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Breaking barriers

Could the Quebec student triumph become a reality for Nova Scotia? (Photo via Flickr)

Batons, tear gas, mass arrests and even government legislation were not enough to quell the surging power of Quebec student solidarity.

Hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets in an inspiring act of personal sacrifice. They believed accessible education was worthwhile. They risked their entire school year and their own safety in the fight.

And they won.

One day after the Parti Quebecois was elected as the new minority government of Quebec, premier-elect Pauline Marois announced her intention to repeal Bill 78 and cancel the tuition hike.

For the rest of Canadian students, as we sign up for another year of classes and another year of record-high student debt, the question begs to be asked: what are we willing to risk for our future?

In April 2010 the Liberal premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, revealed a budget that would increase tuition by 75 per cent over five years. There was immediate opposition that drew unprecedented mass support from students. Demonstrations were staged throughout the province over the next year. Standing together with community groups in opposition to austerity, the students called bullshit to the government’s claim that increasing fees and privatizing public services is necessary in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Despite the widespread public discontent for the budget, the Charest government refused to budge, ignoring and dismissing the voices of the people.

So the students united and rose up, stronger than ever.

In February 2012, they democratically decided, through rigorous debate and discussion at the general assemblies of their individual student associations, that the only viable option to ensure education remained accessible was to cause economic disruption. They called for an indefinite strike—a decision that eventually evolved into the longest strike in Quebec history, with 150,000 students at its peak.

The strike brought together students, professors, families and community members. It turned the Montreal streets into a hub for ideas of a better society: one based on principles of social justice and equality and in which all members would have access to resources to develop to their full capacities.

The government responded with violence.

Peaceful demonstrations were met with batons, tear gas, and mass arrests. Bill 78 stripped away the right to free speech and assembly by rendering protests on university campuses effectively illegal, and restricting any gathering of 50 people or more at a public place.

Yet, ironically, it is the students who are the ones portrayed as militant, violent, self-interested, and undemocratic. This smear campaign, perpetuated by slanted media coverage and government press relations, attempted to create an environment of fear. In doing so, the government and its police force asserted its power and tried to suppress dissent. Students became the enemy.

In reality, student associations and the movement are opposed to violence against individuals and publicly denounce it. Their campaign brings to public attention the structural violence that accompanies the government’s austerity cuts. Attacks on public services, such as raising tuition and charging fees for healthcare, create a society of inequity—one in which only the wealthy can afford to participate in and the rest are forced into debt just to survive.

The Quebec student movement confronts more than student issues—it is a struggle for a more just and equitable future.

In this light, the strike can be understood not as an end in and of itself, but as a tactic of a broader movement that confronted a government that viewed its citizens as a commodity and refused to recognize the importance of investing in the education of future generations.

Here in Nova Scotia the Darrell Dexter government has also moved to cut education. By the end of its first term, average fees will have increased 13 per cent. In February for the last two years, thousands of students flooded the streets of Halifax to demand accessible education.

In Quebec and Nova Scotia, the struggle is the same. It’s about opposing the same agenda that places corporate profit above the well-being of its citizens. It’s about fighting for a more just future.

Organizers from the Quebec student movement will be at Dalhousie this month to share ideas, skills and tactics with us. Let us first acknowledge that we too have the power to shape our future—we have the power to demand an affordable education. Let us be prepared to ask the hard questions to advance our movement.

This is a cause worth fighting for.


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