The Quebec student protests against tuition fee hikes landed on Premier Jean Charest’s doorstep Wednesday night.
About 150 chanting, stomping students staged a brief yet noisy rally outside Charest’s upscale Westmount home under the watchful eye of police and the curious gaze of several neighbours.
Charest’s house was dark. No one was home.
This didn’t stop the students, who ranted, sang and waved sparklers and banners in the chill night air for about 20 minutes.
Members of Montreal’s riot squad were present but didn’t don anything more protective than baseball caps.
Student Louis-Philippe Savoie called the tuition fee hikes «unacceptable» and said Charest is ignoring the hardship that they will bring to students.
«He’s completely closed, he’s incredibly arrogant,» the University de Montreal graduate student said of the premier in an interview. «It’s been demonstrated that his hike makes no sense. It’s going to create more debt for the next generation. They’re going to have to work more during their studies, they’re going to have to study longer because of that. It’s just bad policy.»
Gerald Batist, a physician who lives across the street from Charest was bemused by the student protest.
«I think it’s very nice to see student activism,» he said. «There’s just two problems — one, they’re in front of the wrong house and secondly, after years of waiting for students to wake up and be involved in the world, this is not the No. 1 issue I would have wanted to have them in the streets about. I’m a bit disappointed.»
Batist noted most of the students were gathered in front of a lighted house which shared the building with Charest’s. Red police tape and a line of cops stretched the length of the property.
«There are major things going on in the world that I would have liked to see students awaken to. I see these kids, well-dressed, all of them with cellphones and stuff and I don’t think the finances are the most pressing thing in their lives.»
This might have been the most deeply personal protest against the Charest government in recent days, if not the most rowdy. The fight over tuition hikes has seen several scuffles with police and government buildings blocked in recent days.
There are hints of an increasingly aggressive fight.
Some groups have warned in a news release that protests Thursday could include a «diversity of tactics,» possibly including more «radical» actions from some members. Participants are being encouraged to wear masks, like those worn in folkloric chivarees.
Protesters have already been blocking government buildings in recent days and engaged in several scuffles with police. Organizers argue that, in the face of so much pressure, the Charest government will have no choice but to back down.
But the government appears to be digging in its heels.
Not only has it toughened its rhetoric against the protesters, it’s warning students that their current school semester might be cancelled if they don’t get back to their studies. An estimated 130,000 students have walked out on their classes.
The students oppose the Charest government’s move to nearly double tuition fees over five years — to $3,800 per year.
The government says that’s a small price to pay for better schools, and argues that the new amount will still leave Quebecers with among the lowest tuition rates in Canada.
However, the students say the higher amount will discourage some people from continuing their studies. Some also view it as a matter of principle, describing education as a right, and a vocal contingent of protesters even argue that tuition should be free as it is in some parts of Europe.
Tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada for in-province students. However, students arriving from other Canadian provinces are charged higher rates.