Montreal university takes hard line against class disruptions as student strikes return"

April 2015

MONTREAL —Young protesters skirmish with police in riot gear in downtown Montreal. Students trying to attend lectures are turned back by striking classmates calling them scabs.

At first glance, the early days of Quebec’s “Printemps 2015” action launched this week look a lot like the student protests that gripped the province in the spring of 2012.

But there are signs of a shift in attitudes that will make it harder for the students to rekindle the spirit of three years ago, when opposition politicians and ordinary folk joined in their pot-banging protests against higher tuition.

The administration at the Université du Québec à Montréal, which in 2012 stood by as roaming mobs broke up classes, has signaled a significant change in approach.

On Friday, the eve of the latest student mobilization, the university advised nine students that they face either one-year suspensions or, in more serious cases, outright expulsion as a result of actions committed during protests on campus over the past two years.

The administration says it cannot comment on the cases for privacy reasons, but student groups challenging the disciplinary action posted some details on Facebook. They said the students, who will face disciplinary hearings in the coming weeks, are accused of contravening a university bylaw on the protection of people and property in connection with six different incidents.

The incidents include three days last year when classes were disrupted to enforce a student strike and a recruiting session last January when a federal civil servant was prevented from talking about job opportunities for graduates with the Department of Natural Resources.

Among those facing possible expulsion is Justine Boulanger, a student representative on the university’s board of directors and executive committee. Her supporters said she is accused of “blocking a corridor” and raising her voice, among other things. They called the actions an assault on freedom of expression and academic freedom.

Ms. Boulanger told Le Devoir that the threat of expulsion is unprecedented. “It’s the first time the university has issued notice of disciplinary action for political activities,” she said.

It appears to be a sign that UQAM has taken to heart a recent warning from faculty members. In a letter published last month, 14 political science professors wrote that the university faces a serious crisis. “For a few years now, our university has fallen prey to the actions of a minority: courses stopped by self-proclaimed, sometimes masked, commandos, intimidations, harassment, shoving, acts of vandalism and ransacking, disruptions of meetings and conferences, repeated strikes,” they wrote.

In Quebec City, Education Minister François Blais had a sobering message of his own for the striking students. He warned that unlike in 2012, the government is not going to bend over backwards to make sure students can make up classes, and they could lose their semester. “I don’t see how I can take money from primary or high schools to fund people who have walked out of university,” he said.

The provincial student group ASSÉ says associations representing nearly 50,000 on 10 university and college campuses have declared a strike of at least two weeks to protest a range of issues, including provincial government budget cuts and fossil-fuel projects.

Mr. Blais challenged the students’ use of the term

strike. “There cannot be a right to strike, a right that prevents some students from studying,” he told the legislature. He said university and college administrators “have an obligation to permit access to their classrooms. They have the means and they have the resources, sometimes even the possibility of penalties.”

It is now left to the universities to enforce these marching orders. Université Laval in Quebec City, for one, has room for improvement. On Monday the administration did nothing to prevent protesting students from disrupting classes. In one incident captured on video, a university security guard even helped enforce the strike, telling a student trying to enter a barricaded class that he had to abide by his faculty association’s strike vote.

In a statement Tuesday, the university said “students choosing not to attend their classes are invited to respect the choices of those who prefer to attend.” It added that all demonstrations have to be respectful and in accordance with university regulations.