Education International
Education International

The Québec Maple Spring:

published 9 November 2012 updated 5 February 2016
written by:

The term, ‘Maple spring’ refers to the Canadian practice – after a harsh winter - of collecting maple sap in Springtime to make delicious syrup. Like the sap that flows in the veins of maple trees, thousands of students invaded the major arteries of our cities to make their voices heard, loud and clear! Understanding the events that unfolded this past Spring calls for a brief history of university funding.

1960s: Québec democratises post-secondary education

In Canada, education falls under provincial jurisdiction. The province of Québec is therefore responsible for its education system from kindergarten through to university. However, the federal government also contributes to funding for post-secondary education through federal transfer payments.

Until the early 1960s, Québec had the lowest university graduation rate of all the provinces of Canada. It was then that a real revolution, called the quiet revolution, took place, particularly in education. The societal vision that emerged during this decade was profoundly social democratic and focused on income tax as the government's main source of revenue rather than users being charged fees for services.

The establishment of the Ministère de l’Éducation and the public sector's administration of education was the main factor in democratising education and raising graduation rates. Québec’s innovative accomplishment was to create a post-secondary education network distinct from universities and unique in the world.

The CEGEPs—collèges d'enseignement général et professionnel, or general and vocational colleges—offer both technical and pre-university programmes to prepare students for university study.

The Ministère de L’Education also created the Université du Québec network. This is an affiliation of public universities across the province that contribute to the democratisation of the network, particularly outside the major urban centres. These years also saw a substantial increase in the funding of universities.

New government

Finally, on 4 September, the population of Québec chose to elect a new government that committed to repealing the tuition fee hike and Bill 78 and to launching a broad consultation process on the future of universities and their financing.

The students are counting on the upcoming consultation to show that it is possible to adequately fund post-secondary education in other ways than by imposing tuition fees, and that the principle of free access of the 1960s is still relevant.

The months-long campaign led by thousands of students was not in vain. Apart from its demands, the student spring differs from the movements that preceded it, by virtue of its scope and very strong determination. As a result, thousands of youths have developed their political consciousness and become aware of their strength. They have become politicised citizens who plan to continue to fight for a more just society.

Election called

These demonstrations continued until early summer. The summer vacation heralded a period of calm. In early August, just before the forced return to classes, as stipulated by Bill 78, the Premier dissolved government and called an election. The strategy was clear: the government was banking on a degree of dissatisfaction among the public to get re-elected.

For months, the government repeatedly described the students as violent, disrespectful, spoiled children, terrorists, or hooligans, and so forth. It hoped to rally what it called the "silent majority" to its cause—in other words, those who would not openly disavow protesting the hike. Students refusing to play the government's game decided, somewhat reluctantly, to end the strike. Many were counting on the elections.

Tuition fees

Although the declaration of principles stated that the real democratisation of education would presuppose financial assistance measures as well as free access, tuition fees continued to exist. The main argument for maintaining tuition fees was the constant growth in education spending. The government claimed that it could not invest in all sectors at same time.

Nevertheless, it was understood that tuition fees would be abolished as soon as it became possible to do so. That goal would remain a mere wish, because in the end, they were never abolished. Yet, during a whole decade from 1965 to 1974, tuition fees would hardly increase.

While Québec set about developing the university network, it enacted the Student Loans and Scholarships Act to extend financial assistance to the greatest possible number of students and to eliminate economic and social inequalities. Briefly, accessibility, or affordability, refers to both free access and financial assistance. During the early years of the programme, funds allocated to assistance were significantly increased.

This was the result of amendments made to the eligibility criteria and to the parameters for calculating the amounts of assistance. The proportion of recipients increased, particularly in the CEGEPs and at graduate levels in the universities. The graduation rate also rose.

It seems clear that the development of CEGEPs and universities in Québec, more or less frozen tuition fees, and financial assistance greatly contributed to democratising post-secondary education and substantially boosted graduation rates. In 10 years, from 1965-1975, the university population tripled, without counting the tens of thousands of students who attended CEGEPs.

Challenge to the public financing of universities

At the end of the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the government was calling into question the scope of public financing of universities.

According to the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec, in a brief drafted in 1986 [1], from 1978-1979 to 1986-1987, the Québec government had imposed budget cuts of over $250 million. Decreased public financing led to underfunding of universities and justified, in the eyes of the government, the coming tuition fee hikes.

This lack of commitment on the part of government would become more pronounced during the 1990s. At the same time, private financing would expand in the university sector. Large corporations financed the establishment of university chairs and research centres. Increasingly, the independence of research was called into question.

In sum, the very role of the social-democratic state was called into question. A more neo-liberal vision advocated the curtailing of government, reduction of taxes and the introduction of user fees as sources of revenue.

Education no longer appeared to be a core government priority. Although we were experiencing the globalisation of the economy, in an ever more competitive world, it should not be forgotten that the key principle in combatting poverty remained and remains education, as the OECD [2] recently recalled.

Free access: a goal in sight

Since 1958, the student movement has repeatedly called for the abolition or freezing of tuition fees. Through a diverse range of struggles and mobilisation campaigns, it evoked the ultimate goal of free access in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1990, 1996, 2005 and 2012. Over the course of this period, the student movement also made the improvement of the loans and bursaries programme an issue, particularly in 2005.

In 1990, following several years of a near freeze on tuition fees, the government upped those fees from $500 to $1600 within four years. Thousands of students protested in the streets, but the government remained inflexible.

In 1996, some 100,000 students launched a strike in October when the government proposed a tuition fee hike of about 30 per cent. The government soon backtracked on its decision and even ordered a fee freeze.

In 2005, however, it wanted to reduce the budget for financial assistance by $103 million. By mid-March, more than 200,000 students were on strike. A few weeks later, the government backed down again. Then, in 2007, the government announced a tuition fee hike of $500 over five years.

An unprecedented movement

During this time, the government increasingly diluted its commitments to financing. The universities were crying that the wolf was at the door. Whilst they were clearly underfunded, they also admitted to poor administration of public funds. On the pretext of providing adequate funding of the universities, in 2011, the government announced that it would increase tuition fees in September 2012 by $325 per year over five years.

The total increase (75 per cent) amounts to $1625, raising the cost for students to $3793 by 2017. Although tuition fees in Québec are still among the lowest in Canada, this new increase not only runs counter to our social democratic vision, it also jeopardises the democratisation and accessibility of post-secondary education. Our university graduation rate, particularly at the master's level, is still low compared with the rest of Canada.

Support for government

University rectors have supported the government unreservedly. In their view, the new knowledge economy requires significant reinvestment to compete with other universities around the world.

Rectors of Québec universities, like the Québec government, have magically forgotten to heed what university studies tell us about the accessibility of post-secondary education and success at that level. In fact, the rectors and the government share the idea that a radical increase in tuition fees will not impact the affordability of post-secondary education. However, the research tells us the contrary.

A review of the literature conducted by the Council of Education Ministers of Canada states: “All of the serious studies show that tuition fee increases impact access to education.” [3] Other studies [4] show beyond a shadow of a doubt that a significant increase of tuition fees modifies the composition of the student population by sharply reducing the number of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic communities.

Student protests

In the face of the government's intransigence, the students mobilised and, in August 2011, they officially launched their campaign opposing the increase. By February 2012, the first student associations voted in favour of an unlimited general strike. More and more students took to the streets. At the height of mobilisation, more than 200,000 students boycotted classes. The emblem of the mobilisation is the red square with a safety pin. It symbolises student debt.

The government called on CEGEP and university administrators to take all possible measures to ensure classes would take place. Thus, the government contravened the legitimate, democratic decisions adopted by a majority of students who attended general assemblies.

The government’s stance showed its inability to settle the conflict.

By encouraging legal action instead of opening the doors to real negotiations, the government sank into a deadlock for which society may have to pay a price. That is when the conflict became subject to legal action.

Indeed, students who opposed the strike succeeded in securing some injunctions and forced some institutions to open their doors. Incidents and confrontations took place between legitimately striking students and police forces that sometimes did not hesitate to use brutal, disproportionate force.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of demonstrations took place without violence or damage. For weeks, the government stubbornly refused to meet with the students. It unilaterally announced measures that aimed to improve financial assistance, but remained inflexible about the tuition fee hikes.

Yet the issue was not financial assistance, but the fee increase. The government went as far as sabotaging the negotiations it had agreed to after months of struggle.

On 22 March, over 200,000 students and sympathisers participated in a peaceful demonstration drawing attention to a student movement that continued to expand. The movement had not run out of steam, with over 150,000 students remaining on strike despite repressive measures.

The demonstrations were colourful, and students showed extraordinary imagination. It was nearly five months since the government had been sidelining the issue without taking time to conduct serious negotiations with the students.

Bill 78

On 17 May, the government presented Bill 78, which ordered the closing of institutions, where students were still on strike, until August.

This Bill considerably limited the right to demonstrate. It also stipulated that the Education Minister could revoke the rights of student associations to collect dues, to access colleges, and so forth. This repressive law stipulates heavy penalties for students, individuals, student associations and unions that contravene the law.

The public's reaction was immediate. Large numbers of people condemned the law and took to the streets. Gatherings expressing solidarity were also held elsewhere in Canada and even in Paris, New York, and other places. Unions from outside the province promised to continue providing financial support for the cause.

On 22 May, on the occasion of the 100th day of the student strike, yet again over 200,000 people took part in a pluralist demonstration in Montréal; many defied Bill 78 by straying from the itinerary submitted to police.

The pots and pans parades, inspired by Chile, spread all over the province, every evening attracting larger and increasingly diverse crowds, who took to the streets softly playing on their pots and pans. The opposition to the tuition fee hikes became a fight to promote democracy and an economy that would serve community and not the other way round.