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Paul Jay talks to Jérémie Bédard-Wien, Student Organizer, CLASSE

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you today from Baltimore.

In Quebec, the student struggle continues. Negotiations with the Quebec government have broken down, and the majority of the striking students say they are going to continue their strike until there’s a significant compromise or victory on the issue of tuition hikes. One of the student organizations, however, has suggested that they want to reopen negotiations, even as popular support for the strike seems to be increasing as people oppose what people call draconian Bill 78 that limits the right to the protest movement.

Now joining us from Montreal to talk about all of this is Jérémie Bédard. Jérémie is a organizer and supporter of one of the student organizations, called CLASSE. Thanks for joining us, Jérémie.


JAY: So, first of all, let’s start with the issue of Bill 78 and the growing protest movement against the bill, because it’s interesting: there’s people, of course, that support the student issue on tuitions that are opposed to the bill, but it seems that people that even don’t agree with students on tuitions have joined in terms of the democratic principle of the right to protest.

BÉDARD-WIEN: That’s right. We’ve seen an outpour of support for our movement against Bill 78. This has mostly taken shape of these huge “casserole demos”, we call them, with families, people of all ages, of all backgrounds, tapping, banging on casseroles every night. It’s been happening since the big protest on May 22, and it seems to be growing even more. And on top of that, we’ve seen official support from members of the civil society, including members of the barreau, lawyers, which have officially called this bill unconstitutional and have helped us in our efforts to contest it.

JAY: So what is it about Bill 78 that’s alleged to be unconstitutional?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, the Constitution of Canada, through the Charter of Civil Rights and Liberties, guarantees the right to protest and to assemble freely. And Bill 78 severely restricts that right. Organizers must now submit the trajectory, the route of demonstrations eight hours in advance, which is a move to direct the—quell protest, especially spontaneous protests that we’ve seen happening every night since a month and a half ago.

JAY: But what are some of the other provisions in Bill 78 that are essentially more egregious?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Bill 78 also severely restricts the right to assemble in front of schools. And as you perhaps know, student strikes in Quebec are enforced in that way, by doing picket lines in front of schools. Bill 78 imposes fines of up $125,000 for organizations who call for picket lines, and of course makes picket lines illegal. And every protester that participates in a picket line will be charged with other fines as well. This is a direct move to destroy students organizations, destroy all kinds of associations who called for picket lines in front of schools.

JAY: And what’s been happening since the legislation was passed? For example, your organization, CLASSE, have you been respecting the law? Or are the picket lines up anyway? And if they are up, has the law been enforced?

BÉDARD-WIEN: One interesting provision of Bill 78 is that it also moves the semester. This semester, the winter semester, has been officially suspended and will restart in August, so for now there are no picket lines in front of schools, because classes aren’t given, strike or not, in institutions that have been touched by the strikes.

JAY: And how many arrests have their been now? And what is the level of police repression since the bill was passed?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Oh, it’s been the same. We’ve seen about 1,000 arrests since the bill was passed, including up to 700 on the night of May 23, one day after the big protest that took Montreal by storm. This is done through kettling techniques, as we’ve seen in the U.K. in student protests

JAY: And Toronto at the G-20.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Indeed, yes. So protesters are kettled and they’re all arrested through these days of mass arrest and charged with fines that go up to $1,000 per protester.

JAY: And are they being fined under Bill 78?

BÉDARD-WIEN: So far there haven’t been fines under Bill 78. Bill 78 isn’t very well enforced, because it’s been broken consistently every day since two weeks. And CLASSE has offically announced that they would support any group calling for breaking Bill 78.

JAY: And what are students being charged with? Is it that they’re simply declaring unlawful assemblies and then charging people?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Every demonstration that does not respect Bill 78 is automatically called illegal.

JAY: They declare it an unlawful assembly, even though they don’t have to use Bill 78 to do it, there’s already existing legislation to declare something unlawful. That’s what—if they say there’s likely to be harm to somebody, which is just simply up to them to decide.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, under Bill 78 they actually have the right to declare the demonstration unlawful from the get-go if the route hasn’t been given to police eight hours in advance.

JAY: So they’ve been given using Bill 78 to declare these unlawful—these protests unlawful.

BÉDARD-WIEN: That’s [incompr.] though no one has been charged these fines to organizations who have called for breaking Bill 78.

JAY: I see. So they haven’t charged the organization, but they’ve arrested over 1,000 people, and those thousand people are mostly—have been charged with being part of an illegal assembly.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Unlawful assembly. Right.

JAY: Unlawful assembly.


JAY: And what has been the level in terms of violence? In, you know, Toronto G-20, the police seem to be with unmitigated use of violent force, batons and kicking people and such. Are you seeing that as well?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Absolutely, and we’ve been seeing that since the very beginning of the strike, consistently. The level of police repression is simply insane. Several people have lost their eyes, lost sight in one eye, and every day, every night, people are hassled by batons, pepper-sprayed, tased. They use irritant gases, tear gas, to dispel demonstrations.

JAY: And how did—the man that lost his eye, how did he lose it? Are they using rubber bullets there?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Yes. Well, it hasn’t been confirmed in his case, but we do think it’s—he was shot by a plastic bullet. They used plastic bullets here in Victoriaville on 4 May. And he isn’t going to recover his sight.

JAY: So in terms of the people’s morale and the spirit and the continuation of protests, where is that?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, considering the level of police repression, it’s amazing how much people are ready to go down in the streets every day, every night, and as they have been doing since the beginning of the strike. It hasn’t succeeded in restoring social peace. The entire argument behind Bill 78 was that it was a measure to restore social peace. And now it seems social peace, it’s definitely broken, as well as confidence in police and in government here in Quebec.

JAY: Now the negotiations have broken off. The Quebec government, apparently, according to news reports, walked away from the table, saying the students wouldn’t compromise. Why did the talks break down?

BÉDARD-WIEN: The talks lasted for three days, and the last government offer was a hike of $1,624 over seven years. Now, you may remember that the original hike was $1,625 over five years. As you can imagine, this is profoundly insulting, and it is normal that student associations around the table rejected this offer. And in turn, this led to the minister calling for an end of negotiations for now.

JAY: And news reports on Friday were that one of the three major student organizations had—a new leader has been elected. The outgoing leader said that he wanted some more compromise. And the incoming leader, it’s been reported, at least, that she says she wants to reopen the negotiations and is more willing, the news reports suggest, to compromise than perhaps students had before her. What are the politics of the different student organizations? And what do you make of this, what at least the press is saying, a sort of break in the ranks of the student organizations?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, that’s a rather complicated subject. Very quickly, there are four student unions around the table [incompr.] CLASSE, which I’m part of, Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante; the federations, as we call them, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec and Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, one of them represents college students and the other university students; as well as the Table de concertation étudiante du Québec, which is a fourth group that represents unions that have left the Fédération étudiante universitaire, the FEUQ, after the 2005 strike. Now, CLASSE—amongst these groups, CLASSE represents about 50 percent of total strikers, and the FEUQ represents about 20, 25 percent of strikers. FECQ, however (and FECQ is the group you’re talking about; FECQ is the federation representing college students), have indeed called for a compromise and have told the government and media that they were ready to compromise on the hike itself. Now, it is important to remember, however, that FECQ represents a very small number of student unions, about four student unions.

JAY: But in terms of overall representation of Quebec students, what kind of percentages do they represent?

BÉDARD-WIEN: They represent about 80,000 students out of a total of 400,000.

JAY: And overall, how many students does CLASSE represent?

BÉDARD-WIEN: They represent about 100,000 students.

JAY: And most of them—and half of those on strike are connected to CLASSE.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Indeed. [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. Alright. So go ahead. So what does this mean, then?

BÉDARD-WIEN: The important thing to understand is that CLASSE is a coalition around the idea of a strike; therefore the vast majority of its members are on strike. FECQ, however, only has about four of its members on strike currently. And as the negotiations are a product of the strike, we feel at CLASSE that FECQ cannot represent the strike movement, and by doing those declarations it harms the fragile unity between those groups that has risen over the last few weeks.

JAY: Well, it sounds like even if there was some kind of a deal with FECQ and the government that CLASSE wasn’t part of, it wouldn’t mean that much given they don’t represent that many strikers. I suppose it would be mostly a propaganda victory for the government.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Presumably, yes, they would use the FECQ as an example of students who are ready to compromise, ready to bargain. And this was a successful strategy in previous strikes. However, I don’t think this time it will work, given CLASSE’s great representation and FEUQ the university federation’s relative solidarity with CLASSE as opposed to FECQ. I don’t think the strategy will work. I don’t think the Quebec public will accept those calls for bargaining. And demonstrations will continue, disruptions will continue.

JAY: Now, in terms of the demands of CLASSE and the students that are part of this alliance, I guess there’s short-term and long-term. The, you know, short-term is that you want a tuition freeze and you want to negotiate how to find the funds to make up what the government’s looking for in other ways in the school system. And then you have a longer-term objective of the issue of getting towards a tuition-free education, the idea that all education’s a right, including university education. The strike is for the short term? Or is the long-term demand also part of the strike?

BÉDARD-WIEN: The mandate we have given to our negotiation committee is to get a tuition freeze, and that’s what we’re working towards in the short term throughout the strike. However, CLASSE functions in a very democratic way, and if the union’s members of CLASSE would like us to push for free education instead, then it is up to them, up to Quebec students, to demand for more, to demand free education. And this will be done in general assemblies if they wish to do so.

JAY: And just finally, there’s been a solidarity protest with the Quebec students in New York, I believe there’s been one or two in Europe, there’s been a few in Canada, and it’s expected there’s going to be many more across Canada. What does this mean to the students on strike, the impact it’s having globally, really?

BÉDARD-WIEN: Well, we’re just overjoyed, obviously, by this outpour of support coming from all kinds of countries, as you said, Europe, the United States, the rest of Canada. Concretely, it means that international press is looking at us more intensely, and other social movements in the rest of the world are increasingly being interested by this movement, and learning from it as well. And this could mean, in the next few months or years in the rest of Canada, student strikes in other provinces. It also means that unions and community organizations around the world are giving material support to CLASSE and to other organizations, not only letters, but also funds to help us with our legal campaign to contest Bill 78. We expect more solidarity coming from all kind of organizations and countries. And I would like to use this use [incompr.] to officially call for unions and associations of all kinds to support us in our struggle for democracy and free education, free from corporations and free from tuition fees.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Jérémie.

BÉDARD-WIEN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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