Unfortunately, that’s not a reference to the weather.
The province’s CEGEP and university students are mobilizing once again, this time around the issue of austerity. They have weekly protests planned beginning this weekend and already more than 47,000 students have given a strike mandate to boycott classes for a week or more, many of which begin on March 23. Another 59,000 have opted to strike for a day and some 130,000 students are still scheduled to hold strike votes some time this month.
While many are opposed to the government’s austerity measures, students say the $200 million in cuts to universities this year alone have hit them hard. The Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU) estimates that hundreds of courses have already been cancelled at UQAM and the Université de Montréal because of the cuts, which seriously compromises the quality of education.
“Education budgets have been drastically reduced so we need to build a strong social movement to stop austerity,” said Camille Godbout, a spokesperson for Quebec’s most militant student association, ASSÉ.
Montreal’s first real glimpse of this growing protest movement will be this Saturday, when thousands are expected to march downtown to show their opposition to the government’s austerity measures and in anticipation of next week’s provincial budget.
Anyone who dismisses a student “strike” as a sophomoric tactic that only hurts students by keeping them out of school had better think again. The escalating tuition strikes and protests of 2012 grew so large and disruptive that they finally contributed to the demise of the Jean Charest Liberals.
However, this is not Maple Spring 2.0, a re-enactment of 2012 when students took to the streets for Quebec’s largest-ever student mobilization to protest tuition increases.
This one promises to be much more combative.
Gone are the symbolic red squares that defined the protest movement in 2012 (although some students may still wear them). They have been replaced by a howling wolf, a decision by the Comité Printemps 2015, the group that is behind this latest mobilization.
“Wolves stay in packs and they are more aggressive,” said organizer Brice Dansereau-Olivier, of the Comité. “We know we’re going to have to be feistier this time to make the government back down.”
And there is no question that confrontations between striking and non-striking students will be fierce this time, as battle lines were drawn when the student rights group Fondation 1625 held a news conference earlier this week to say it would be proactive in aggressively protecting the rights of students who want to go to class by taking strong legal action from the first day of the strike.
“These strikes are illegal, you only have a right to strike as an employee,” said Miguaël Bergeron, one of the founders of the group, which established itself to help disenfranchised students during the tuition protests. “Institutions and the government don’t seem to want to protect us. We will not let this be another Maple Spring, we will be on the field from Day 1.”
If those sound like fighting words, they are.
Fondation 1625 plans to make it easy for students who are barred from classes they want to attend to take a court action known as a mandamus. This has a much broader scope than the injunctions individual students sought in 2012.
According to Bergeron, the mandamus can be invoked when a public institution doesn’t respect its mandate and it can mean that everyone involved — university administrators, student association presidents, even the minister of education — can be hauled into court to face a judge.
“We will not hesitate to bring them to court,” said Bergeron, adding that he’s already fielding 20 calls a day from interested students. “This is the most muscled procedure we’ve ever used. It’s sad that it’s what’s needed, but many students do not want to sacrifice their studies over this.”
The group sent letters to Education Minister François Blais and all of the university and CEGEP heads in the province two weeks ago notifying them it is their legal duty to maintain courses, and that they won’t hesitate to initiate legal proceedings in the event of cancellations or students being barred from classes.
What’s not clear is how the universities and colleges will respond. For example, the Université du Québec à Montréal, which is known for its militant student body, has said the university will remain open and teachers must come to class on schedule. But they must also “avoid conflict,” according to Jenny Desrochers, director of media relations.
She confirmed the university is aware of the position of Fondation 1625 and “is closely monitoring developments on its campus.”
Jonathan Bouchard, president of Quebec’s largest university student association, the FEUQ, said “it’s very sad to see some students prefer to use the courts rather than make themselves heard at their general assemblies.”
He believes, as do most student leaders in the province, that strike votes are taken democratically and must be respected by all members of a student association — even those who disagree with it.
Last month, however, a group of 14 professors at UQAM went public with a letter calling for an end to the protests and strikes which, they said, threaten the university’s future and have poisoned the atmosphere on campus.
Now the Concordia Student Union has called on the university to cancel all classes in departments that have given strike mandates, which so far includes the faculty of fine arts, geography and philosophy.
“We all remember 2012 and we think that’s the responsible thing to do,” said CSU president Benjamin Prunty. “The heavy-handed approach taken last time by the university only exacerbated the situation.”
Concordia has said classes will be cancelled on March 23 in departments that voted to strike so that a day of reflection can be held. All other classes will carry on normally and the university said it is “hopeful that strike action will not be confrontational.”
Dansereau-Olivier believes striking students shouldn’t disturb the classes of those who haven’t voted to strike, but that students who belong to an association which has voted to strike must respect that mandate.
Students expect this mobilization to reach far beyond the boundaries of any campus, as anti-austerity sentiment is a broader societal issue. Dansereau-Olivier said the weekly protests have been scheduled for Saturdays so that workers can participate.
“You can see that this issue is picking up and it’s going to be big,” said Amina Moustaqim-Barrette, vice-president external for the Students Society of McGill University. She said many students seem interested in holding at least one-day strikes to show their solidarity.
There will be protests on March 23, as strikes get underway, and again on March 26 when the budget is expected. April 2 will be another big day and Bouchard expects it to keep escalating from there.
“There is so much indignation against austerity,” he said. “It has a direct effect on the quality of education and it is viewed as an attack on the lower classes.”
The protest on Saturday may not bring out the hundreds of thousands that showed up at the peak of the tuition protests, but Bouchard said the government better watch out.
“This is just the beginning but the message is loud and strong: we don’t want austerity measures in Quebec.”