On Feb. 25 and 26, the Parti Québécois (PQ) hosted 61 organizations and groups at its long-anticipated Summit on Higher Education. Over the course of two days, the now-familiar sound of student protests continued in the streets of downtown Montreal, as thousands publicly expressed their disappointment with the actions of the provincial government and the results of the Summit.
In September, shortly after it was elected into power, the PQ announced that it would hold an Education Summit. The government initially proposed the Summit as a follow-up to the protests against the former Liberal government’s proposed tuition increases of $325 a year for five years, which occurred during the spring and summer of 2012.
At the end of the first day of the Summit, the government announced that it would enact a three per cent annual increase on tuition, which would begin next September, and is supposed to correspond to the predicted indexation rate of Quebec families’ disposable income. This would mean a $70 increase on tuition for Quebec students. Out-of-province and international students will also pay three per cent more on their tuition.
According to The Gazette, Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire de Québec (FEUQ), responded immediately to the government’s decision at the Summit.
“We are extremely disappointed,” she told those in attendance. “We hoped the government would do their homework, and not make decisions based on polls.”
Prior to the Summit, the FEUQ told its constituents that it was strongly opposed to any type of tuition indexation.
A co-leader of the Québec Solidaire party, Françoise David also spoke out against tuition indexation at the Summit, according to The Gazette. He called indexation “inadmissible.”
Québec Solidaire was founded in 2006. It currently holds two seats in the National Assembly.
Robin Reid-Fraser, vice-president external of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), attended the Summit as a representative of the Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ), of which SSMU is a member association. She was also disappointed by what transpired over the course of the two days.
“I suppose I knew going into it with the information I had, and having participated in the themed meetings, that it wouldn’t be nearly what I’d like it to be, but my idealistic nature was still let down,” she said.
Reid-Fraser noted that she was most disappointed by the small amount of time student groups were given to prepare for the government’s proposals during the Summit itself.
“We only actually saw what the PQ was proposing as we entered the meal or break session before that particular period of discussion – giving us about 30-90 minutes to actually put together a response,” she said.
According to The Gazette, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said during the Summit that she believes tuition indexation to be the fairest option, and that the amount of the increase is reasonable, considering the current value of a university degree.
Olivier Marcil, McGill vice-principal (external relations), stated that he and Principal Heather Munroe-Blum were pleased with the conversations around university governance but not the $19.1 million budget cuts that the PQ has recently imposed on Quebec universities. While Munroe-Blum attended thesummit, Marcil watched it on the live feed provided by the government.
“On governance, we were pleased to see a less aggressive tone and fewer allegations of mismanagement at Quebec’s universities, and we agree with the government in its call for streamlined strategic accountability reports,” Marcil said.
“Unfortunately, the government did not consider its program of severe cuts to universities, despite evidence that these cuts will be harmful, and will inflict damage on our communities from which it will take years to recover,” he continued.
Marcil concluded that the government pre-determined the results of the Summit.
Demonstrators held protests on both days of the Summit, and demonstrations have continued for many nights since. The protests that took place on Feb. 25 and 26 were each declared illegal, and were dispersed by the Montreal Police (SPVM).
While roughly 1,500 people participated in the Feb. 25 demonstration against the Summit, about 10,000 people slowly gathered in Victoria Square on Feb. 26, and took to the streets in a protest organized by L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).
ASSÉ is the only student group to officially boycott the Summit, because the PQ announced in advance that it would not consider the topic of free education at the two-day event. ASSÉ holds free education as its main goal.
During the Feb. 26 protest, there were people present in the crowd with red vests that read “ASSÉ.” Those wearing vests declined to comment on what they were doing, saying only that they were “security.”
Approximately two hours after the protest left Victoria Square, the police declared it illegal. The SPVM then proceeded to pepper-spray, kettle, and arrest 13 students.
A handful of McGill students attended the protest, many of whom are members of the Art History and Communication Studies Graduate Students’ Association (AHCS-GSA), which is the only student association at McGill to have joined ASSÉ to date.
AHCS-GSA voted to join ASSÉ at a General Assembly (GA) on Feb. 12. On Feb. 19, they voted to go on strike for the duration of the Summit.
Gretchen King, a communication studies councillor on AHCS-GSA who brought forth the motion to join ASSÉ at the GA, attended the protest and held a sign that read “McGill on strike” as the protest passed McGill on Sherbrooke. Following the protest, King said that she was not surprised by the Summit’s results.
“The Summit was a public relations stunt that failed in the eyes of students,” she said. “No genuine dialogue on education was held, as the outcomes were predetermined and free tuition was barred from even being discussed. This is not why Quebec students sustained a six-month long student strike last year.”
Many of the other people in attendance also held Québec Solidaire posters to show support for the party they now believe represents student interests.
Jacques Chamberland, a teacher of philosophy at the Collège de Maisonneuve, and a McGill alumnus, marched with other teachers and professors on Feb. 26, in support of the movement for free education. He, too, was unsurprised by the Summit’s outcomes.
“From a militant point of view, I am disappointed because I [support] free education,” he said. “But on the political level, their strategy was pretty good. We have to acknowledge that.”
Protests continued into the following week, while McGill students were away on reading break.
Photos by Anna Katycheva.