In an ideal world, all students in Canada want “a virtually free education.” UNB students pay some of the highest tuition fees in the country. Quebec students pay much less, but this is the result of several hard-fought battles to keep tuition low in the province.
Last Friday, UNBSJ students had the opportunity to hear from student leaders from the Quebec protests. Two representatives from CLASSE, the Coalition of Student Union from across Quebec, were touring the Maritimes and spreading the message that students can successfully put pressure on the government to achieve a desired result.
The three-hour panel provided UNBSJ students with an opportunity to get an in-depth introduction on how the protests were organized. The two speakers, sisters Cloé and Alexandra Zawadzki-Turcotte, emphasized the extraordinary effort it took to organize and mobilize students for the protests.
One of the key processes necessary to mobilize students was to get students to realize that “it was the students who were behind this,” and that they had to collectively decide on their position on the tuition hikes in order to be effective. To this end, dozens of mass emails were sent and hundreds of posters were put up weeks in advance to spread the word. By the end of February, students were striking almost daily, and their numbers were swelling.
Once the strikes began, the coalition met weekly to ensure that they were directed by what the majority of students wanted; the messages were “coming from the streets,” where protesters were waging a public battle for an affordable education. The speakers admitted that there were heated debates among the students to define their objectives, but this was all part of the democratic process.
The primary message that the Zawadzki-Turcottes sisters promoted was that students came together and used democracy as a tool to create action: “Students, we are really the ones that initiated everything. That’s why people not only thought they had the political power to change things and make things happen in their society, but they also felt they had that responsibility.” The student leaders recognized that the government would not organize them, but that they would have to organize themselves.
The discussion touched briefly on the violent aspects of the strike. Although the student leaders were initially invited to the first round of proceedings with the government, they were kicked out in March after being deemed a “violent organization” for acts of vandalism and scuffles with police. Quebec students point the finger in the other direction. In their opinion, the government was the violent organization, “We didn’t have pepper spray, we didn’t have tear gas, we didn’t have rubber bullets, we didn’t have fire bombs, we didn’t have horses, we didn’t have shields and helmets. They had that stuff.” The government even implemented an anti-protest law, Bill-78, which resulted in hundreds of students being arrested and fined due to their participation in the protests.
Recently, The Quebec government officially froze the proposed $1,625 tuition hike nearly eight months after students voted to strike. At times, over 30,000 students were involved in protests. The victory is still sinking in for members of CLASSE, who will participate in an education summit scheduled to begin in December. UNBSJ students have the power too, if we just realize that “[students] have the power to make change at the government level.”
(With files from CBC)