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Maple Spring Part Deux?

Thousands of people gathered in downtown Montreal to once again protest tuition increases.

Tuesday, March 5, more than 10,000 people gathered at Victoria Square in downtown Montreal for the most recent chapter of Quebec’s historic student movement. Their presence was a protest of the long-awaited education summit, which ended with the disappointing, but expected decision to increase tuition 3 percent annually, starting next fall.

Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois had promised the summit during her campaign last summer as a way to appease the more than 100,000 students who had taken part in the Maple Spring — a historic six-month strike against then-Premier Jean Charest’s 75 percent tuition hike. While Marois rode this wave of opposition into office — quickly repealing Charest’s steep hikes in September — her official stance all along was to index tuition fees to inflation.

Even before her election, many students accused Marois of opportunism. She famously sported a red square — the symbol of the student movement based on the slogan “squarely in the red,” referring to debt — and joined in pot-banging casserole protests. Then she abruptly dropped the acts of solidarity when they were no longer politically profitable.

While Education Minister Pierre Duchesne called the indexation plan a “compromise,” few students saw it that way. Martine Desjardins — the president of Quebec’s largest university student association, La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, or FEUQ — called the decision “disappointing.” She said that the university community is clearly asking for a tuition freeze, but that this option was given little attention at the summit.

Since the late 1960s, the policy has been to keep tuition frozen (with only occasional increases). So a per-year increase, albeit a relatively small one of about $70, is a symbolically significant reversal for the already debt-laden students. Yet, according to Desjardins, it is too early to know if the federation would be prepared to strike over it.

There are, however, some associations preparing to get back into strike mode. On Feb. 26, the final day of the summit, a number of student associations — representing a total of 50,000 students — went on strike for the day. While some of the most active colleges of the Maple Spring did not strike that Tuesday, citing “strike fatigue,” a number of associations have motions to hold assemblies in the next couple of weeks to vote on a general strike. This would mean resuming the indefinite walkout from classes of last year — presumably if Marois tried to officially codify her indexation policy as law.

Controversially, L’Association Pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, or ASSÉ — Quebec’s most radical student union — boycotted the summit when the government refused to discuss free education there. ASSÉ was also the group behind last week’s massive demonstration.

While such protests have become a hallmark of the student movement, the same calls for austerity still hang in the air. The Parti Québécois has told schools they will have to cut their budgets by $250 million, which McGill University’s president describedas an “unprecedented attack” on higher education.

Various student federations and independent activist groups have conducted their own research and crafted alternative policies that would address Quebec’s fiscal woes without overburdening students. Québec Solidaire, the socialist-leaning party that scored just 6 percent of the vote in the September election, has sought increased corporate taxes to pay for higher learning.

Meanwhile, others are calling out the baselessness of the indexation. As Tim McSorley has argued on the Montreal Media Coop blog, the term “indexation” is misleading because it doesn’t seem to be tied to household revenue, as alleged by the Parti Québécois. Furthermore, because it increases indefinitely, it might actually be worse for students than Charest’s original 75-percent hike.

Activist groups like Free Education Montreal point out that Quebec has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in North America, which, if increased, would go a lot farther toward addressing provincial debt than a small bump in tuition at the expense of higher education. But as policy wonks scramble for the perfect fiscal plan in the austerity era, the Maple Spring poses a bigger question: Who gets to decide educational policy?

Quebec’s students — organized through national student unions that operate on a model of participatory democracy — are challenging the notion that the answer is simply that the government should. And they will continue to make that argument over the coming weeks, as assemblies come together and decide on the next steps.

As Frank Lévesque-Nicol, a committee member of ASSÉ, said, “The momentum is there, and we mustn’t let the anger go away by doing nothing.”

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