BY VICKY MERCIER
MONTREAL - Confidence was high on November 20 as a crowd of more than 6,000 college, university and high school students took to the streets in Montreal to protest cutbacks in education and social services. Three days later 15,000 unionists marched in Quebec City against the provincial government's attempt to gut public workers' pension funds.
The student march culminated a three-week province-wide strike by thousands of college students in Quebec opposing the provincial government's plan to cut Can$700 million (US$518 million) from funding to education. The students had vowed not to return to class until the government granted a freeze in tuition fees. Chanting in French and English, "So, so, so, solidarité" and "No way, we won't pay," students marched for three hours in cold weather.
The high points of the march occurred when large contingents of students from all four major universities joined the protest as it wound its way through Montreal. McGill University went on strike for the day, while students at Concordia and the University of Quebec voted for a two-day strike.
In response to the student strike and the wave of protests and occupations, Education Minister Pauline Marois pledged to freeze tuition fees at college and university levels until the end of the government's mandate. The minister announced, however, that fees for out-of-province students would increase by 73 percent. The government's proposal also includes tightening access to financial aid and increasing fees for repeating classes.
Despite the victory of the tuition freeze, many students
at the march were holding placards reading, " the fight
continues," expressing their refusal to accept the attacks
announced by the education minister. "I'm not at all
satisfied," explained Manuela Santiago Teigeler, a student
from Vieux Montreal Junior College. Marois "is giving us
crumbs. I'm ready to continue the fight to the end," she
Fight for equal education
The tuition hike for out-of-province students has sparked a major debate, since most of the students from outside Quebec are English-speaking. Many students see the tuition hike as an attempt to divide them.
As Neil Conway, a student from Nova Scotia, explained, "My tuition may be doubled and I won't be able to go back to school because as a full-time student at Concordia, I work three days at a hospital and already I'm in debt."
An editorial in the English-language Montreal daily The Gazette described the tuition hike for out-of-province students as "academic cleansing," claiming that "the public funds that keep fees for Quebec-based students as low as they are - roughly half the national average - are in part provided by the federal government."
The low tuition fees in Quebec are a result of the fight by the Quebecois to improve an inferior educational system in French. A recent study revealed that the English-language universities in Quebec receive 36 percent of federal funding, while anglophones make up only 8 percent of the population. This disparity in the quality of education between English and French universities is being used by the governing party in Quebec, the Parti Quebecois, to win support for the tuition hikes for out-of-province students. The Parti Quebecois is playing on resentment to try to get Quebecois students to accept that these students should pay more.
"There are certain basic human rights. Today cuts across language and division. It shows we can all come together," said Pete Wilson, a student from British Colombia, about the November 20 march in Montreal. Massive federal cuts in education funds are part of the attacks on education and social programs. On Jan. 25, 1995, 10,000 students marched in Montreal against Ottawa's education cuts. On February 7 of this year, more than 20,000 students from 30 cities across Canada joined protest actions against the federal government's plan to cut Can$7 billion in transfer payments to the provinces for education and social programs.
Although most students returned to class in the days after
the November 20 demonstration, a few colleges still remain on
strike. Two hundred students from the Lévis-Lauzon Junior
College occupied a government building in Quebec City on
November 22, hours before the opening of the convention of the
Parti Quebecois. The demonstration was violently broken up by
the police riot squad.
Public workers mobilize in Quebec
Another important mobilization occurred in the same week as the student protest. On November 23 about 15,000 public sector workers demonstrated in Quebec City, in front of the convention of the Parti Quebecois. Among the crowd were hospital workers, nurses, civil servants, college students, teachers, bus drivers, groups organizing fighting for housing and many others. The central aim of the demonstration was to protest a government plan to reopen union contracts in order to take money from the government workers' pension fund.
Gérald Larose, the president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions told the crowd, "If the solution does not involve the pockets which are full, it can't involve the pockets which are empty."
Denis Turgeon, a civil servant from Quebec City, said, "taking money from the pension fund, is taking money from the pockets of the youngest."
Mario Dufour, who was there with a group of about 200 students from Limoilou Junior College, said, "We are united for the same fight, the fight for social justice." The unions are planning another protest December 7.
Vicky Mercier is a member of the Young Socialists and of
the International Association of Machinists in Montreal. Joe
Young also contributed to this article.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home