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Quebec Student Protest: Why Hasn't It Spread To The Rest Of Canada?

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Graduating students in Commerce and Business Administration wait for their degree at a UBC Congregation ceremony in Vancouver. John Lehmann/Globe and Mail
Graduating students in Commerce and Business Administration wait for their degree at a UBC Congregation ceremony in Vancouver. John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER - When a six-year tuition freeze was lifted in British Columbia in 2002, causing tuition at most universities to double over the next three years, a group of 50 students spent a night camping in the University of British Columbia administration offices while a few hundred protested outside.

Then the group stormed the student union’s executive offices to demand the resignation of the union’s president, Kristen Harvey.

They were angry at the student union’s lack of protesting: Harvey’s efforts had been largely focused on holding consultations with university and government officials.

The protests at UBC fizzled out quickly. During the next school term, the board of governors made room for 300 students to come speak at a meeting where new tuition raises were being passed. Barely 40 showed up.

Today, after nearly four months of unrelenting protests by an assortment of Quebec student groups over plans to hike tuition fees in the province, student leaders in the rest of Canada are only now beginning to hold solidarity events.

UBC’s tepid reaction to the 2002 tuition hikes is not an anomaly. According to many current and former student politicians from across the country, student groups outside Quebec are simply incapable of holding widespread and sustained demonstrations, regardless of the issue.

“The student movement in English Canada has gone on a different trajectory since the 1960s,” says Duncan Wojtaszek, the executive director of the Council of Alberta University Students, an umbrella organization for Alberta student unions.

“I think it could make a good go of a day-long event, or even a couple days long...but it’s difficult for us to imagine 100 days culminating in a 100,000-plus march.”

This is partly caused by promises made during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, Wojtaszek says, where education reforms famously created free or very cheap tuition. When a provincial government elsewhere in Canada raises tuition fees, there isn’t a sense of violating a sacred social contract.

But anglophone student groups also tend to be highly-centralized and focused on operating student services, including businesses like pubs and cafes. Decisions are made by elected representatives at a broad, diverse council.

In Quebec, the student groups are often smaller and intensely political. They frequently hold general assemblies where any student in the department or faculty can come to vote on issues.

This grassroots element generates the energy and stamina in Quebec's student protests that is missing everywhere else.

“The departmental councils have so much power [at francophone schools]. I think that that’s really the big difference,” says Joey Coleman, who spent four years blogging about student politics for Maclean’s and The Globe and Mail.

“When we’re talking about student strikes, we’re talking about faculties. We’re not talking about an entire school.”

Coleman says the requirements of running businesses — such as hiring permanent staff and maintaining a hierarchical management structure — centralize power, weakening the faculty and department associations.

In contrast, at the public colleges in Quebec, often known by the acronym CEGEPs, the schools themselves run many of the student services, leaving the students with little need to organize into one large student union.

Their efforts are then centred on the faculty associations.

“These associations are largely political, and mobilization-oriented. They’re the ones who are leading the push in the strike,” says Joël Pedneault, vice president of external affairs at the McGill University student union, where relatively few student groups have voted to strike.

“They don’t really provide the kind of services to members that large student associations would. It allows them to be very autonomous in the kind of political action that they do.”

CEGEP faculty associations are run largely through direct democracy at general assemblies, a process that has been entrenched through the frequency of student unrest in the province — there were large student protests in 1996 and 2005 — and by the heated politics of sovereignty.

Student general assemblies are often chaotic, but they generate a large amount of enthusiasm for their projects. This is key for the protest movement.

When student associations in the rest of Canada try to organize protests, the decision-making is often done by small, representative groups who then try to motivate their constituencies in a top-down fashion.

The results are often underwhelming, says Coleman.

“They have a hard time drawing out students for rallies that are planned months in advance.”

The Canadian Federation of Students, which has most of its strength in Ontario, still puts a lot of emphasis on organizing protests.

But the student unions in English Canada that aren’t CFS members focus more on intricate policy discussions and voter drives than on street demonstrations.

During the April provincial election in Alberta, Wojtaszek’s organization signed up 12,000 students to voting lists and spent election day trying to get them all to the polls.

The plan is to build up credible electoral pressure to bring on policy-makers.

“That’s the hope, that they recognize we aren’t some marginal interest group, but we’re really the group that put them in office,” says Wojtaszek.

Spencer Keys, who was UBC’s student union president in 2005 and has since worked for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, says in his experience, there are a lot of student leaders who are willing to have the complicated policy debate over how education should be funded.

Keys says there were very mixed views at UBC during the time when B.C. tuition was rising quickly.

“On one hand, prices were going up. On the other hand, people were seeing the effects of an unfunded tuition freeze...People saw there being a real quality impact on the institution.”

Once that debate happens, the question remains of how to most effectively influence policy-makers.

But for better or worse, students in English Canada likely don’t have the option of taking over the streets, says Keys.

“Nobody outside Quebec currently has the ability to do the kind of sustained action that you’re seeing there. Full stop.”

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