On Feb 21st, in protest against an 80% increase in tuition, 36,000 students, or roughly 9% of Quebec’s university system, stopped going to class. By March, nightly demonstrations began. Students started pinning red squares to their clothes because increasing tuition will land them “squarely in the red.”
Today is the 100th day of students striking and reports indicate that between 300,000-500,000 people are currently demonstrating in the streets of Montreal. Solidarity marches occurred in cities such as New York City and Paris.
On May 17th, the government pushed through a harsh, anti-demonstration bill in the form of Bill 78, prohibiting any form of gathering within 50 meters of a school, which is essentially all of downtown Montreal. The fines are harsh: $1,000-$5,000 for individuals, $7,000-$35,000 for those deemed leaders and up to $125,000 per day for student or labor organizations. It prohibits striking and suspended the winter semester at all universities.
Bill 78 (also known as Loi Fuck to the Quebecois) also destroyed public opinion, with 60% of the population “more in favor of the government’s position” on May 10 harshly dropping by nine points in only ten days.
“The freedom of assembly is so intrinsic in a democratic society. You never should have to ask for permission to march,” said Aaron Lakoff, 29, a news coordinator at CKUT community radio. “This is really unprecedented for Canadian society.”
Lakoff said there’s an incredibly popular social support for the strike. “You feel a pulse in the city, a pulse not measured by polls. I’ve been going out on the demonstrations every night and we pass people in the streets, waving red squares, cheering people on.”
“The law is basically an iron rod hitting on people,” said Rushdia Mehreen, a Master’s student at Concordia University who spoke to me on the phone while she was marching in the streets. She has been on strike since March.
“They’re trying to impose restrictions on freedom of assembly,” said Lakoff. “Passing this law has raised the tension exponentially. There’s a very legitimate anger that’s being expression from a population that doesn’t want to be governed in this way.”
The marches have led to clashes with the police. A popular tweet today: “Montreal explained to tourists: In the winter we salt our streets and in the summer, we pepper them.”
“Not everyone is going to agree with all the tactics of the strike, bridge blockades, and burning barricades, but there’s incredible fundamental support that citizens of Quebec should not have to pay more for basic things that should be considered basic rights, services, and things inherently valuable,” continued Lakoff.
“These are things Canadians fought for so long – that we must have a common good in society and not go the way of the United States. It’s a fight about ideas.”
At press time, nearly 500,000 were demonstrating in the streets, openly defying Bill 78. “One of the largest student coalitions defied the law and declared they will not be following it,” continued Mehreen.
Mehreen again: “They are just declaring our demonstrations illegal and pepper-spraying at will. But the morale is high. The general feeling is that we’re going to fight this over the summer unless the government talks with us and cancels the hike.”
Education in Montreal is extremely inexpensive when compared to tuition rates in the United States. But these students bring up a good point – that education should be a right and not something up for the highest bidder.
The protests will most likely be happening throughout the night. You can watch the livestream from Concordia University TV here: