POLITICS

Another big protest in Quebec — but can the students keep it up?

06/22/2012 03:20 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Their numbers might be smaller. The media attention might be shifting. Some of their political support might be wavering. But Quebec student protesters demonstrated Friday that they can still draw a crowd.

Now the question is: How loud will this crowd be, later this summer, when it counts?

Current events are only a prelude to two key upcoming dates — the return to school planned in August and, possibly, a September provincial election. Protesters and their supporters said Friday that they intend to be active on both fronts.

Thousands marched in Montreal and Quebec City as protesters kept up their ritual of holding a mega-rally on the 22nd of every month, as they had in March, April and May.

The crowd size Friday was a fraction of what it had been in previous months, just as the nightly Montreal street marches have been drawing smaller numbers. The province's main opposition leader, the PQ's Pauline Marois, has even said she won't be wearing the symbolic red square on her lapel anymore.

But one political leader is still wearing that red square — and he says the protesters will be there with a vengeance later this summer.

"Everyone needs a vacation sometimes," said Amir Khadir, an elected MNA for the tiny left-wing Quebec solidaire, who is now the politician most vocally supportive of the student strikes.

"Anyone counting on the movement running out of steam is making a mistake... Everyone taking a break today is doing it to bounce back stronger in August and September."

Students said they have strike votes planned for August, which is when the students who were striking — about one-third of them — have been legislated to return to class.

The province's controversial protest law, Bill 78, has declared a mid-August resumption of the school year for students who did not complete their winter-spring session. There are steep fines for those who block access to schools.

It's unclear whether, and how, the law will affect classrooms. So far, its stipulations regarding street protests have largely been avoided, despite all the controversy they have drawn.

Then, there's the possible election.

The student leaders have promised to do organizational work in ridings where the governing Liberals hold seats but appear weak, in an effort to defeat them. They announced Friday that the tactics will include door-knocking in ridings where Liberals are vulnerable.

"We'll continue mobilizing — with or without elections," said Jeanne Reynolds, one of the co-spokespeople for the CLASSE group.

There is speculation Premier Jean Charest might call a vote in August for a Sept. 17 campaign.

That would allow him to campaign during the back-to-school period and seek to keep the tuition increases, for which he appears to have strong support, high on the public agenda.

It would also allow him to get the election out of the way before the resumption of the province's corruption inquiry, which starts hearing witnesses again on Sept. 17.

Public inquiries are always unpredictable for sitting governments, and this one is especially so given that it is focusing partly on reports of illegal financing of Quebec's political parties.

Allegations of government cronyism and ethics violations are what the opposition wants the next election to be about.

That could explain why Marois has stopped wearing the red square, in an attempt to refocus the political discussion on an issue that's more likely to be a winner for her.

Polls suggest the Liberals, who entered the spring trailing badly when the dominant issue was corruption, are now nipping at the heels of the protest-supporting PQ.

Student leaders did the opposition a favour Friday, repeatedly linking the two issues.

Several cast tuition and corruption as one combined issue — by suggesting that the government cared more about enriching Liberal donors than about education, or by arguing that Quebec could afford cheap tuition if it wasn't wasting so much money on mismanagement and cronyism.

They also sought to tap into Quebecers' anger at the unpopular provincial government, saying the Charest Liberals hardly had the moral authority to hike fees or taxes.

"There are many citizens who are fed up with being asked to pay more," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a CLASSE co-spokesman.

"This government doesn't have the credibility to lead Quebec anymore."

-With files by Pierre Saint-Arnaud in Montreal and Martin Ouellet in Quebec City