Student protests in Montreal continued despite concessions from the government on Friday, April 28, 2012.
Credits: QMI AGENCY
MONTREAL - The Quebec spring has so far been a chilly one, as a frost warning was issued for the Montreal area on Saturday. But the conflict between striking students and the government is one issue making it increasingly likely that the summer is going to be a hot one.
The Quebec government's latest offer to striking students is widely considered to be a non-starter.
Students have vowed to protest nightly in downtown Montreal until a deal is reached. There are several protests a day in cities across the province, and the student movement is slowly morphing into a broader protest against public policy. Moreover, a public inquiry into the construction industry is slowly preparing for hearings, while the Montreal police's corruption squad has begun making big-name arrests.
Those recently arrested include two people who worked as fundraisers for the governing Liberal Party.
All of these events are taking place while a provincial election looms - an election that must be called by a deeply unpopular government, which will be competing against a surging separatist party and an upstart right-of-centre party.
QMI Agency spoke with a teacher's union president well-versed in Quebec social movements as well as a Montreal-based pollster, in order to get an idea of what they think the next few months will bring.
"This will not go away," Maria Peluso, president of Concordia University's Part-time Faculty Association, said of the ongoing student protests, which are entering their 12th week.
She said she expects the Occupy movement to become increasingly involved in the Quebec student protests.
Occupy protesters camped in a downtown Montreal square for close to a month in the fall, protesting the country's economic policies.
Peluso said that Quebecers are "fed up" with what she said was the growing privatization of social services, including education.
She rejects the idea that austerity measures are necessary to deal with Quebec's debt, which the provincial government says is at $183.8 billion, or 55% of GDP.
"The problem is that the debt has not been the result of any abuses of the citizens," Peluso said. She pointed to the corruption allegations swirling around the governing Liberals as one of the reasons the province is in a financial hole.
There has been a barrage of media reports, fuelled by whistleblowers, that indicate organized crime has its hands deep in public infrastructure projects in Quebec.
Moreover, the province's anti-corruption squad has also revealed a vast scheme in which political parties forge close ties with construction firms that finance their campaigns under the table.
"From the beginning of time all governments have had a scarcity of resources," she said. "The question is: Where are your priorities?"
Peluso said to expect protests throughout the summer demanding government investment into education, health care and the protection of the environment.
Christian Bourque, executive vice-president at Leger Marketing, said Saturday that the polling numbers don't correspond with Peluso's comments.
He said that while polls show that Quebec Premier Jean Charest remains deeply unpopular, the government's plan to raise tuition is not.
Bourque said Quebecers are increasingly comfortable with imposing fees on people who use certain services, such as car registration fees or a flat fee for doctor visits - anything other than an increase in the income tax, which is the highest in the country. The first income tax bracket for Quebecers is 16% for anyone making under $39,060. Ontarians, in contrast, pay 5.05% for income under $39,020.
Bourque said the voting habits of Quebecers are mirroring national trends, which reflect "more of an acrimonious battle between left and right.
"On the issue of student protests," he said, "we're seeing a majority of Quebecers - maybe quietly - but nonetheless positioning themselves on the right."
The latest Leger Internet poll surveyed 521 Quebecers over the age of 18 on April 26. It revealed that 58% of respondents sided with the Charest government on tuition increases, compared with 38% who agreed with striking students. The poll had a margin of error of 4.3%, 19 times out of 20.
Charest has until the end of 2013 to call an election. Bourque said that the provincial government has tried to come across to Quebecers as more flexible than students, yet firm, with regards to its latest tuition offer.
Students will be expected to pay $1,778 over seven years as opposed to $1,625 over five years as originally planned, Charest said Friday in Quebec City. The government will also add another $39 million for bursaries and said 50,000 students will have access to higher loans.
The offer was immediately denounced by student leaders who said it didn't respond to student demands. About 170,000 Quebec students are on strike.
There are scant signs that the student protest movement is weakening. Thousands of students have protested nightly in downtown Montreal, despite frigid spring weather. Protests are schedule for Saturday night as well.
Bourque said it's too early to tell when Charest will call an election or how the student conflict will end.
Peluso was less equivocal.
She said regardless of when an election is called or who wins, students "will not let up.
"The students will not acquiesce," she said. "Nor should they. You know, the media, I'm sorry to say, seems to report that labour unions and feminist organizations and environmental groups are somehow the enemy of the people. But we are the people."