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Quebec Student Strike

On Friday 18 March 2005 undergraduate students at my university, McGill, join a province-wide movement to protest $103 million cuts to education. Graduate and Professional Students struck on Wednesday.

An estimated 230,000 students across the province of Quebec have been on strike over $103 million cuts to education by the provincial government. These cuts eliminate bursaries (grants) and convert that money to loan money. In practice, this means that lower-income students will be saddled with more debt when they finish their educations. That debt will represent a higher proportion of their income.

Student debt is nothing new for Americans (and certainly not this American!) but it is a politicized concept here. There are many unique things about Quebec’s university system. Among them are the lowest tuition rates in the country. Quebec is the last province to undergo some kind of “reform” that passes on more of the cost of higher education to students. As one student at the protest told me, it happened in Ontario in the late 1990s without much resistance. Although tuition was already higher in Minnesota in 1989 when I was an undergraduate, I remember enduring huge tuition increases during my time as a student -- while the state cut taxes for the rich. There were student protests, but the republican governor did nothing. Today, Quebec sits as the last place in Canada where higher education is truly affordable. From the province’s most prestigious universities on down, Quebec schools have low tuitions, and bursaries allow even the poorest of poor to attend university if their grades are good enough. Yes, Quebec students have it good in an age where higher education is being gutted. That is why it is so important for them to defend what they’ve got.

The concept of a student strike is a European one, and certainly not anything that I’d ever encountered in the United States. I knew of union strikes (where faculty, staff or teaching assistants would go on strike for better wages and working conditions), but student protest always seemed to take the form of a rally at a particular time or place. This is different. This is students leaving their seats in the university to protest the provincial government.

I’m told that for a variety of reasons, McGill usually lags behind other schools in terms of student participation in mass actions in Montreal. While students have been on strike at the University of Montreal, Concordia and the University of Quebec-Montreal, McGill’s first participation came just yesterday, when perhaps a thousand McGill graduate and professional students – along with a few undergrads and professors – marched on campus yesterday and then met up with an almost uncountable throng on east Sherbrooke St. I heard estimates of 20,000 students from the four universities in town and given that I could not see the end of the crowd, I believe it (please note that none of my numbers represent official counts of protesters). Though McGill students made up a minority of the marchers, thousands more did not attend classes on Wednesday. Tomorrow, the undergraduates stage a one-day walkout.

The protest seems to be working. Quebec Education Minister Jean-Marc Fourier has already made two offers to student leaders as a result of the strikes: the first was to reinstate $29 million of the cuts, and the second was to reinstate $41 million of the cuts (Canadian). Both still represent significant cuts from last year, and student leaders rejected both offers. Opposition parties are picking up on the strike and the Liberal government has to deal with the students or risk losing their coalition. Similarly, University administrations are using the opportunity to point out that higher education is still underfunded here. I am interested to see if the students will get their full $103 million back, or maybe even more. I certainly hope so. But the protests also show that bodies in the streets are still one of the most effective ways to register mass outrage against outrageous government policies and to get issues back on the table.