Montreal protesters vow not to retreat over tuition fees and Bill 78
Thousands march against tuition fees rise and the anti-protest law that places draconian restrictions on gatherings in Quebec
Andrew Katz in Montreal
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 23 June 2012 14.22 BST
Thousands of students and their supporters marched through Montreal on Friday in a demonstration against tuition fee hikes and an emergency anti-protest law that led to the mid-May suspension of classes in Quebec.
The protest began at 2pm with a rally at Place du Canada, then wound through downtown and crawled up Avenue du Parc before settling for a closing rally at Parc du Mont-Royal, adjacent to McGill University.
Protesters carried signs reading “Nous ne réculerons” – “We shall not retreat” – and sported carré rouges. The small, square pieces of corduroy or felt fastened to clothing with a safety pin – if not painted on arms, faces or abdomens – are the visualization of the wordplay inspired by the French phrase “carrément dans le rouge,” or “squarely in the red.” Students say they’re being trapped in debt, and instead favor free, well-funded university programmes.
At the end of the march, the crowd cheered brief speeches by student leaders about the importance of community mobilization, and chanted: “Ceci n’est que le début! Continuons le combat!” (“This is just the beginning! Continue to fight!”)
Adam Awad, 26, the newly elected chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students, a group that represents more than 600,000 students from 80 unions across the provinces, bussed in from Ottawa to participate.
“It’s important to make sure that our governments are responsible, that they’re working in the best interests of the public and that we have strong public services,” Awad said. He said the ideal outcome is free university education and a provincial government that doesn’t shy away from dissent or criminalize opposition, but rather encourages free speech.
Students in Quebec currently pay among the lowest tuition in the country, according to Statistics Canada.
The protests began in response to a proposed 75% increase – $1,625 – over five years. Opposition increased in mid-May amid outrage over Bill 78, an emergency law enacted in Quebec to limit demonstrations.
If a march exceed 50 participants, Bill 78 requires that a planned route be handed to authorities eight hours in advance.
There were few police following the protesters in Montreal on Friday, but authorities later tweeted that no route had been provided beforehand. Around 5.30 pm, the demonstration was declared illegal.
Earlier in the week, students gained a significant ally in Navi Pillay, the top human rights commissioner at the United Nations, who criticized the controversial bill. “Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming,” she said. “In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.”
Quebec students say they’re being trapped in debt. Photograph: Andrew Katz
Awad said the demonstrations over the past few months have largely been effective. “They’re part of a bunch of tactics of raising awareness and putting pressure on the government to show them that it’s not just a small bunch of people who disagree with them,” he added. “It’s tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who think they can do better.”
Prior to Friday’s demonstrations, organizers were unsure that turnout would be consistent with previous rallies that saw 200,000 or more supporters. Unconfirmed reports estimated the crowd on Friday neared 100,000.
“The semesters are over; people are working; it’s summer; it’s a different vibe,” said Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a student organizer and newly elected finance secretary for the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (Classe), one of the main student groups. “But our expectations were completely surpassed.”
“It shows how powerful this movement is and that it won’t die until there is an offer from the government that the students can accept,” he continued. “It also shows that we’re enjoying more and more popular support as people react very strongly toward Bill 78, because it limits their democratic rights to exercise protest.”
Bédard-Wien, 20, was as pleased with the demonstration in Montreal as he was with smaller ones in Quebec City and New York. A contingent of Occupy Wall Street supporters marched around lower Manhattan in an act of solidarity with the protests in Canada.
“Quebec is one piece of the larger puzzle,” Awad said. Aside from the night-time marches around the provinces, dubbed “casseroles” because participants bang on pots and pans, students are organizing additional grassroots events to keep their message going until classes resume in August.
Awad and Bédard-Wien said groups are planning to launch a series of meetings around Quebec in mid-July to increase outreach and engagement with student associations in other provinces.
Large gatherings are also expected for 22 July and 22 August.