Quebec student leaders are ready to face off against any plans the newly elected Parti Quebecois may have to increase tuition fees.
Students claimed a cautious victory after premier-designate Pauline Marois promised to reverse tuition increases for college and university students.
Less than 24 hours after the PQ won a minority in the Sept. 4 election, Marois announced she would undo the hikes introduced this year by the Liberal government of outgoing Premier Jean Charest.
For now, the near-daily protests in Montreal have come to a halt.
The downtown park where hundreds, and often thousands, of protesters gathered nightly for marches over the past few months has gone quiet. Classes have resumed at Quebec’s junior colleges and universities.
Exactly how long this truce lasts depends on the outcome of a summit to be held soon after the PQ takes power. The PQ says it will announce the date of the summit within its first 100 days in office.
Marois has said her government would propose indexing any tuition increases to the rate of inflation, rather than the Liberals’ plan to increase fees by $254 per year over seven years.
Two of the province’s three main student groups want a freeze on tuition fees, while a third, the more hardline CLASSE, wants them to be eliminated altogether.
“We’re meeting with association members to do research, so we can advocate for (a freeze) at the summit,” said Martine Desjardins, president of a student group representing university students.
A spokesman said the PQ was not available for comment over the weekend.
But the legacy of Quebec’s so-called Maple Spring, which drew tens of thousands into the street, will likely stretch far beyond the decision on tuition rates.
Christian Nadeau, a philosophy professor at Universite de Montreal, said the student movement marks a shift in the province’s political “tectonic plates.”
“For me, the student movement will fit into the annals of history as part of an awakening on the left,” said Nadeau, a well-known supporter of the movement.
He said the protests sparked a much broader debate over the role of the state in Quebec: whether services like education and health care should be provided through taxpayer-funded public institutions, or rely more heavily on the pay-per-user model put forward by outgoing premier Jean Charest.
Old debates over Quebec independence may have returned during the election campaign, but Nadeau said the student movement is part of a new “left-right debate” that for many has taken precedence over the sovereignty issue.
The protests also helped spawn a new generation of politically engaged Quebecers, according to another student leader.
“I think that when we’re going to be a bit farther removed from the last months, people are going to realize the value of what we did,” said Eliane Laberge, head of an association for junior college students.
Turnout on Sept. 4 was the highest since 1998 for a Quebec provincial election.
Nearly 75 per cent of Quebecers voted in the Sept. 4 election. That’s almost 20 percentage points higher than in the province’s last general election in 2008, when 57 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot.
“I think this is the most beautiful thing,” Desjardins said.
“I’m pretty sure youth did go out and vote this time, I think this is why we have the outcome that we have.”
After an angry and tumultuous year in Quebec politics, though, the dispute over tuition fees also left behind some lasting scars.
There’s even suggestion the conflict allowed the Charest Liberals, a three-term government that appeared dead on its feet, to avoid a far worse finish.
“We have been in such a big conflict,” Laberge said.
“Some people in family aren’t talking to each other, some friends aren’t talking to friends.”
Charest came within four seats of astounding everyone and defeating Marois, who sided with the students during the conflict and used to wear the red square synonymous with the movement.
Desjardins acknowledges the student conflict may have worked in Charest’s favour.
Charest kicked off the election campaign with an appeal to what he called “the silent majority,” meaning those voters who opposed last spring’s protests and who might be eager to punish the PQ for supporting them.
While the protests didn’t figure as prominently as many expected, Desjardins said she believes that renewed clashes between students and police as classes started up near the end of the election campaign may have given the Liberals a boost.
“I think it a lot of citizens just thought, ‘Well, we need the Liberal government because it stands for law and order,'” she said.
Desjardins said that, for Charest, “it was very easy to divide the population between city and region, students and the rest of the population. I think this division created what we saw in the general election.”
There are signs of division within the student movement as well.
The hardline student group CLASSE isn’t satisfied with a tuition freeze. The group wants free education — a position which isn’t shared by the province’s two other main student groups.
CLASSE is planning a major demonstration later this month.
“It’s their position, they’re going to have some arguments to prove that it’s possible,” said Laberge.
“We don’t have exactly the same position, but it’s OK.”