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The Spring of our Discontent

Why Nova Scotia is lagging behind in the so-called “maple spring” of student protests

by James Hutt

Protest in the streets of downtown Montreal (photo courtesy of Montreal Media Co-op).
Protest in the streets of downtown Montreal (photo courtesy of Montreal Media Co-op).
National Student Day of Action, Halifax (photo by Dan Corbett).
National Student Day of Action, Halifax (photo by Dan Corbett).

Some have called the Quebec student movement le printemps érable (the maple spring), Canada’s answer to the Arab spring.

Students are entering the tenth week of a general strike on classes, making it Quebec’s longest student strike. Since early February, the province has been rife with demonstrations against rising tuition fees. Students have held near-daily protests and have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people.

Why has the student movement thrived in Quebec but failed to take off here? Nova Scotia has 11 universities, a community college with 13 campuses, and numerous private colleges. Our tuition fees are among the highest in the country, and our students graduate with an average $31,000 in debt.

In March 2011, Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand announced a $325 tuition increase per year for five years. This gradual incline would raise tuition by 75 per cent, up to $3,793. Even then, it will still be the lowest in the country and pales in comparison to Nova Scotia’s $5,496.

That’s not to diminish the importance of the Quebec student movement, but to ask why students here are not up in arms. The number of students in each province is one factor.

Kaley Kennedy co-authored a report on university funding and fairness for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and has been involved with student movement in Nova Scotia since 2005. “It’s easy to forget that Nova Scotia has a small student population,” she says. “We think of us [as] having many students, but we forget how small we are in comparison. We have 43,000 students; Quebec has more than 10 times that, with much larger institutions.” Concordia University alone has 45,000 students.

She adds, “Universities [in Nova Scotia] are not centrally located: half are in Halifax and half are in isolated communities. It’s harder not only to build a broad movement but to even feel connected.”

The Student Day of Action has mobilized students who oppose the rising costs of post-secondary education. In 2011, over 2,000 students braved a snowstorm and took to the Halifax streets. This year, around 1,000 joined the protest.  Despite a 50 per cent decrease in turnout, Gabe Hoogers is optimistic: “Numbers are encouraging, but they don’t equal success,” says the Nova Scotia national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students and former University of King’s College’s student union president. “The success of the movement here has been in raising awareness and engaging students in other ways, like contacting MLA’s. Often students can’t participate even if they want to because of midterms or jobs.”

Hoogers adds that Quebecers have more of an ability to get involved because they don’t have the jobs that students elsewhere need to pay for school. Also, a large number of the protesters are CEGEP students who don’t have to pay tuition.

Fees are high in Nova Scotia, but tuition has been controlled since 2004, either by a freeze or a limited increase. “It’s harder to get up in arms over [a] 3 per cent increase or a freeze,” says Kennedy. “People are resisting and responding to increasing fees in different ways: now there are more part-time students; on average students are taking longer to finish their degrees; more low income students are dropping out. People are just trying to get by — that’s priority.”

The biggest challenge we face, says Hoogers, is that the price of tuition has been accepted and normalized. “People say that at least it isn’t as expensive here as it is in the States. This is a crisis and we need to get rid of relativity. We can’t accept that some people can’t go to university based on social standing.”

Currently, students from Nova Scotia pay almost $1,000 less than out-of-province students per year. Since 2007, the provincial government has offered various forms of tuition wavers, reductions, and freezes for Nova Scotian students. The distinction was created to make up for the federal funding that pays universities on a provincial per capita basis. Since one third of Nova Scotia's students come from other provinces, with 13,659 out-of-province students in 2010-2011, there is a significant deficit in funding for universities. Hoogers says instead of increasing tuition fees, we should be lobbying to fix the unequal funding formula for provinces.

In a poll conducted last year, 83 per cent of Nova Scotians said they supported lowering tuition fees. The difficulty is in translating that to the political arena.  

“Quebec has a culture of protecting their education systems,” says Hoogers. “There is more of a culture of engagement and I think that’s an offshoot of the sovereign movement; more people are engaged in provincial matters. Now, the 75 per cent increase, the shock of paying double, has sparked it.” 

Quebec has a long tradition of student strikes going back to1968. The last strike, in 2005, mobilized 240,000 students and prevented cuts to bursaries.

According to StopTheHike.ca, the English website for the Quebec student protests, only when the student movement was strongly combative and united in strikes has it achieved victory.  

It’s not enough just to escalate tactics, though. “[The strike] is working well in Quebec, but to think that it could be replicated here doesn’t reflect the reality of where students are at,” says Kennedy. “It is difficult to mobilize towards a general strike and getting people to engage and think about changing the system. It’s a long-term process. One third of the students are not from Nova Scotia. Most are here for only four years and are not here year-round. Quebec has built solidarity. It would take a lot for that to exist here.”

Both Hoogers and Kennedy agree the issue is not necessarily what happens at the provincial level, but what happens on a student union level. There is potential for students to have a stronger united movement here, but the challenge is that leadership is not aligned.  Currently, the Canadian Federation of Students organizes the Student Day of Action, but invites other non-member unions to participate. Some unions are often slow or reluctant to endorse the campaigns. As such, it’s hard to get participation from all campuses.

How can we learn from Quebec and create a massive long-term campaign for affordable education here in Nova Scotia?

For one, it takes time. Students in Quebec began organizing in February 2010, when rumours of the tuition hike broke. For almost two years, groups have been drafting petitions, writing letters, holding teach-ins, lobbying and rallying.

Also, widespread support and organizing on a small scale from the bottom up is key. On the first day back to classes in January, a large coalition of student groups began organizing in Quebec to mobilize students for the strike. They coordinated an information campaign and toured campuses across the province.

Speaking at a panel discussion at the University of King’s College, Tim McSorley, a journalist with The Dominion who has been covering the Quebec protests, notes that the strike gained momentum faster at French schools. “At French institutions, the students made the decision to strike by student associations based on departments, while English students went through student unions. It’s easier to organize through a department than through a union that represents 30,000.”

There are constant events to keep students engaged and increase pressure. Each week student unions vote whether or not to continue the strike, and meet daily for actions and planning. There are regular rallies, marches, court blockades, bank occupations and picket lines on campuses.

Quebec’s striking students stand in solidarity regardless of their campus. The associations of student unions have refused to meet with government unless all four collectives are welcome at the table including the most progressive group, C.L.A.S.S.E.

Where the Quebec movement has truly succeeded is in galvanizing outside support. On March 22, over 250,000 people took to the streets in what was the largest protest in the province’s history.

 “The discourse coming out of the movement is not about dollars and cents but about an equal society,” said McScorley at the panel discussion. “There is a push to make this a broader social movement, shifting the talk from tuition to austerity and privatization.”

That is exactly what needs to happen here. Part of a struggle for free education is connecting to the broader public and building solidarity across issues, says Kennedy. “We need to be prepared to fight back against issues we’re going to inherit, such as a lack of jobs, reduced pensions and an under-resourced health care system. If we’re not there beside other social justice movements we can’t expect them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us when fees are on the rise.”

So how do we use Quebec’s momentum?

Right now, NSCAD students are facing a $900-hike in tuition, fewer classes and programme cuts. Also, 26 staff and faculty members are teetering on the fence of layoffs.

One take away-message is the need to build the movement between and beyond students.

Both Hoogers and Kennedy agree that students across the province need to stand together and protect our institutions. Nova Scotian students should also connect with movements across the country to support each other and act in solidarity — not only to pressure our provincial governments, but to push the federal government, which has a big say in funding.

From there, the student movement needs to win the support and active participation of labour unions, healthcare workers, teachers and the broader public to organize and confront austerity. Only then can we shift a provincial movement into a national one,  and create a true printemps érable.

Check out our friends at the Montreal Media Co-op for on-the-ground coverage of the Quebec student protests.

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Concordia University TV

CUTV, or Concordia University Television, has also been an excellent media resource. 


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