Adult Basic Education (ABE), which allows adult students to take K-12 courses. In 2002, post-secondary institutions were allowed to charge fees for these programs, but in 2007, campaigning from students led the government to once again remove tuition from ABE.

Crispin says that while there have been successes over the last ten years, B.C.’s student movement could learn a lot from Quebec.

“We should look to the Quebec student movement as an example of what we should be doing on an ongoing basis and work toward that point, because it’s really where we need to be to lower tuition fees to the levels that they need to be at,” he says.

“We need to increase the fight back against the government for increasing tuition fees, for reducing funding to postsecondary education, and the best way to do that is to be united in our campaign work.” Crispin cites CFS-BC’s Education Shouldn’t be a Debt Sentence campaign, which aims to pressure the government to reduce tuition fees, looking at the high levels of student debt as the negative outcome of the fee levels.


The ongoing trend in Canada sees much less funding for universities from the government, and much more coming from students. In 1977, government funding accounted for 84 per cent of university budgets, whereas student contributions came to about 13.7 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. Currently, however, government funding is at 57 per cent, whereas student funding totals 34.2 per cent.

In times of government austerity measures, if this trend continues, power struggles such as the strikes in Quebec will only become more common.

Students in Quebec have vehemently guarded their post-secondary system’s low tuition for years, and the recent actions make it clear that they will not give it up easily. The continuing police brutality and ensuing injuries only feed the fire that has been kindled.

In a statement issued by ASSÉ after the Mar. 7 events, translated from French, they write: “In the face of these profoundly unjust and undemocratic threats, we call for the ardent continuation our political struggle, our demonstrations, our actions that disrupt the daily routines of social and economic elites who violate our right to education. Let us not be deterred psychologically and physically by violent police officers! By the force of our numbers, the force of our actions and our efforts, we shall overcome!”

//Claire Vulliamy, arts editor
//Graphics by Tiare Jung

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