04/09/2015 09:57 EDT | Updated 06/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Quebec Student Protests Force Universite Du Quebec To Cancel Classes

MONTREAL - Scenes of Quebec students barricading themselves inside campus buildings, clashing with police and marching through the streets are reminiscent of the civil unrest of 2012 — but there are major differences this time around.

The mass protests three years ago were tightly focused on getting the government to reverse tuition fee hikes.

This spring's demonstrators, who are far fewer in number, have a broader range of beefs with the primary focus the government's widespread cost-cutting measures.

"Austerity" is the protesters' buzzword in 2015 as Premier Philippe Couillard aims to control government spending, particularly in health and education, to post a balanced budget this fiscal year.

Another big difference from 2012 is that the current student movement is divided, with those voting to strike a minority and mostly located in the Montreal area.

Moreover, the dramatic scenes of police marching through a university campus as masked students spray-painted security cameras and blocked access to rooms with overturned tables and chairs is concentrated at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM), a university that has long been a hotbed of political activism.

"UQAM has a reputation of being the most engaged," said Raphael Canet, a professor in social science at the University of Ottawa who received his PhD at UQAM.

"There is a culture at the university that makes students more socially conscious."

Canet said the current unrest can be viewed as a continuation of the 2012 Quebec student movement.

While the students claimed victory in 2012 — the Liberals were booted from office and the new Parti Quebecois government cancelled the tuition increases — for many it was bittersweet, says Canet.

Parents, environmentalists, teachers and many other Quebecers joined young people in the streets three years ago to denounce what they saw as an unfair social system that benefited the rich.

Canet said students were hoping the PQ government would increase taxes on the rich and on royalties for mining companies, reduce the province's reliance on fossil fuels and expand the social safety net.

Instead the PQ minority government largely maintained the status quo and was toppled by the Liberals in April 2014.

The masked students who blocked access to UQAM classrooms in Montreal on Wednesday and clashed with police early Thursday are likely the ones "most affected by student debt, have the least to lose and the most to gain," Canet said.

A Toronto-based research centre also says there is a stronger protest culture in Quebec compared with other provinces.

A recent study by Samara on political and civic engagement in Canada indicated 51 per cent of Quebecers "expressed some level of dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working" — 16 percentage points higher than the national average.

"Quebec stands out as an outlier," said Jane Hilderman, research director at Samara.

To help quell classroom interruptions, UQAM obtained an injunction on April 1 aimed at preventing anyone from blocking access to and from any of its buildings.

The court order, which is valid until April 13, also prohibits any physical or psychological intimidation such as threats, harassment or insults.

The students in the UQAM building on Wednesday were upset that rector Robert Proulx called police earlier in the day to remove protesters who were defying the injunction and blocking access to certain classes. Authorities arrested 22 people.

Police were called in again around midnight and said on Thursday five police cars had been damaged, one officer attacked and parts of the campus building vandalized.

Richard-Alexandre Laniel, a spokesman for ASSE, a federation representing students at UQAM, was defiant Thursday and said the protest measures will continue.

"We are calling on the current strike movement against austerity, against hydrocarbons and against political repression to keep going," he said.

"It is absolutely necessary to have a strong student movement against all these attacks with which we are being afflicted. And striking is the most legitimate way for us to get this government to backtrack."

Education Minister Francois Blais held a news conference Thursday and didn't seem interested in a suggestion he introduce legislation that clarifies the issues surrounding the right to strike in Quebec universities.

"The right to strike isn't the issue," Blais said. "The issue is masked people entering an institution and terrorizing it and the people inside."

"The right to an education is a gift that the general population gives students by financing education. If certain people refuse this gift, I have no problem with that. But if these people want to prevent others from receiving this gift, you'll understand there is a fundamental problem."

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