TORONTO - As a social crisis over tuition deepens in Quebec, students and unions in neighbouring Ontario are gearing up to join their counterparts by protesting their own tuition fees — the highest in Canada.
The groups say they're not advocating violence, but warn there's growing unrest among Ontario students who are frustrated with paying sky-high fees for their education.
"We all support the students in Quebec and their demands," said Sandy Hudson of the Canadian Federation of Students.
"And we understand that the best way for us to support students in Quebec is to actually challenge our own government."
Students are already taking action in Ottawa and Toronto, and there are other groups across the province who are prepared to join the cause, they said. They plan to hold a day of action June 5 with a demonstration in Toronto and other events across the province.
Asked whether those protests might escalate to the kind of violence seen in Quebec streets, Hudson said she doesn't want to see anyone get hurt.
"That's not my goal," Hudson said. "My goal is to see an accessible post-secondary education system in Ontario, and we will do whatever it takes to get there."
It's up to students to decide what they want to do, she added. But she doubts the Ontario government will react the same way Quebec has, given the fallout over the excessive force used by police during the G20 protests in Toronto two years ago.
Students in Quebec have been striking for more than 100 days to oppose a proposed 75 per cent tuition hike, which has sparked violent clashes and mass arrests by police.
Quebec's Liberal government is trying to crack down on the protests with a bill that restricts demonstrations of more than 50 people and requires eight hours notice of protest details such as the route, the duration and the time they are being held.
The student groups, labour federations and a wide range of other organizations claim the law is unconstitutional and a violation of basic rights.
Quebec students are facing repressive measures that have resulted in serious injuries, said Xavier LaFrance, who's studying political science at Toronto's York University.
"Students and activists have been losing eyes, feet, they've been beaten down by police, they had a police car rushing into them," he said.
More and more, the public across Quebec is showing support for students by knocking on pots and pans in solidarity, LaFrance said.
Some students in British Columbia are also joining the fight by condemning the special law.
Dalton McGuinty, Ontario's self-proclaimed "education premier," said his government has already helped to reduce tuition rates by offering a 30 per cent rebate — one of his key election promises.
"It's interesting to note that here in Ontario even though we have higher tuition fees, we have a higher rate of participation in post-secondary education in Ontario," he said Thursday.
"I think Ontario families are on to the notion that in a 21st century globalized knowledge-based economy, it's really important that we make every effort possible to make sure the kids finish high school, they go on to an apprenticeship, college or university."
But the rebate only affects one-third of students and the government hiked tuition rates shortly after it took effect, Hudson said.
The federation has asked the Liberals to put the $423-million annual cost of the program towards a 13 per cent reduction in tuition fees for everyone.
Ontario's undergraduate and graduate students are paying the highest average university tuition fees in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Full-time undergraduates are paying $6,640 on average while graduate students are paying $7,578.
Hudson said those rates have increased 71 per cent since 2006 — three years after McGuinty was first elected.
At $2,519, Quebec currently has the lowest average tuition rate in the country.