MONTREAL - There was no denying the magnitude of the message delivered by striking university and CÉGEP students on Thursday, as tens of thousands of them marched peacefully - albeit noisily - through the streets of Montreal to denounce the provincial government’s plan to raise tuition fees.
The scope of this student movement could suddenly be seen and protesters themselves could be heard muttering reverential “wows” and “awesome” as they surveyed the crowd, estimated at 200,000 by student organizers, but believed to be somewhat lower by police who don’t give official numbers. [OP's note: this video - in French - says that the police have now confirmed the 200,000 number. This is a lot of people, approximately 0.25% of the population of Quebec. As a comparison, 0.25% of the population of the USA would be 8 million people.]
Still, it was impressive - likely matching or surpassing the huge pre-referendum rally in 1995 and said by organizers to have spanned 50 city blocks.
Sporting symbolic red felt squares and red tank tops, coveralls, kilts and anything else they could find, the students congregated at Peel St. and René Levesque Blvd. for a couple of hours, enjoying the summery day and a festive atmosphere before the actual march through downtown and into Old Montreal.
Although at times it was hard to tell if it was a party or a protest, there was an undercurrent of anger as students demanded that Premier Jean Charest back down from his plan to hike tuition by $1,625 over five years. Only two days after the budget confirmed the higher fees, students spoke passionately about preserving accessibility. One sign said: “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are trying to change the world” and many students made reference to the Arab Spring uprising last year with placards that read: “Printemps Érable.”
Students said early in the day that one measure of success would be a peaceful demonstration, and it was. Police said there were no arrests. Students were joined by parents and even grandparents, and lots of families with young children came out to show their support as well.
So despite some pockets of masked protesters and Black Bloc militants, the family-friendly protest went off without a hitch - unless you were a motorist trying to navigate your way through the city which was a traffic nightmare for much of the day.
Montreal Police said the demonstration, one of the biggest ever in the city, was an example of how smoothly things can go when students share the route in advance.
“This way we’re there to intervene right away,” said Ian Lafrenière of the police, saying there were trouble spots but police were able to act quickly to disperse the problems.
Although last November’s march, with about 30,000 protesters, was peaceful, it ended with an occupation at McGill University that brought riot police onto campus in a very contentious operation. And there have been confrontations with riot police at many of the almost daily protests in the last couple of weeks.
But it was a different kind of crowd on Thursday. Chris Naismith, an engineering student at Concordia University, did the march carrying his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Stella, in his arms. “I can’t imagine how much it will cost to send her to university,” he said.
Loreto Carnevale has seven children under the age of 11 and he marched because he’s worried. “Education is the basis of society,” he said.
Students started the day Thursday with a huge boost of support from Quebec’s largest labour unions and political opposition parties. Parti Québecois leader Pauline Marois attended a press conference with the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec and the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec and vowed to cancel any tuition hike if the PQ forms the next government.
“Universities and CÉGEPs are paralyzed. All of Quebec is losing,” Marois said. “This is a new tax for the middle class and it is unacceptable.”
Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of FECQ, said one of the most important measures of the protest was that it be peaceful, saying students had about 150 of their own security staff and paramedics to monitor the crowd.
“If even 100 people in a crowd of thousands want to make some trouble, it can happen,” he said.
As for Charest’s contention in Quebec City that “the government will never stop listening” to students, FEUQ leader Martine Desjardins scoffed. “They are not open to discussion. We have sent letters and emails and we don’t get any answer,” she said.
Charest held out little hope the decision would change. “Hopefully those who choose to express themselves today will do it peacefully and respectfully,” Charest said on his way to the National Assembly question period.
The higher fees, still below the Canadian average, reflect “our willingness to have a world-class post-secondary education system in Quebec,” he said.
The students say higher fees mean higher debt for students and their parents, rejecting the government’s position that student aid, offered to about 35 per cent of students, will ease the debt burden.
One thing is for sure: the battle is not over. Students have vowed not to stop their pressure tactics until they have a tuition freeze. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, of the Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, said the next step is begin some economic pressure.
“Today was a huge success,” he said. “With 200,000 people in the streets, the government can’t continue to ignore that there is a crisis in the education system.”
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.
This year's hike, combined with one a few years back, will mean an increase of tuition fees by 125% since 2005. Also, according to the law on bursaries and loans, parents are expected to pay for their children's education - yes, even adult children, as long as they are full-time students - so students here are not eligible for bursaries if their family has a combined income of over $40,000. There are been no changes in the bursaries and loans programs to compensate for the tuition fee increase, so this is quite a hit on the middle class. The government has been showing no signs of backing down, with the Minister of Education going as far as calling the students "entitled" and "annoying".