Apart from the barrage of snowballs being pelted at police, the chunks of ice flying through the air, and officers charging at protesters across a snowy square, this could easily have been a scene lifted from the “Maple Spring.”
The clash in downtown Montreal was a mid-winter variation on the kind of event that occurred on a near-daily basis, making international headlines, last spring and summer.
Thousands of people marched at the end of a tuition summit Tuesday in which the new Parti Quebecois provincial government announced three-per-cent-a-year tuition hikes.
Its new fees are significantly lower than the ones proposed by the previous Liberal government — about one-fifth as much.
Premier Pauline Marois left the conference feeling confident enough to declare that Quebec’s era of social unrest was over.
“We have succeeded in putting the confrontations behind us,” Marois said in the closing address of a two-day summit that assembled students’ associations, university leaders, unions and social groups.
“The social crisis is behind us.”
A few hours later, signs of it re-emerged.
Streets were blocked. Bus lines were re-routed. And police were dragging a few people out of a projectile-throwing crowd in order to arrest them.
The newly elected premier had conceded that her small tuition hikes wouldn’t please everyone — not the student groups, nor the university administrators who said they needed more cash.
The first student strikes began in mid-February of last year, and they grew into a social movement that saw nightly street marches and made headlines around the world.
At issue was the $1,625 tuition increase over five years planned by the previous Liberal government.
The PQ government cancelled the Liberal’s proposed hikes and this week announced scaled-down increases of its own at the education summit. Its proposed hike will raise tuition by one-fifth of the Liberal plan — $70 per year, or roughly $350 after the first five years.
But the government’s middle-ground solution fell short of pleasing everyone, particularly student federations.
Even the more moderate student groups, who did not boycott the summit, called the three-per-cent annual increases unacceptable.
They had been requesting an absolute freeze on tuition. The more militant student faction, which boycotted the summit entirely and organized Tuesday’s protest, had demanded free university.
Instead, they got what some of them called a perpetual tuition hike.
“We’re really disappointed about the fact the tuition fees are going up,” said Martine Desjardins, president of Quebec’s largest student federation, who attended the summit.
She said she had hoped the government would have debated the issue further.
But students, Desjardins added, did not leave the summit empty-handed. She credited the government with providing some extra funds for the financial-aid program and establishing a committee to examine mandatory student fees.
Student leaders will now consult their members about the next step.
More student protests, meanwhile, are planned in the province — starting with Tuesday’s march, organized by ASSE, one of Quebec’s more-radical student federations.
The movement also planned to stage regular nightly demonstrations starting next week, much like it did during the 2012 uprising that students have nicknamed the Maple Spring.
It’s not yet clear how many student groups, and protesters, will participate in the demonstrations. But there were thousands in the streets Tuesday.
Students weren’t the only ones who disagreed with the government’s plans for the education system.
Some university administrators left the long-awaited summit with deep concerns that their schools are at risk of years of under-funding, due to the government’s plan to cut their budgets by $125 million in 2012-13 and again in 2013-14.
“The university system remains anaemic and it will be bled of $250 million in the coming years,” Universite de Montreal rector Guy Breton told the summit.
Breton warned of a looming crisis that could imperil some university programs — including medicine — unless the government increases university funding.
“The patient is far from being in good health — I guarantee that,” he said.
Others saw the PQ government’s indexed tuition increases as too small, a plan that would pile more burden on taxpayers who didn’t go to university.
“You’ve obtained an artificial consensus… in this room where the vast majority is excluded,” said interim Liberal leader Jean-Marc Fournier, who then pointed to the challenges of lower-earning Quebecers.
“When you ask (students) to pay a little less, someone else will pay instead.”
Later in the day, some wags commenting on social media quipped that perhaps the Liberals would now take up the protest symbols like the red square and begin banging pots.
In an abrupt reversal of roles, it was the PQ government dealing with unrest in the streets.
One protester held up a sign: “Pauline, where’s your casserole (pot)?”
As she closed the summit, Marois had said that when consensus cannot be reached, a government has a responsibility to act.
“That’s what we decided to do,” said Marois, who also credited the “frank” debate of the summit.