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Editor's note: Bill 78 was introduced in the National Assembly late Thursday night, and goes even further than what is laid out below. To read the bill itself, click here [PDF, French]. Check the Montreal Media Co-op for updates and more details.
MONTREAL—After fourteen weeks of student strikes in Quebec, the provincial Liberals announced Wednesday they will introduce a law that would suspend the rest of this semester at colleges and universities if striking students do not stop holding picket lines or enforcing strike votes.
Bill 78, "A Law Allowing Students to Receive the Education Provided by the School Which They Attend", was introduced in the National Assembly in Quebec City after deadline late Thursday night.
Student representatives were fast to denounce the proposed regulation on Wednesday night, calling it a "lock-out" and saying it will only add "fuel to the fire."
"Tonight, the government spit in the face of a generation...We will remember how we were treated tonight for a long time," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for the Enlarged Coalition of the Association for a Solidarity Among Student Unions (CLASSE), at a press conference.
As the government's intentions became clear, an array of voices spoke out against the government using legislating to deal with the conflict, including the Quebec Bar Association, and even a group of students which is actively mobilizing in favor of the tuition fee increase.
Across Québec, over 155,000 students remain on strike at 14 colleges and 11 universities. Since the government made its latest offer to students, some 325,000 students have voted against it. It is the longest student strike in Quebec and Canadian history, launched in opposition to the provincial government's plan to increase tuition fees by 82 per cent over seven years.
Wednesday's proposal from the government came in two parts:
First, at schools where students are on strike, students, administrators and teachers must come to an agreement that would allow any student who wishes to return to class—even those whose associations have voted in favor of the strike—to be able to do so. This requires putting an end to all pickets lines or any other disruptive tactics used to ensure the strike vote is respected. If such an agreement is reached, classes will continue normally for the remainder of the semester.
For those schools where such an agreement is not reached, classes will be suspended immediately, and will resume in August, with each school taking on the task of determining what the schedule should look like. The example of the Université de Montréal has been given, where winter semester classes are being suspended until mid-August. They will then run until the end of September. The Fall semester will begin at the start of October—a month late—and finish in mid-January.
The second part of the proposed law will serve to "guarantee the right to education," according to a government press release. It is believed that this means the government will introduce methods to enforce the ban on picket lines, possibly through major fines. The exact details will only be revealed when the bill is introduced in the National Assembly on Thursday night.
Following the announcement, over a thousand people took to the streets of Quebec City, while up to another 20,000 people marched in Montreal.
The effect of the law, according to CLASSE, is essentially the same as a lock-out: at schools where students are still on strike, they either stop enforcing picket lines - eliminating any power that the strike may have - or they will see classes suspended, removing the element that they are striking against.
"This is a lockout, in the end, because it stops students from exercising their democratic rights in general assemblies," said Jeanne Reynolds, CLASSE's co-spokesperson.
The Quebec Federation of University Students and the Quebec Federation of College Students also spoke out soon after the government announcement. They said that they are already preparing to launch a legal challenge against the legislation, should it be adopted. The Liberal party has a majority of seats in the National Assembly, so there is little doubt it will pass.
The proposed law comes as tensions have continued to rise on campuses.
As the strike continues, more and more students have turned to the courts to seek injunctions allowing them to return to class, even if their student associations have voted by a majority to strike. In most cases, these injunctions have been approved. Thought student unions are officially recognized under Quebec law, their right to collectively strike is not. Therefore the courts and the government see participation in the strike as a personal choice. The result is that if one student out of several hundred - or in some cases, out of thousands - requests an injunction to return to class, they have received it.
While the right of students to strike is not legislated, it has been accepted as a practice in the past.
As court injunctions multiply, striking students have taken action to protect the legitimacy of their strike votes. The result has been hard picket lines and classroom disruptions. In response, both local and provincial police have been dispatched to campuses, ratcheting up tension and resulting in arrests, injuries (often from batons), and tear gas and pepper spray being used.
"Each [member of the National Assembly] who votes in favor of this law will have to live with consequences," said Reynolds. "Government intransigence has already seriously injured individuals."
CLASSE has called for a major demonstration in Montreal on May 22, two months after some 300,000 marched against the tuition fee increase, to show that the opposition remains.
An extended version of this article first appeared in the Montéal Media Co-op. Tim McSorley is a journalist and an editor member of the Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.