MONTREAL - Quebec's student strikes, which gained international attention in the spring, now face a pivotal week as students start voting on whether to return to class.
Students in the more militant CLASSE association will vote over a nine-day period, starting Tuesday, on heading back to school when it reopens mid-month.
The votes are the latest chapter in an improbable six-month saga that saw Quebec's tuition battle catapulted from the pages of campus newspapers into major foreign media.
They arrive as students grapple with an overriding strategic dilemma: to suspend the fight, or keep it up and risk helping to re-elect the Charest Liberals?
An unpopular government, battered by ethics scandals, appears to have some public support for its tuition increases — of $1,778, or 82 per cent over seven years — and it has made the issue a centrepiece of its re-election campaign.
Students are now grappling with whether to take that issue off the table during the campaign. One protest leader says students know their decision can have a major impact on the Sept. 4 election.
"I think students are very anxious to see what will happen during this election," said Martine Desjardins, head of the more moderate university students' federation.
"We think that we can have a major role ... but people will have to make very difficult choices during their general assemblies."
Student federations announced the day the campaign was launched that they would not favour any one political party, but were staunchly opposed to the Liberals being re-elected. They announced plans to protest in Liberal ridings, including that of Premier Jean Charest.
"For students, this isn't only about whether you want to go on strike or not anymore," Desjardins said. "The question becomes what the impact will there be if they strike during the election and, in some ridings, I think the impact could be huge."
One of Desjardins' former colleagues, her counterpart at the moderate federation in junior colleges, is now an election candidate with the Parti Quebecois. The rookie provincial politician, 20-year-old Leo Bureau-Blouin, urged students last week to consider an election truce.
The idea of a five-week strike break appears to have been rejected.
"The students will have to take a number of factors into consideration," said Eliane Laberge, who is Bureau-Blouin's successor.
"In the end, it'll be up to them to decide in general assemblies what road they want to take."
One-third of Quebec post-secondary students are on strike, while the rest completed their spring semester on time.
The strikers were given the summer off under the Liberals' controversial emergency law, Bill 78, which suspended their school year and pushed the end of the spring semester back to August-September.
It also set extremely stiff fines — as high as $125,000 — for groups and individuals who block schools with picket lines or who fail to provide police with an itinerary for street protests.
The provisions related to street protests haven't been applied by police. A lingering question in the provincial election is whether the picket-line provisions would be applied.
Given the heated scenes that unfolded outside schools last spring it's anyone's guess how Quebec's political parties, and ultimately voters, would react to standoffs involving students and riot squads.
Laberge admits that students will have to consider a number of things, including the possibility that Bill 78 might be used against them.
After a relatively tranquil summer, student protests that brought Montreal to a standstill are beginning to rev up to coincide with the return to class.
CLASSE, the most militant of the student groups representing roughly half the students on strike, has one protest planned for mid-week. They are also organizing a much larger protest — a half-million-person gathering — for Aug. 22.
Complicating the return to class are labour concerns.
Teachers' unions are demanding extra help and have been opposed to current arrangements. But they will be back in class.
"The teachers will be back. They don't have a choice and, if they want to be paid, they need to be in class," said Jean Beauchesne, head of the federation of CEGEPs, the colleges' governing body.
A spokesman for the professors' union cautioned, however, that if there's a repeat of the discord last spring, then professors will have to weigh the situation.
Some masked protesters stormed into classes and disrupted sessions until teachers and students left. In one college, it was teachers who refused to teach because they said they and students were too emotional following confrontations with police outside.
"We don't want to put the security of our members at risk," said Caroline Senneville, a member of the union executive. "As professionals, we can't teach in all conditions, and if there are problems (like earlier in the year), that's not an environment we can teach in."
At the Universite de Montreal, teachers have filed a grievance over the legislated start and end dates to the semester. A decision is expected soon. At the Universite de Quebec a Montreal, a spokeswoman says negotiations are ongoing with teachers.
Both institutions are hopeful that classes will resume according to plan.
College students at 14 institutions are supposed to trickle back between Aug. 13 and 17. University students enrolled at 11 faculties are due to return between Aug. 20 and 27.
Whatever happens, members of the CLASSE warn that their cause will not end this summer, or with this election campaign.
They say they have other battles to fight — on university tuition, management of natural resources and on democratic reform, for instance.
"The student strike can't last forever, obviously," said CLASSE spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
"If the tuition increase is cancelled and the special law (Bill 78) is withdrawn, the specific demands of this strike will have been achieved, certainly. But that being said we want the mobilization to continue and we're inviting people to do that.
"We need to keep thinking about the Quebec of tomorrow."
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