05/22/2012 01:23 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Student Protests: Union Cash Flowing Into Province To Fund Student Groups


MONTREAL - Out-of-province money is flowing toward Quebec student activists amid signs their protest movement could persist into the summer.

Trade unions based outside Quebec have already confirmed depositing some $40,000 into the bank accounts of the province's largest student federations, cash that has helped pay for needs such as buses and food during demonstrations.

Unions in the rest of Canada, meanwhile, say their memberships will soon be asked to vote on new contributions for these student groups. Others are urging local union branches to consider making donations.

The cash injection from outside the province represents a fraction of the monetary support that has been sent to student groups. Quebec unions have given tens of thousands of dollars to the cause, including $35,000 just from the Confederation des syndicats nationaux.

But as the student crisis showed no signs of slowing down Tuesday — the 100th day of the strike — more unions were considering whether to pitch in.

The executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said Tuesday that his union could approve a financial contribution for the students in the next day or two.

"We're actively considering it," said James Turk, whose association represents 66,000 teachers and other academic professionals across Canada.

Turk said there's added urgency to help out now that the Quebec government has adopted an emergency law — Bill 78 — that sets some restrictions on protests.

"We don't want the main issue obscured, and that is the desire to have accessible post-secondary education," he said, referring to the issue that ignited the strike movement several months ago — the provincial plan to hike tuition fees.

"We've been really strong on that and now we're looking at concrete ways we can be of assistance to the students financially."

Turk said his group could help support student court challenges to Bill 78, which he called "repressive" and "worrisome."

The law requires organizers to give police eight hours' notice of when and where a protest will happen — and imposes fines for offenders.

The law, now triggering a backlash, has not yet been applied.

Quebec's public security minister defended Bill 78 on Tuesday, naming several cities he says have equally tough, or tougher, rules for organizing protests. Robert Dutil's list included Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.

Quebec students have been holding regular protests across the province to denounce the tuition-fee increases since February.

Some of the demonstrations have turned violent, including weekend clashes with riot police that led to hundreds of arrests in Montreal.

At least one student leader has encouraged supporters to defy Bill 78 and commit acts of civil disobedience. Many demonstrators heeded that call at a march Tuesday, defiantly veering off the pre-approved route in an attempt to make a mockery of the law.

When asked about that particular issue, Turk gave his support to the students.

"The problem that people face when confronted with really unjust laws is whether to obey them or not," he said.

"We certainly saw, and celebrate now in hindsight, the reaction to the American civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s and '70s where they engaged in massive civil disobedience."

The student movement has already prompted unions based outside Quebec to open their wallets.

In recent weeks, two Ontario locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees gave a total of $30,000 to the Quebec student movement.

The local representing some workers at University of Toronto contributed $20,000, while the local at McMaster University gave $10,000.

"The size of the donation is absolutely unprecedented by our local," said Diana Zawadzki, vice-president of local 3906, which represents teaching assistants, sessional faculty members and post-doctoral fellows at McMaster.

"When we discussed making the donation at our local, everyone was really excited about the student movement in Quebec and thought it was a really fantastic cause."

The national president of Canada's largest private-sector union said his group gave $6,000 after a recent meeting of Quebec members.

Ken Lewenza of the Canadian Auto Workers union said the leaders of the province's three main student federations each gave "inspiring" presentations during the late-April gathering in the Quebec town of Montebello.

He said around 150 delegates present immediately dug into their pockets and gave a total of $3,000 — an amount matched by the union. In the end, the student groups each received $2,000.

Lewenza said the assistance is about supporting future generations and indicated he would ask members across the country for more help, if the Quebec branch of his union requests it.

"I'm not at all hesitant to call on CAW locals throughout Canada to join in on bonds of solidarity and provide whatever support is necessary — whether it's financial, whether it's moral," Lewenza said in a recent interview.

"I certainly encourage the local unions to support, in whatever mechanisms they can, the student movement in Quebec."

Other major unions outside Quebec have also earmarked money for the students' cause.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada has committed $5,000 to the movement, according to a spokesman. He could not, however, say where the money will be directed or how it will be used.

A spokeswoman for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada said Tuesday the organization donated money for several needs, like busing protesters to demonstrations and supplying them with food. She could not immediately provide the amount given.

At least one other Ontario union local said it fully expects to offer money to Quebec student activists.

Jaime Brenes, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local at the University of Guelph, said it's basically a question of asking members how much to give.

He said the local will hold an emergency meeting in the next two weeks to specifically discuss this matter. Brenes expects the amount of the contribution to be similar to the $10,000 and $20,000 donations given by the other two Ontario locals of the union.

"They are representing something that we all want — a fair tuition fee," Brenes said.

"They are doing the work, something that we all wish that everyone in Canada (was) doing."

Other union groups, including the Ontario Federation of Labour, have not yet given anything to students, but have urged their locals to consider making donations.

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