August deadline looms as Quebec student boycott continues

The months-long dispute in Quebec that began over tuition fee hikes shows no sign of abating as a 15 August back-to-study deadline legislated by the provincial government looms, ensuring a late summertime showdown between students and government. One student group warned of “more strike activity and confrontation” if a solution is not found.

Students took to the streets starting in November to oppose a tuition fee increase of CA$1,625 (US$1,585) over five years, then in February began organising a student strike.

Students at 11 of Quebec’s 18 universities and 14 of its 48 cégeps, or junior colleges, voted to boycott classes for at least a few days during the spring term. At the height of strikes in March, some 12,000 students boycotted classes.

Nightly demonstrations in downtown Montreal continued, with regular clashes between students and riot police. The demonstrations recently quietened down but the issue has not been settled. Despite efforts at negotiation between government and student leaders, several rounds of talks have failed.

“We’re at an impasse,” said Robin Reid-Fraser, vice-president of external affairs for the Students’ Society of McGill University. “If a solution isn’t reached over the summer, there will be more strike activity and confrontation.”

Institutions varied widely in their response to protesting students. Many francophone cégeps and universities haven’t delivered classes in most faculties since February, allowing unionised staff and professors to respect student picket lines.

But as part of Bill 78, a sweeping law that limits the right to demonstrate, the government has legislated that all institutions will open in mid-August, with expedited classes designed to make up for lost time.

Anglophone universities like Concordia and McGill managed to complete the academic year. Concordia plans to begin the autumn term in September, as usual.

It is not clear what, if any, accommodation will be made for a minority of students, primarily francophone, who missed exams or classes because they studied at an affected cégep during the previous year.

“Would we be expected to postpone classes for 350 students?” asked Christine Mota, director of media relations at Concordia University. “We will likely deal with those students on a case-by-case basis.”

Some students at McGill and Concordia have received letters informing them they face disciplinary hearings for their participation in protests in the spring. Intimidation tactics were employed to prevent students from attending classes, which led to disciplinary action.

However, student leaders say most of those facing hearings were involved in innocuous activities such as handing out leaflets.

“Our former vice-president external was banned from campus for a couple of days, but he wasn’t trying to prevent students from attending class. He was there as a facilitator,” said Reid-Fraser. “The disciplinary procedures seem to be quite arbitrary.”

Initially, polls showed that the majority of Quebecers did not support protesting students, but public support shifted after Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government passed Bill 78.

The law requires individuals and organisations to inform police of the date, time, duration and route of any protest of over 50 people and imposes steep fines for violations. Bill 78 also makes it easier for universities to withhold funding from student organisations and for students to bring class action lawsuits against their protesting classmates for missed classes.

“This debate is no longer only about a hike in tuition fees,” said Julius Grey, a Montreal constitutional lawyer who has written about the protests. “It’s also about the role of the university in society. There’s the view that they [universities] should be accessible to anyone and that they should be independent and free of the influence of corporations.”

Upcoming provincial elections may be the ultimate showdown; outrage over Bill 78 is seen as a key reason why the Liberal government lost a former stronghold seat in a recent by-election.

Grey argued that the government’s inflexible position would have to change in order to end the dispute.

“The way out of this is to postpone the fee hikes and have a commission of prestigious people study all these issues about universities,” he said. “Study accessibility, the difference between faculties, the role of the corporation and the recent subsidies from sponsors, and try to hear from everybody.”