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Quebec Student Strike Gets Lift From Occupy

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A night protest May 26 in Montreal, where students and activists are taking to the streets to protest tuition hikes.
A night protest May 26 in Montreal, where students and activists are taking to the streets to protest tuition hikes.

WASHINGTON -- As Quebec's "student spring" continues to blossom, inspired Occupy activists have organized their own demonstrations of support across the United States, with many hoping to draw attention to mounting student debt in both countries.

University students in Quebec remain on strike to protest a 60 percent hike in tuition fees over the next five years, and the streets of Montreal are now filled nightly by the sounds of thousands banging on pots and pans. As negotiations between the three main student federations and the Quebec regional government remain at an impasse, American activists are demonstrating in solidarity with the activists in Quebec, attracting hundreds in U.S. cities from Oakland, Calif., to Washington, D.C. Many have taken after the Canadian protesters' clanging of the "casseroles" by bringing their own pots and pans to the actions.

"I think people fighting the fight generally understand that we usually get picked apart, and when we're together, there are more of us than them," said Sam Jewler, an activist affiliated with Occupy DC, which held a small protest on behalf of protesters in Quebec on June 1. "There's something inherently valuable about solidarity. I think that if people -- even a tenth of the people going out into the streets in Canada -- know that we went out to the streets in D.C., I hope it gives them encouragement to keep going out."

Occupy Wall Street in New York was the first to organize a protest in support of the growing movement in Quebec on May 22. The Occupy movements in Boston, Austin, Oakland, Denver and Washington, D.C. followed during the past week with their own protests, and activists affiliated with Occupy Chicago are planning a demonstration on Wednesday.

"It's really inspirational to see recognition of the movement outside of Quebec," said Tim McSorley, an activist and editor with the independent Montreal Media Co-op. "To see [that] it's getting attention not only here, but internationally, does a lot to keep the momentum going as the movement moves past its 110th day."

Many of the U.S. actions have been limited in scope. For instance, only about 25 people showed up in Washington on June 1 after a tornado warning had been issued for the city, while a total of roughly 200 took to the streets of Manhattan on separate occasions over the last couple of weeks. Nonetheless, the demonstrations are evidence that many Occupy activists see the issues facing Canadian and American students as intertwined.

One of the Quebec student movement's main slogans -- "carrément dans le rouge," or "squarely in the red (in debt)," symbolized by the red squares worn by demonstrators -- has resonated with some American college students and recent graduates.

"A student going into college today is essentially being put into debt slavery," said Dan Massoglia, a law student and member of the press committee for Occupy Chicago. "The tuition in Quebec is much lower than tuition is in the U.S., but it will virtually bankrupt [students] by the time they're out of college."

While the average student tuition in Quebec is roughly $2,500, average undergraduate student debt in the province is $13,000. And though Canada's total national student debt stands at a hefty $20 billion, it pales in comparison to the more than $1 trillion weighing down current and former students in the U.S. That American mountain of debt is partly what concerns students in Quebec, who worry the proposed tuition hikes may move them closer to the U.S. system of high fees and heavy borrowing.

Meanwhile, the historically low tuition enjoyed by Canadian students seems to have inspired American activists. In New York, for instance, some of the main organizers of the solidarity actions are graduate students at the City University of New York, where students face a tuition hike of $1,500 over the next five years. And in Chicago, the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education has planned its own demonstration for Wednesday; the local activist group was previously involved in a sit-in at DePaul University in March in an effort to block tuition hikes.

"The lesson I've learned from it is, that if you want tuition prices like in Quebec, you've got to act like a student in Quebec," Massoglia, the law student, said.

But the student uprising just north of the border also offers a moment of reflection for the U.S. Occupy movement, as it struggles to maintain relevance with waning participation and evaporating media coverage.

Indeed, the Quebec demonstrations seem to have taken on just the kind of energy that once characterized the Occupy Wall Street protests but has since largely disappeared. The Canadian students continue to defy police amidst a government crackdown facilitated by the controversial Bill 78, which criminalizes all protests of more than 50 people that do not give the police at least eight hours' notice. Occupy, on the other hand, has lost much of its momentum since most all of its public encampments across the U.S. were evicted in November and December of last year.

"It's sobering, just the fact that it didn't take much for them to get hundreds of thousands out into the streets, which they seem to do once a month. That just hasn't happened in this country in a long time," Jewler, the Occupy DC-affiliated activist, said. "So to me it's just a real wake-up call -- that in a pretty similar country right next door, the general awareness of the population is at a totally different place. I guess it makes me [wonder], what has to be done? How do we get to where they're at?"

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article quoted the law student and member of the press committee for Occupy Chicago as Sam Massoglia. His name is Dan.

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