Christinne Muschi / Reuters
Thousands of demonstrators march against student tuition hikes in downtown Montreal, Quebec, on May 22. Tens of thousands marched in a rally marking 100 days of student protests.
Updated at 5:00 p.m ET: Demonstrators are filling Quebec's streets daily to support a four-month-old student strike against a tuition hike that has morphed into a movement against efforts to curb the right to protest and to impose austerity measures in Canada's largest province.
The walkout over an 80 percent increase in university and college tuition fees began on Feb. 13 with about 11,000 students. By late March, more than 300,000 people -- or about three-quarters of Quebec's student population -- were participating, organizers say.
The number of striking students had dipped to around 160,000 when the province's center-left government passed an emergency law on May 18 limiting where and when protests could be held and imposing potential fines of more than $100,000 on violators.
But instead of quelling the demonstrations, "Law 78" drove people who were unaffected by the tuition hike but angry over the legislation onto the streets, revitalized the strikers and sparked court challenges amid claims it endangers freedoms of expression and association.
'A lot of anger'
The government also suspended classes until mid-August, essentially putting the students in a lockout.
The movement has been dubbed the "Printemps Érable" -- or "Maple Spring" -- a play of words on the Arab Spring ("Printemps Arabe") protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa.
“I think that our strike arrived at a good moment where a vast majority of the population has a lot of anger against the government,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for student association CLASSE, told msnbc.com. “This increase in tuition fees is only one part of the large broader austerity reforms” that include moves to privatize health care. Many Canadians consider universal health care to be a defining characteristic of their national identity.
"I think our mobilization just gives the opportunity to all those people who were just waiting … to go into the street,” he added. “The student movement … is really a movement to refute this change of the political cultural of Quebec."
Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking province situated between Ontario, New Brunswick and Labrador, has a history of student activism, including a strike in 2005 that lasted more than 50 days.
“The scale and the length of the conflict is unprecedented,” said Marcos Ancelovici, an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University in Montreal who studies social movements. “The movement so far is really showing an incredible capacity to mobilize large numbers of people, and the government did not anticipate that at all, they didn’t see it coming.”
There have reportedly been mass protests on a few occasions in addition to the daily demonstrations, but Montreal police do not provide crowd numbers. At least 1,600 people had been arrested in connection with the demonstrations as of last Friday, police said, though they reported dozens more on their Twitter account over the weekend when the Formula 1 Grand Prix race was held. At least five of the arrests have been for people violating a new city bylaw that bans wearing scarves, masks and balaclavas at protests.
Some protesters have clashed with police and one time, smoke bombs were set off in Montreal's subway network, briefly stopping the whole system, though the student demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, the Canadian Press reported. The police have also reported on their Twitter account that protesters had broken windows and thrown objects at officers in recent days.
Ryan Remiorz /AP Photo/The Canadian Press
Police detain a demonstrator before a cocktail party kicking off the Canadian Grand Prix festivities in Montreal on June 7.
Four student associations are seeking a freeze on the tuition hike and have participated in four failed negotiation sessions with the government. The hikes on the current $2,110 tuition were initially $316 per annum over five years, but later were reset to about $250 over seven years -- or about an 80 percent increase -- in a compromise bid by the government, Canadian media reported.
In its budget report calling for the hikes, the government said that all of the universities had finished each fiscal period with a deficit since 2005. The total deficit for the institutions reached $469 million in 2009.
By 2010, the universities were underfinanced by an estimated $602 million, the government said, citing a report by the nonprofit Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities.
The additional revenue would go to improving the quality of education and research, and providing financial aid, the government said.
Even after the hikes, Quebec’s tuition fees will remain among the lowest in Canada, the CBC reported.
Though some observers criticized the province's leaders for not trying to resolve the issue earlier, the government said in a statement on May 31 that despite "constructive" exchanges between the two sides -- and counter-offers aimed at brokering a deal -- it was impossible to reach an agreement.
The provincial government acted in good faith to try and find an acceptable solution for all parties to exit the crisis, said new Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, noting that the students had rejected tuition hikes entirely.
The former education minister, Line Beauchamp, resigned in mid-May over the issue, according to the CBC.
The protests had begun to flag around that time because Premier Jean Charest's government appeared unwilling to back off the planned hikes or to offer significant concessions, Ancelovici said.
But Law 78, a "special" measure specifically designed to subdue the student movement until the law expires in July 2013, has so far only served to galvanize opposition to the Liberal party's government and shifted momentum back to the protesters.
Under it, students face fines in the thousands of dollars for blocking entrances to universities, while their associations are potentially subject to fines of more than $100,000. It requires police to be given protest itineraries eight hours before any gathering of more than 50 people.
'Its scope is very wide'
The Quebec Bar Association denounced Law 78 as endangering the freedoms of expression and association. A legal nonprofit has already filed two challenges against the legislation, said Pierre Thibault, an assistant dean at the University of Ottawa’s law school. He believes at least parts of the law would be struck down as unconstitutional.
“It’s quite unusual to have a law like Law 78 because its scope is very wide and that is part of the problem,” he said. “How can you impose this punishment to students? It’s hard for them to even pay their … fees.”
Rogerio Barbosa / AFP - Getty Images
Students protest against Law 78 in Montreal on June 4.
Law 78 also triggered a new style of protest in Montreal: A college teacher reportedly called for a type of demonstration made popular in Chile, Argentina and Spain to be used on the nightly marches: the banging of pots and pans, called “les casseroles” in French.
This law “galvanized everybody because suddenly people said well this is completely outrageous, we cannot let our freedoms, our rights be … restricted in this way,” Ancelovici said, noting that many families and senior citizens were now attending the protests and neighborhoods were organizing into assemblies.
Activists also grabbed hold of the concept and called for similar demonstrations to be held across Canada and in some European and American cities. Some in Occupy Wall Street are using the red felt square worn by Quebec protesters as a symbol of student debt (meaning "totally in the red") and are holding ongoing casserole protests in the U.S.
“I think the reason why people have been so eager to jump on board with this …. is because people feel that they are all having the same problem and that problem is with a broken economic system,” said Ethan Cox, a writer for alternative media nonprofit rabble.ca who helped to organize the casserole protests outside of Quebec. “That problem of austerity, that problem of misplaced priorities is a global problem and is one that affects people in the U.S. as much as it does here in Canada. And so I think that’s why it’s really struck a nerve.”
The protest has resonated with students in the U.S., where student debt passed $1 trillion earlier this year. Some New York City students have gone to Montreal to meet protesters and another group in Ohio has been discussing organizing Quebec-style student unions, said Jacob Remes, an assistant professor of public affairs at Empire State College who studies social movements in Canada and the United States.
Though Remes didn’t think a nationwide movement akin to what was happening in Quebec could occur in the U.S. due to the organizing it would require, he thought it could be possible in smaller locales.
In Quebec, not all are on board with the protests, Ancelovici said, noting that some of his students at the English-speaking McGill University were concerned about completing the term so they didn’t join the strike. Participation was also lower outside of Montreal, he said.
A poll conducted online after Law 78 passed showed a near split in sentiment over the legislation, with 51 percent supporting it and 49 percent opposed, according to the Montreal Gazette. The poll of 1,500 people also found that 64 percent sided with the government’s plan to raise the tuition, while 36 percent backed the freeze that the students are seeking.
With school out, Nadeau-Dubois acknowledged that it would be hard to keep up the momentum of the protests during the summer but said they would focus on the pots-and-pans brigade led by neighborhood groups. No matter the outcome, he said they had already won something.
“This movement gave us a lot of confidence in ourselves," he said. "We really realized our collective force, our collective ability to mobilize and to change things, and yeah, a lot of students are beginning to realize that we are doing something historical actually and that’s why, even if the individual cost of the strike is very heavy, they are … continuing to be on strike because they know that they are doing something that is bigger than themselves.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the government changed their initial hike from a 5-year plan of $316 per annum to a 7-year plan of $250 per annum.
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