Share this article

print logo

Tuition hike plan stirs protests in Quebec

Quebec's generous social services date back to sweeping reforms in the 1960s, a period of intense nationalism. Yet many Quebecers look back at the "Quiet Revolution" with regret over one unfulfilled promise: free higher education.

That sentiment is fueling Canada's most sustained student demonstrations ever. It has been anything but quiet.

Some 150,000 students in more than a dozen Quebec colleges and universities have been on strike since February to protest the provincial government's plan to raise tuition fees. Street protests in Montreal have ended in clashes with police and mass arrests.

A strict new law designed to stop the demonstrations has only broadened the movement to include separatists and Occupy protesters, and triggered a wider debate over public freedoms. The students are threatening to persevere through the summer, just when the city traditionally awakens from its frigid winter for jazz and comedy festivals that draw in millions of dollars in tourist revenue.

The French-speaking province's average undergraduate tuition -- $2,519 a year -- is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike -- $254 per year over seven years -- is tiny by U.S. standards. But opponents consider the raise an affront to the philosophy of the 1960s reforms that set Quebec apart not only from its U.S. neighbor but from the rest of Canada.

"The whole consensus around education was built around the Quiet Revolution," said Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the Universite de Montreal. "That consensus would tend toward a tuition-free model in the future. That was a promise."

As a result, he said, Quebecers don't compare their tuition rates to those in the United States or English-speaking Canada, but to those in European countries where higher education is free.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who has vowed to shake up the debt-ridden province's finances since he was elected nearly a decade ago, has refused to cave.

More than 2,500 students have been arrested since the demonstrations began more than 100 days ago, including nearly 700 this past Wednesday alone.

The tuition hike is part of a broader effort to shift Quebec's fiscal burden away from taxpayers -- the province has some of the steepest personal income taxes in North America and the highest per-capita debt in Canada -- and onto the shoulders of each person who uses a service.

"Every citizen has to do their part," Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. "This is the 21st century."