POLITICS

Will student strikes be catapulted back onto Quebec election stage Monday?

08/24/2012 01:17 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - As the Quebec election campaign enters its final week, the focus could switch back to the student protests that dominated headlines earlier this year.

The student issue has gotten such little attention so far that it was even ignored in the only televised debate featuring all four leaders.

It could be catapulted back to the foreground on Monday. That's the day classes are resuming at many Quebec universities and there's talk that students will again try to block classes.

"If they decide to set up picket lines, there's no problem," Jeanne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for CLASSE, the most militant of Quebec student association, said Friday. "We will show our solidarity and send people to help them."

The province's emergency law, Bill 78, prohibits blocking a classroom and it sets stiff fines for anyone who does so.

It's unclear how students, teachers, and university authorities will react Monday. It's equally unclear how the politicians, and ultimately the voters, will respond.

Reynolds adds that any protests won't take place at the entrances to universities and will be limited to those classrooms where students have voted to continue their strikes.

"It's always been like that, where there is a suspension of classes or where there are classes on strike, there is always a blockade in front of the doors," she said.

Reynolds added that it's up to student associations to decide how to apply the strike mandates they were given during recent strike votes.

The vast majority of Quebec students have returned from their strikes. But Reynolds says more than 36,000 students remain on strike.

A number of student associations at the Universite de Montreal, Universite du Quebec a Montreal and Universite Laval have already voted to continue their protests.

There are also hints that teachers might refuse to teach if students declare a strike.

That, perhaps more than anything else, threatens to become a political flashpoint in the final week of the provincial election. Earlier in the campaign, Coalition party Leader Francois Legault suggested teachers should be punished if they refuse to teach.

Reynolds said professors at UQAM will use their judgement if there is no one in class. She said that some are also committed to not respecting the emergency law.

An illegal strike by the teachers could result in hefty fines for the unions that represent them.

On its website, CLASSE says that 59 student associations at five universities have voted to continue the boycott that began last February.

At the height of the protests, last spring, roughly half of Quebec's 450,000 post-secondary students were on strike. That dropped to one-third during the spring, and the ratio is now less than one out of 10 students still striking.

Many students voted to return to class, with some saying they worried that continued unrest would merely drive frustrated voters to re-elect the Charest Liberals on Sept. 4.

The more ardent activists reject that argument. Many question the sincerity of any major political party and say the best way to advance the cause is to keep the strikes going until the government backs down.