MONTREAL – Quebec’s long-awaited education summit kicked off under heavy security Monday, a year after a student crisis rattled the province.
Steel crowd-control barriers, a gauntlet of security checkpoints and bag searches greeted participants at the Montreal building housing the two-day event.
Inside the venue, the discussions were courteous. School administrators, politicians, student leaders and social groups outlined their visions for Quebec’s post-secondary education system, talks that explored topics such as university funding and financial aid for students.
Outside the building, police officers circled the neighbourhood on bicycle, sat in vans packed with riot gear and discretely kept watch over the area from the shadows of residential doorways.
The streets around the hall were quiet, however, except for a small group of professors protesting tuition-fee hikes Monday.
It was in stark contrast to the months of massive, nightly protests that consumed Montreal last year in a student crisis sparked by the former Liberal government’s plans to hike tuition fees. The student movement dubbed itself the Maple Spring.
The Parti Quebecois government, which won power in September, cancelled the Liberal tuition increases. PQ Premier Pauline Marois navigated the treacherous political issue during the election with a promise to create a new tuition policy after holding an education summit.
But some student groups are disappointed. They feel the new government is tuning out some of their ideas and, as a result, they are boycotting the summit.
One of those federations, the more-radical ASSE, is planning a protest to coincide with the conclusion of Tuesday’s summit, even though its support appears to have weakened since 2012.
The scene at the venue Monday was peaceful. The only trouble that unfolded was nowhere near the area.
Hours before the start of the summit, vandals splashed the doors and windows of the Montreal offices of Quebec’s Education Department with red paint.
The Montreal-area offices of other prominent PQ members were also vandalized Monday, including those of Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne, International Relations Minister Jean-Francois Lisee and Leo Bureau-Blouin, who was a key student leader during last year’s crisis.
The PQ courted Bureau-Blouin before the election, and at 20 years old he became Quebec’s youngest-ever MNA.
“Of course, it’s not good news, but I’m really focusing on the public policies that we’re discussing right now,” Bureau-Blouin said inside the summit venue.
“I think that this is not representative of the climate that we have here, it’s really a calm climate, people are discussing positively.”
Bureau-Blouin said the tight security around the summit was likely due to a combination of concerns about student protesters and Marois’ safety.
The premier was delivering her election-night victory speech in September when, only metres away, two people were shot — one fatally — by a gunman.
“Since what happened in the last months, I know that the security has been reinforced around Mme. Marois and the different ministers,” he said.
“But again this should not dismiss the fact that we have some really great public policies that we are analyzing and how we can have a better structure for our universities.”
Bureau-Blouin, who led a more moderate student federation last year, said he took to the streets for the right to be heard by the government.
He thinks groups like ASSE should be at the table as well.
“It’s really a collaborative way of solving problems, but it’s their right to protest and it’s part of democracy,” he said.
The controversial subject at the heart of the 2012 unrest — tuition-fee increases — was to be discussed at the summit later Monday.
The Marois government wants to index tuition fees to inflation, while some student groups are calling for an absolute freeze. The more militant federations, like ASSE, are demanding free tuition, which the government has refused to discuss at the summit.
In her opening speech Monday, Marois acknowledged she didn’t expect the summit to solve all the differences over higher education.
She called on participants to maintain a constant, permanent dialogue on the issue, even after the event ends.
“This exercise does not aim to resolve everything in a few hours,” Marois said.
“We will continue to work together Wednesday morning. The summit is an occasion to re-establish the dialogue, to rebuild bridges, to re-weave the links between us.”
Many areas of concern are being discussed at the summit.
Student groups participating in the event are calling on the government to improve financial aid for students.
University administrators, meanwhile, are hoping for more funding after the government cut their budgets in December.
The Marois government introduced several propositions at the start of the summit, including the creation of a council for universities that would consult the Higher Education Department on teaching and research.
Political opponents, however, said Monday that they hope the summit turns out to be more than a government PR stunt.
Interim Liberal leader Jean-Marc Fournier said he didn’t know where the Marois government was going to find the money to maintain the province’s universities, after the PQ cancelled his party’s proposed tuition increases.
“The reality is we need to have quality in our system,” Fournier said. “For that, we need to have money in the system.”
He said Quebec students pay about 12 cents out of every dollar in the university system.
“Already the taxpayer is paying a lot,” he said.
“Does he have to pay everything? I think it must be something (where) there’s equity.”
Quebec, Canada’s most-indebted province, has the lowest university tuition in the country.
The Maple Spring was ignited by opposition to the Liberal government’s proposal to boost tuition rates by $325 per year, over five years. The government later adjusted the planned increases to $254 per year, over seven years.
Even though the hike would still have left Quebec with some of the lowest tuition in Canada, many students insisted they opposed the increase out of fear it would further limit access to higher education.
– with files from Peter Rakobowchuk