08/09/2012 05:14 EDT | Updated 10/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Student Protest: Showdown Looms As Reinforcements Expected To Stream In From Ontario


MONTREAL - The more hardcore Quebec student activists say they will receive help from outside the province as they form picket lines to block the return to school.

They say that at schools where student assemblies vote to remain on strike, they plan to enforce those votes outside classrooms as they start to reopen next week.

Such a move would violate the province's controversial protest law, Bill 78, which sets penalties between $1,000 and $125,000 for people or organizations that block access to schools.

It could also force a showdown in the midst of a provincial election campaign and spark unknown political consequences.

"People will be coming from Ontario and the United States to help students block their campus," Caroline Tanguay, part of a student group at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, told a news conference Thursday.

That announcement was meant to stress the stamina of the protest movement amid a fast-changing political climate.

While one-third of the province's post-secondary students have been on strike, the number is dropping following votes at assemblies leading up to the scheduled resumption of the long-suspended spring semester. Classes at some schools begin next week.

The results of the votes have been mixed — with some assemblies voting to return to school and others wanting to continue their strikes.

Students have been grappling with dilemmas about their own personal future and also with a more strategic question: Will these continued protests backfire and help re-elect their movement's political nemesis, the Charest Liberals?

Another major development Thursday was news that the best-known face of the student movement had resigned.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for the more militant CLASSE group and who is now a household name in Quebec, said he was tired of being demonized as a quasi-terrorist.

In a letter announcing his departure, an angry Nadeau-Dubois accused the government of tarnishing his reputation. In an example of how polarizing the outgoing student leader had become, the mayor of a small town in northeastern Quebec recently threatened to cancel a summer festival after hearing the young activist might attend.

But people like Nadeau-Dubois have also won admiration — inside and outside Quebec.

One student at Thursday's news conference said he expected help from two Toronto universities — York and the U of T — as well as from Guelph, London, Kingston and Thunder Bay. He said he also expected participants from New York University.

"There are very firm intentions to come, with organized buses, to come and help us picket," said Frank Levesque-Nicol, of the UQAM social-science students' faculty.

He added that solidarity works both ways, and Quebec students will help others with protest actions in the future.

"The movement has become known around the world,'' Levesque-Nicol said. ''In North America, there are people seriously thinking about having general strikes so people are very, very interested in what's happened in Quebec.

"They pay huge tuition rates (outside Quebec) because they never managed to fight before to make them drop."

In Quebec, the government is hiking tuition by $1,778 over seven years. That would represent an increase of 84 per cent — which would still leave Quebec with lower rates than most other provinces.

The protesters say their struggle is a matter of principle. They say they oppose such austerity measures for regular people while subsidies to large companies would more than pay for the hike.

Some also describe it as a question of generational fairness, and wonder why young people should be squeezed to help pay down debts racked up by older Quebecers.

The government and its supporters describe the higher fees as part of a necessary culture shift in the province, where a user-pay model will help ensure quality services in the long run. The government has also increased hydroelectricity rates, which are comparably low in the province.

With files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud

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