The strike of post-secondary students in Quebec has taken a dramatic turn with the provincial government pushing through a special law to suspend the school year at strike-bound institutions and outlawing protest activity deemed disruptive of institutions not participating in the strike.
Details of Bill 78 were unveiled late Thursday and debated in a special, overnight session of Quebec's National Assembly. They include a ban on demonstrations within 50 meters of a post-secondary institution and severe financial penalties on students or teachers and their organizations if they picket or otherwise protest in a manner declared "illegal." Demonstrations of ten or more people must submit their intended route of march to police eight hours in advance.
Students, unions and civil society condemn law
The elected representative and co-leader of the Quebec solidaire told the Assembly that the law aims to "criminalize and destroy" student organizations. Thousands of students marched angrily in the streets of Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke on Thursday evening as the law was being debated in the National Assembly.
Courts are beginning to process the hundreds of students who have been arrested over the past three and a half months of the strike and issuing severe restrictions on movement and activity pending rulings.
The 24,000-member Bar Association of Quebec has spoken against Bill 78. Among its concerns is the provision that the education minister may rule by decree on education matters, bypassing the National Assembly, including ordering education institutions to withhold the transfer of membership dues to student organizations.
Leaders of the unions of university and CEGEP (junior college) professors (the FQPPU and FNEEQ, respectively) as well as the large, trade union centrals have also condemned the measure.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of the CLASSE student federation called the law, "repressive and authoritarian. It restricts students' right to strike, which has been recognized for years by educational institutions."
His colleague, Jeanne Reynolds, says the law is a "losing proposition" coming from a "haughty and arrogant" Premier Jean Charest. Both leaders reaffirmed the mass protest for May 22, saying, "No law will stop us from demonstrating."
A mass, student protest in Montreal on May 22 that is already planned by the three largest students associations on strike will assuredly be even larger than the tens of thousands of participants already anticipated.
Government was failing to intimidate students and supporters
The Quebec government provoked the student strike with its proposal last year, confirmed in its March 2012 budget, to increase tuition fees by 60 per cent over the next five years. That was then modified to a 75 per cent increase over seven years.
The deeply unpopular government has been battered and bruised by the strike, including on May 14 when Minister of Education Line Beauchamp submitted a surprise resignation. She buckled under the pressure of her responsibilities in carrying the government hard line.
In the leadup to Bill 78, politicians and editorialists were calling for greater use of police violence and court injunctions to break up student picket lines and support action by teachers and professors that have closed many colleges and university departments. But education administrators complained that the injunctions were "unenforceable" due to mass picketing. They were also nervous about the consequences of even more blatant exercises of police violence against students. Now they hope that the punitive measures in the new law will dissuade militant action.
The law targets another area of concern-teaching staff. Many professors have joined the picket lines of their students. They have said they would not be forced to teach under the threat of injunctions and riot police. Following a police attack on students at CEGEP Lionel-Groulx north of Montreal on May 15, for example, Jean Trudelle, president of the FNEEQ said, "The scenes we witnessed here this morning have shocked everyone, beginning with the students and professors directly concerned. It is inhuman to ask people to teach after such events."
Students show remarkable tenacity, plan mass protest May 22
Pressure on all the parties involved in the strike is intense because the school year is at stake. Both available options -cancellation of the school year or an unlikely concession by the government to temporarily suspend the tuition freeze permitting classes to resume – involve heavy financial sacrifices by students, making their tenacity all the more remarkable.
Adding to the pressure on students is uncertainty over summer employment and the need to earn course credits during the summer months.
Bill 78 will complicate life for those in strike-bound CEGEPS because it projects that the current school year would resume in August and be completed in October. That means graduates intending to enter university would have to wait until September 2013.
The government, the business elite and editorialists in the mainstream media are counting on these pressures to push through the tuition increase. But they have underestimated student determination until now and, according to students, are still making the same mistake.
Some 160,000 students are on strike, approximately 35% of the post-secondary student population in the province. Of those, 65,000 are CEGEP students, all in Montreal and surrounding regions. Only small numbers of students at the three English-language universities are on strike, while the three English CEGEPs (located in Montreal) are fully functional.
One additional feature of the strike has been the participation of high school students. They have staged one day walkouts from school and will likely have a strong presence at the May 22 action.
Roger Annis is a Haiti solidarity and social justice activist in Vancouver, B.C. He can be reached at rogerannis[at]hotmail[dot]com
A longer version of this article will appear on Roger Annis' blog, where he writes on Canadian and international politics.