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Montreal student protests: Language divide evident in tuition conflict, Dawson students say

Pirates and ninjas protest passes The Senior Times offices on Décarie Blvd. in May 2012. Most protests have been peaceful.

Pirates and ninjas protest passes The Senior Times offices on Décarie Blvd. in May 2012. Most protests have been peaceful.

BY DANIEL SAILOFSKY

Much has changed since the European colonization of the New World began more than 500 years ago, but one thing remains true: the French and the English remain distinct.

As Dawson student Daniel Etcovitch explained, while the conflict of the day may be tuition hikes instead of land ownership, many francophone and anglophone students have displayed contrasting attitudes.

“There seems to be a cultural divide,” Etcovitch said. “French students seem to have a very different attitude towards education than anglophones.

“The French CEGEPs and universities are the ones that went on strike immediately, as a quick reaction to the tuition hikes. The English students took longer to react and seem more conscious of completing their semester and moving on, stomaching the economic reality of the tuition hikes.”

This is because of the division of wealth between the French and English, said Kayla Christos, a member of striking committee Dawson Persists.

“Whether we like it or not, the English community in Quebec tends to be a lot wealthier than the French, which leads (the English) to believe that a hike of tuition fees would only better the universities and make them more exclusive,” Christos said.

Nicholas Di Penna, a Dawson student who has been actively involved in the protests, also attributes this cultural divide to the oppression he says the French population has dealt with in the past.

“We need to remember that francophone students have had to literally fight for everything they have, whether it was the installment of places like Université de Québec a Montréal and Université de Québec à Outaouais or even the installment of the CEGEP system,” Di Penna said.

Université de Québec a Montréal and Université de Quebec à Outaouais were opened in 1969 and 1981, respectively, after many requests from the French-speaking population.

“English students haven’t had to suffer the same oppression as our francophone brothers and sisters have,” Di Penna said.

Cory Schneider believes much of the oppression felt by francophones is exaggerated.

“French students are more defensive and always have been,” said Schneider, also a Dawson student. “They try to see any little move done by the government as an attack on their rights.”

Christos says this is part of protecting the Québécois identity.

“Fighting for what they believe are their rights is basically a reflex that French people are born with,” Christos said. “The loss of their culture is something they are always trying to avoid.”

Protester Mia Pearson says English apathy may be caused by a lack of understanding, as many documents, articles and debates relating to tuition hikes are only available in French.

“Those who aren’t fluent in French may have a difficult time learning about the issue,” Pearson said.

“Most people criticizing the student movement have a very uninformed view of what is going on,” Di Penna said.

However, Schneider and Etcovitch said that it is the protesters who should be more aware of the bigger economic picture before taking to the streets.

“While I see tuition hikes as a negative necessity, they are a necessity in today’s Quebec economy,” Etcovitch said. “We’re running a deficit, already taking money from the other provinces in equalization payments and our universities are suffering because we haven’t adjusted tuition in decades, not even for inflation.”

“You have to look at the fact that even after these hikes, you can still get an education at one of the best schools in the world, McGill, for a few thousand dollars per semester,” Schneider added. “Go to any average school in the United States and it can leave you in debt for the rest of your life.”

We shouldn’t compare ourselves to other places, Di Penna said.

“Most anglophones see that we have the lowest tuition fees and don’t ponder why that is,” Di Penna said. “Free education is possible here. Taxing two per cent from large corporations would be more than enough for a free post-secondary education.”

Etcovitch, Schneider and Sara Baron Goodman, who were interviewed separately, agreed that while they support the democratic right to strike, they have lost respect for the protesters because of the tactics they have used and the destruction the three say some protesters have caused.

Tensions have escalated since demonstrations began in March, as property has been damaged during demonstrations and traffic and public transit have been affected. There have been allegations of police using unnecessary force.

“I can’t sympathize with the violent and disruptive tactics that protesters have resorted to, which are affecting innocent third-party citizens,” Goodman said.

“It’s completely unfair to impede their fellow students’ education by not allowing them to go to class and to finish their semester, because they’re fighting for the right to education.”

Schneider said his anger toward the strikers comes from the same place. “You can’t complain that a government is being oppressive and infringing on your rights and then go and infringe on everyone else’s rights,” he said.

Di Penna blames the Quebec government, saying this isn’t how the protesters want to be heard. “For years we tried lobbying, peaceful protests, letters and requests,” he said. “The government had ignored us and dismissed our legitimacy. Believe me, if the government hadn’t ignored us, people wouldn’t have felt desperate, desperate enough to use civil disobedience as a tactic.”

“The media writes about students being violent, about traffic being blocked, about the ‘terrorism’ committed by the students,” Christos said. “But they leave out police brutality, the corruption of the government, and the way that the students are being silenced by laws and unfair rules.”

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