As Quebec`s historic student struggle enters its 13th week of strike and constant mobilization, the battle has entered a new round. At the beginning of May the provincial Charest Liberals finally sat down with students and other groups to produce an offer that is now being voted on by students at colleges and universities across Quebec.
But already 18 out of 19 student assemblies have rejected the agreement by significant majorities, suggesting the conflict may be long from over. The Minister of Finance has suggested that ultimately, it may be the voters who resolve this crisis.
Student demonstrations have not slowed down either. For two weeks now, the students have been marching late into the night from 9 pm to 2 am. Hundreds of demonstrators snake through downtown Montreal, tailed and often blocked by muscular units of riot police who seem eager to gas the protestors or even beat them up.
Already the meeting had been moved to this more remote location to avoid protest. But in the charged environment a police riot broke out.
"One young student has been blinded, another was between life and death after the police charged and refuse to help him. Police refused to call an ambulance for injured demonstrators," Marianne Breton Fontaine, leader of the Young Communist League in Quebec told People`s Voice.
A distributor of the PCQ's newspaper Clarté saw a woman trade unionist protestor have her teeth knocked out by a police officer.
Video images of police brutality continue to shock on the internet, while the French‑language Quebec media appear disinterested by the alarming level of violence against the student movement.
Each day produces new graphic stories, like a grandmother being arrested at a feminist demo in support of the students. The left wing political party Quebec solidaire has called for a full public inquiry into Victoriaville and Amnesty International is also circulating a petition against the police violence. Quebec provincial police arrested 106 people after the Victoriaville student demonstration, directly from the bus returning to Montreal and Quebec City, at the same time as negotiations were still taking place in Quebec City.
After major public pressure the Charest government finally caved‑in and agreed to negotiate.
"But as the full report of the discussions comes out, it is clear that these negotiations were in fact a psychological warfare doomed to exhaust the participants from labour and students, lasting for almost 24 hours of discussions without any sleep!" Breton Fontaine said.
The government brought in representatives from the university administration as well as the main labour centrals, including the QFL/FTQ and the CNTU/CSN. All four student union centrals were present, with the ASSE being represented directly, not the CLASSE (which is a broader coalition led by the ASSE that has mobilized a large number of unaffiliated unions into its ranks for the temporary period of the strike).
"The government set up a false sense of urgency, but the only real urgency was for Charest to return to his Party's general council meeting in Victoriaville with something concrete to deliver to his supporters," said Breton Fontaine.
Not negotiating in good faith
Even Liberal Party members are now starting to criticize the government's handling of the conflict. At one point in the negotiations, the government told the students that they accepted their demands for a board to oversee the administration of public funds into university, and a two‑year fee moratorium.
This created a sense of victory for the students. But all this was a trick. The government negotiators spoke separately to each of the student negotiators, changed one word at a time, and so diluted the offer. Then the government made the student representatives from each Quebec national association sign the document separately while the offer was changed! The government quickly coordinated with the media to talk about an agreement in principle and to say that the strike was settled. In fact the effort was to divide, and spread mis‑information.
A Pyrrhic victory?
As a result, students and their allies initially reacted with confusion to the offer. On one hand, the student representatives explained to the media and their organizations that all the tuition increases will be compensated by a reduction of institutional fees, and eventually a reduction of the tuition increase if this was not enough.
The minister of education, however, said that the tuition increase was maintained in its totality, and that the students would have to convince the government to cut some of the university budgets if they want to reduce the impact of the tuition increase.
We now know the proposal is for a six-month moratorium on the tuition increase, and the first increase of fees (phased in over seven years up to $1778) will be reduced by less than $150.
Then a committee will be struck, consisting of a minority of participants from students and labour, and a majority from the government, university administrations, and especially from the business community. Students will have to prove where cuts can be made. In fact the committee will have no formal power.
The Young Communist League of Quebec and other progressive voices have described this committee as a Trojan horse for privatization.
In fact, the fees that will be under negotiation are vastly different between institutions, depending on the financial background of the students, and the schools' position with the notorious pecking‑order of Post‑Secondary Education (ie. between the so‑called "red brick" and "ivy league" schools). For example, the Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau charges only $70 for these fees, while McGill in Montreal charges around $1000.
A prairie fire
Meanwhile, students are asking why they fought for so long, sacrificing a session of their education that they paid for, to win such poor results. While many students are beginning to tire,The determination to continue is still among their ranks.
As an example, the night demonstrations have been joined by an increasing number of activists who had not participated in any form of protest before.
Another demonstration is the realization, expressed in the CLASSE newsletter The Ultimatum a few weeks ago, that "The right to education movement has gone beyond the simple issue of tuition hikes - it has made it possible to clearly express that we are fed up of sitting back while our collective future is defined by the demands of the political and economic elite."
This was most clear at the April 22 Earth Day rally which saw almost 300,000 students, environmentalists and labour activists together in a huge show of solidarity.
The spirit of the demonstrations has also spread beyond Quebec, with a student open letter even calling for strike action in Ontario.
A survey of over 2,000 students by the Globe and Mail across Canada said that 62 per cent of postsecondary students would join a similar strike in their own province. Numbers varied from 22 percent support in Alberta to almost 70 percent in Ontario.
The Young Communist League has called to develop an escalating action plan for broad unity of the students across English‑speaking Canada, and has been working hard to pass solidarity resolutions against the police brutality and in support of the Quebec students.
International organizations have also been sending solidarity greetings to Quebec students, including the World Federation of Democratic Youth.
"The proof that people are recognizing the students are on the front line and an inspiration is, in a way, seen in the corporate media coverage of the demonstrations," Johan Boyden General Secretary of the Young Communist League told People's Voice.
Boyden strongly disagreed with the claim, for example by Rex Murphy on CBC, that what the Quebec students are doing is not a strike but a boycott.
"This is an attempt to further reinforce the idea that education is a commodity or privilege in people`s minds, not a fundamental human right, and also to confuse the link between the students resistance and their implications for working people. We all know that there are fair strikes, rent strikes, general strikes, political strikes etc. - this is a collective social resistance, not an individualized consumer opt‑out," he said. "What we are seeing in Quebec is not only making history, it is showing the way forward - a broad, mass, united peoples' resistance. This is the kind of fightback we need to spread right across the country."