– Marilla Steuter-Martin and Jacques Gallant, The Concordian

MONTREAL (CUP) — Over 200,000 people took to the streets of Montreal on March 22 to protest tuition increases, many of whom were students from universities across Quebec.

The Concordia University delegation, which led the way for the better part of the three-hour event, congregated near the Hall building around 12 p.m. Over 500 students then began to proceed down Ste-Catherine Street lead by Concordia Student Union vice-president external Chad Walcott and president Lex Gill.

The march began officially at Canada Place, where buses full of students from outside the city started arriving earlier in the day. The approximate length of the route was five kilometres, with protesters marching down both Sherbrooke and Ste-Catherine Streets to their ultimate destination, Jacques-Cartier Place in the Old Port.

Protesters held signs denouncing Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government, the leadership of Education Minister Line Beauchamp, and the idea that accessible education is not a priority.

The historic nature of the march had some people in the Twittersphere saying that a “Printemps erable,” or Maple Spring — clearly a play on Arab Spring — had arrived in Quebec.

Despite the massive turnout, the protest was extremely peaceful and the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) reported no major incidents during or after the march. Police presence was very light in comparison with demonstrations that took place over the past few weeks.

“This sends an incredibly strong message to the government,” said Gill of the protest. “If anything else, the Liberal party has lost 200,000 voters for life.”

She went on to say that the march was the “largest mass demonstration over a public issue … in years. It’s twice what they had in 2005,” she said of the last major student strike in Quebec.

The participation far exceeded the predictions made earlier in the day, proving that there is more public support for the student movement than estimated. Despite the success of the demonstration, Gill explained that protesters still have much work to do.

“The fight is not over,” she said. “There will be massive actions in the coming weeks until the government backs down.”

Walcott agreed with her saying that “it’s not a done deal,” and student groups need to “keep the pressure on.” He added that the organizers’ willingness to communicate with the SPVM really made a significant difference in the tone of the day’s activities.

“I think the fact that we worked with the police really ensured that everyone remained safe,” he said.

Participants in the March 22 demonstration represented every age demographic, from toddlers with their parents to cheering grandparents. Grade 10 student Terra Leger-Goodes of Paul-Gerin-Lajoie School in Outremont was at the march with a large group of students from her class.

“We heard that the cost of going to university is going up by a large amount, so we’re here to protest that. Society can only advance if people can go to school and gain knowledge,” she said, mentioning that by the time she enters university four to five years from now, the government’s tuition hikes will have almost reached their maximum. Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s Liberals are planning to increase tuition by $325 a year between 2012 and 2017.

For grandmother Danielle Genereux, accessible education is an issue that affects everyone in Quebec, and should be at the top of the government’s priority list.

“Major investments in education should be an absolute priority. There should be no further discussion on that,” said Genereux, a grandmother of seven. “[The government] says opposition against tuition increases is not representative of the whole population. But today, they will see that it is representative.”

At the end of the march, Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante (CLASSE) spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told students to return to their schools and to keep the student movement going. By 6 p.m., most of the protesters had dispersed, crowding into the nearest metro stations.

CLASSE, one of the main organizers of the day’s march, is planning a series of protests next week in an effort to cause an “economic disturbance” in the city, which they say will only end when the government retracts its decision to up tuition. The first “manif-action” is set to take place Monday, March 26 at 11 a.m. at Henri-Julien Park.

Concordia’s next general assembly where students will vote whether or not to remain on strike is scheduled for Monday, March 26 at 2 p.m. on the Concordia University campus. The university has already made clear that as of Monday, students who continue to block access to classrooms or buildings will face charges.

Opposition parties join students

Earlier in the morning, a press conference was held at Palais des Congres by the Federation etudiante universitaire du Quebec and the Federation etudiante collegiale du Quebec, and included representatives from groups such as the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec and the Confederation des syndicats nationaux, as well as opposition political parties, the Parti Quebecois (PQ), Quebec Solidaire (QS) and Option Nationale.

At the conference, PQ leader Pauline Marois reiterated that a PQ-elected government would not proceed with the tuition hikes, and would call for a provincial summit on post-secondary education. “The Charest government must stop considering students as enemies of the state,” she said.

QS spokesperson Francoise David, for her part, emphasized that the government could increase taxes on larger corporations in order to bring in more revenue, rather than asking for more money from students.

After the conference, PQ post-secondary education critic Marie Malavoy spoke to The Concordianabout the issue of mismanagement of public funds in Quebec universities that has often been brought up in the debate on tuition increases. Referring to Education Minister Line Beauchamp’s recent decision to impose a $2 million fine on Concordia for handing out severance packages totalling $3.1 million, Malavoy said, “there is no reason to have targeted one university. We must look at the salaries, the benefits and the severance packages at all universities. It’s foolish to think it’s just Concordia.”

Malavoy added that an idea has been floating among PQ ranks to institute a “commission” to look more closely at the management of public funds in Quebec universities.

Reaction from the government to the March 22 protest became more severe as the days passed. On the morning of March 22, Charest told reporters at the National Assembly in Quebec City that his government would “never stop listening to students.”

By March 23, his education minister was telling the Canadian Press that students needed to get back to class, or else they would face consequences. Line Beauchamp reiterated that the government would not back down from its decision, and said that should students continue to boycott classes, they risk having their semesters extended or classes scheduled at night. Concordia already indicated in a previous statement that it has no intention of prolonging the winter term.