MONTREAL - The number of students on strike in Quebec dwindled considerably Monday as people at several colleges voted to end a civil-disobedience campaign that had earned international attention and been nicknamed the Maple Spring.
Following three more votes Monday to end the strike and one vote in favour of continuing student protests, the tally now stands at six to two among junior colleges, called CEGEPs in Quebec, in favour of returning to class.
The protests are not quite over. Some university faculties will remain on strike after votes in favour of continuing demonstrations. Some CEGEPs and university students have yet to vote.
But the emphatic vote results Monday prompted a few student protesters to lament the demise of the cause. "The romanticism of it all is over," said one student, still wearing his iconic red square.
A few people wiped tears of disappointment from their eyes. Some strike supporters tried to console each other with long hugs outside College de Maisonneuve.
"I'm too upset to talk," said one weeping woman, who did not want to give her name.
But there were more smiles than tears. At Maisonneuve, students had voted 1,480 to 854 in favour of returning to class, following a spirited debate.
It's not clear whether the strike movement has even suffered a defeat. It may simply be laying low before a decisive win.
The party leading the polls in the current provincial election campaign, the PQ, has proposed eliminating the tuition hikes that were at the root of the dispute and replacing them with much smaller increases pegged to the rate of inflation.
There have also been warnings that the strikes could be revived after the Sept. 4 election, depending on who wins. Over the longer term, some in student movement plan to renew a push for free university access or seek other, broader social objectives.
One woman vowed that the movement would not give up, despite Monday's results.
"We'll continue fighting anyways — you'll see us in the streets," said Laurie Tatibouet, an 18-year-old student from CEGEP St-Laurent, the only junior college that has voted so far to keep striking.
"The fight seems to be starting to get tougher right now and it will be hard to continue."
But many other students were looking forward to being in class again.
"My objective is to finish my semester — and it would be great if I can finish it in six weeks," Ian Laine, 18, who believes it will be difficult for the strike movement to reignite after the provincial election.
"I don't know if everyone will jump back in the same boat to restart it."
About one-third of Quebec students had their spring session interrupted by the strikes. A controversial law passed by the Charest government, Bill 78, mandates their return to complete the semester over the coming weeks and sets stiff fines for people blocking schools.
At Maisonneuve college, several students who filed out of the vote said they believed some of their striking peers might try to block access when classes resume Tuesday.
But the students had no trouble getting in for the vote. Thousands streamed peacefully into the building as police officers kept a watchful eye from the edge of the school's grounds. School officials would only permit students to enter the college during the vote, not media.
One student described the event as raucous. People expressing support for ending the strike were swiftly booed by others.
Before the vote, based on the atmosphere, 19-year-old student Yacine Mahdid had predicted: "I think people are going to vote in favour of the strike...
"There are lots of red squares in there."
Other votes will be taken this week as CEGEPs reopen. As for universities, they reopen later.
The students face major strategic dilemmas as they vote.
There are personal concerns about what impact continued strikes might have on academic progress. Jean Beauchesne, the president of the Federation of CEGEPs, warns that sessions could be cancelled if students are slow to return to class.
Then there are broader strategic concerns — such as whether continued strikes will only help re-elect the Charest Liberals, by making the conflict a key issue for voters.
Then, finally, there is an ideological tug-of-war over the nature of democracy itself.
The more hardcore student activists consider their strike votes more legitimate than quadrennial elections to a parliament. They are adamant that their "direct democracy" movement not be subservient to the concerns of provincial electoral strategy and "representative democracy."
That philosophy has been voiced by a prominent anarchist and participant in the protest movement, Jaggi Singh.
He posted messages on Twitter that the strikes aren't about opposing one party or government — but about opposing a "destructive system." The veteran activist is among those urging that the strikes continue during the election.
The more moderate student groups, meanwhile, want to make themselves heard through more conventional means — at the ballot box. Many activists are working to defeat the Liberals in key ridings.
One prominent student spokesman, Leo Bureau-Blouin, has even gotten involved in mainstream politics, as a candidate for the Parti Quebecois in the current election.
But Tatibouet said social change doesn't come through elections.
"I think we should function by assembly and by smaller groups instead of elections every four years," said Tatibouet.
"We vote once every four years and then it's governance for four years... I don't think it's only students who believe in this — the population is also fed up."
Contrary to popular wisdom, she believes votes to end the strikes will favour Charest's re-election campaign, not harm it.
— With files by Tara Brockwell
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