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Quebec Youth Wield Political Power, But for How Long?

By Hallie Golden

For much of Quebec’s history, political dialogue revolved around a central debate: sovereignty or Canadian federalism. This year was different. In the six months leading up to the September 4 election, Québécois youth put their grievances over the rising cost of higher education at the center of politics. Their unified action ultimately resulted in a win for the party that favored revoking tuition hikes, but the shock waves went even further. The fact that this demographic—which many believed was 100 percent off the radar of Quebec’s political parties—demanded attention and received it, has the potential to bring them decisive power in the province’s future. It also presents powerful reassurance that success is possible for students fighting for higher education reform throughout the world

The Québécois students’ original grievances were in response to a decision in March by the former premier, Jean Charest, to increase college tuition in order to improve the budget. The plan was to raise tuition by 75 percent, or to almost $4,000 by 2017. But when Quebec students heard about this, they took to the streets in protests that averaged 200,000 students.

Quebec already has a sense of unity, stemming from its people viewing themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority in Canada. This solidarity allowed them to reject Anglo-Saxon American influence, which many students claim is the culprit behind the tuition increases. ”I'd say that Quebec has a long history of fighting against tuition fees and many other things, sometimes based on our particular cultural differences and complex relationship to the main English culture of North America,” says Alexandre Guédon, an Information Sciences Masters student at Université de Montréal. “Nobody wanted to see universities get priced as high as in the USA or even the neighboring provinces like Ontario.” Last February, Guédon took part in an ‘unlimited general education strike,’ which ultimately lasted six months and involved him photographing and filming more than one hundred student movement events.

In response to these huge protests, the government imposed Law 12, also known as Bill 78. Among other things, the law severely limited protests around college campuses and required that any demonstration in the province with more than 50 individuals must be approved beforehand.

But instead of stopping protests, this only angered students further and enticed more of the community of Quebec to join in. The movement’s response to the new rule was to simply have no leader for their protests, so that the police could not pinpoint one person for blame. Of course, this did not stop the police from making mass arrests, through such questionable means as the “kettling” tactic, in which they fully enclose protestors so they are not able to escape.

Daniel, a Concordia University history student in his forth year who withheld his last name for fear that it would affect his standing at his job, was arrested at a student protest on the night of May 23. This was the first time the Quebec police used the kettling tactic, and it resulted in more than 518 arrests. He explains that his experience marching in that protest came to a resounding halt when he and everyone around him saw a line of cops in front and behind them.

“[The cops] came up and plowed right through the head of our column and at the same time ran up on both sides of the intersection and started squeezing and bludgeoning people together,” says Daniel. “It was very frightening. That night I was in custody for seven hours, and I think about five of those I remained in that same spot on the street. It was disturbing, I saw people peeing in sewers. We were like cattle basically.  And then afterwards we were loaded onto buses, and we were brought into the outskirts for processing. I was fined 634 [Canadian] dollars for unlawful assembly and then I was released on the outskirts of the city along with everyone else with no means to get home.”

These mass youth protests grabbed the attention of politicians. Students pulled themselves and their higher education tuition issue to the forefront of the political debate, practically guaranteeing failure for those parties that ignored them. While Pauline Marois, of Parti Quebecois (PQP), was running, one of her main promises if elected was to retract both the tuition increase and Bill 78. Her liberal opponent and incumbent took the opposite approach.

Marois and the PQP ultimately defeated Quebec’s liberal party. But the PQP was unable to obtain a majority in the legislature—it only won 55 out of the 125 seats—which has caused some students to worry about how much power the party actually possesses. “The problem right now is that the government is a minority one and thus very fragile, at least as soon as the other contestants [parties] rebuild their leadership,” explains Guédon.

In any case, on Marois’s first official day on September 20, she did exactly what she had promised the students—she reinstated the $2,220 college tuition and repealed Bill 78. This outcome was clearly a win for the students, but the election results and tuition hike repeal have made many students nervous that after this victory youth will return to their passive nature, when really they have to stay vigilant because the government could reverse these decisions at any time.

“To be honest, I don't trust the Parti Québécois and especially not Pauline Marois,” says Carl Ouellette, a first-year Computer Engineering student at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC). One reason behind Ouellette’s distrust comes from the fact that many predict that the Premier will soon make the decision to increase tuition according to inflation—about one-percent or two-percent every year. “In the past, she also juggled with the idea of increasing tuition, sometimes retracting only after a general strike, and that makes her position on the subject very populistic for me,” says Ouellette, an executive member of a student union that organized protests and strikes.

Myriam Faraj, a PhD student at the University of Quebec in Montreal believes now is the time for students to rest from the long, arduous process of achieving this victory, but not to think that the fight is over. “Keep an alert eye on what is going on because soon we'll have to get back into the ring, and yes it is beautiful, but exhausting.”

Whether the youth in Quebec follow Faraj’s advice and wield their newfound power correctly or return to their passive nature, thus allowing the government free rein to forget about their needs, there is no doubt that their fight has made an impression on their country and the rest of the world

“For the rest of Canada, I think we can become an influence to them and an example that a general strike is really possible,” says Ouellette.

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Hallie Golden is an Editorial Associate at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of naifz22]

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