BY ELSSA MARTÍNEZ
MONTREAL - On March 24 some 16,000 students mobilized throughout Quebec to demand massive reinvestment in education, the abolition of auxiliary fees, and that the Federal government hand over $2.5 billion to the Quebec government, the province's portion of the Millennium Scholarship Fund. The demonstration concluded a week of actions organized by the Federation of University Students of Quebec (FEUQ) and the Federation of College Students of Quebec (FECQ). French- and English-speaking students were united on these demands, with support of college and university teachers unions.
Organizers estimate 10,000 students participated in the march in Montreal, where colorful hand-made signs demanded, "Yes, to free education" and "Massive reinvestment in education, now!" Since 1994, the Quebec government has slashed $1.9 billion in education (Can$1 = US$.67), including $750 million from universities and community colleges. This is hurting the quality of education, the number of teachers, and access to libraries, materials, and human resources.
"I hope this action will force some change by the government," commented a student from Dawson college. Students were demanding that the government reinvest the same amount it had cut.
The demonstration began with thousands of people rallying in front of the Quebec education government building in the east side of Montreal. From there, students marched through a French-speaking working-class neighborhood. Many residents came to their windows to show support, some raising their fist in the air and others waving from their balconies. A group of electrical workers stopped working to wave and smile at the passing students.
Thousands more joined the action at the second rallying point close to the University of Quebec in Montreal and the Old Montreal College. Demonstrators marched on to the office of Jean Monty, chief executive of Bell Canada Enterprise (BCE). Monty is chairperson of the Millennium Foundation, which administers the federal scholarship fund.
The 1998 federal budget was a direct attack on Quebec's historic right to control education here. In it, the federal government of Jean Chretien announced the establishment of the Millennium Scholarship Fund, which overrides Quebec's student scholarship and loan system. The Quebec government opposes the intrusion of the federal government and demanded that the Quebec portion of the fund be integrated and managed by the province's own loans and scholarship fund. Students supported this request and noted that unlike the federally controlled fund, Quebec's is based on students' financial needs, not their grades. While the cost of living in Quebec has increased by 20.9 percent over the last 10 years, student indebtedness has gone up 63.5 percent.
In 1996 a general strike by college and universities students in Quebec that lasted several weeks won a freeze on education fees. The average debt of a Quebecois student is $13,000 compared to an average of $20,000 in the rest of Canada. This reflects the lasting gains of the fight for the rights of the Quebecois, the oppressed French-speaking majority in Quebec, in the late 1960s. The fight by Quebecois students for access to subsidized French-language education played a major role in the struggle against national oppression.
Students at University of Montreal have already won a small victory. After several days of protest and the demonstration of March 24, the administration delayed for the time being an announcement of fee hikes for next year, including raising the thesis-writing fee for post-graduate student from $67 per course per semester to $556.
Elssa Martinez is a member of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers. Michel Prairie contributed to this article.
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