Education minister lends full support to UQAM rector during difficult protests
The day after a pair of extraordinarily disruptive protests at UQAM a small group of students and teachers called on the rector of the university to resign.
Meanwhile the Education Minister said protesters had no right to prevent others from getting an education.
"It seems to me that masked protesters do not have the right to call themselves students," said Francois Blais.
Michel Lacroix, a literary studies professor, said Rector Robert Proulx was on an "authoritarian power trip that's dangerous."
Two professors, two lecturers, and two students said the school's administration was guilty of intimidation and political repression in attempting to stop protests that have been disrupting classes.
The Education Minister said that on the contrary, the rector was doing his best in a difficult situation.
"I support the rector. I believe he needs his community to support him," said Francois Blais.
Fannie Poirier, a UQAM student, said the administration was treating students like children.
"We are intelligent, intellectual people. We are completely able to have this dialogue but we are being stopped from doing it. We're being completely violated in our basic political rights so it leads to escalation and of course what we saw yesterday was an example of that," said Poirier.
Blais countered that protesters were violating the rights of the majority of students who wanted an education.
Poirier was a spokesperson for the student group ASSE until this past weekend, when she and the rest of the executive quit. They were facing several pressure from the members of the organization who were outraged that ASSE leaders were considering putting a halt to student protests until the autumn, when they hoped to be joined by unionized workers.
'Throwing oil on the fire'
UQAM has called police on several occasions in the past few weeks for assistance in removing protesters from classes, hallways, and the entrances to buildings.
Last week the school went to court to obtain an injunction to prevent protesters from blocking entrances after a day-long protest forced the cancellation of classes.
The school has also begun proceedings to expel nine students it says have repeatedly taken part in disruptive protests and acts of vandalism.
Sandrine Ricci, a lecturer, said the rector had "thrown oil on the fire."
"Several of us met with the rector for more than two hours in an attempt to make him understand that if he did not withdraw the expulsion of students... there would be an escalation of violence on campus," said Ricci.
"He refused to make any concessions."
Blais said that was the appropriate response, and that what really leads to an escalation is leaving protesters to act without consequences.
"We denounce resorting to violence, to intimidation, to destruction. We cannot understand how this happens in a democratic society," said Blais.
"There is only one thing I can do as a the Minister of Education, as a member of the government, and a citizen: We support, wholeheartedly, the decisions of the rector of UQAM."
Blais added that he spoke at length with Proulx and asked if the rector needed additional powers.
"He said no, he did not need that," said the minister.
"The rector told me that many of the protesters are not even students there."
A fight, then an occupation
On Wednesday afternoon police were called again to break up fistfights between protesters and students who were fed up with the repeated attempts to disrupt classes.
That ended with 21 arrests, but there was also a confrontation as professors formed a human chain to stop police from interacting with students.
Montreal police commander Ian Lafreniere said several teachers then tried to "negotiate a release" for the arrested students, but did not seem to understand how the criminal justice system works.
"That's not really what's going on. We're talking about the criminal code now. This is going to be the judge that will decide that. It's not a game, it's not a negotiation. It's a criminal offence," said Lafreniere.
Hours later protesters returned to the J.A. DeSeve building and began barricading themselves inside in hopes of spending the night.
Lacroix said the protesters who were wearing masks had no choice, because otherwise they would face expulsion if their identities were revealed.
Rector Proulx once again called on police for help, and officers did so, ended the protest after four hours and evicting protesters from the building.
In a statement Proulx said the majority of students were at school to learn and it was unfair for a few demonstrators to prevent their education.
"The actions taken [Wednesday] are the work of a minority, are unacceptable and are strongly denounced by this University. It is responsible, and with a goal of maintaining the openness of the school and the security of all people that we have taken the decision to call upon the Montreal police force," he wrote.
Classes impossible due to mess
The mess and debris left behind were so extensive that classes were cancelled on Thursday.
Other student groups say the protests at UQAM have to end, and they will be holding a candlelight vigil Thursday evening.
The Parti Quebecois issued a statement on Thursday saying it was time for the provincial government to legislate ironclad rules giving students "a right to strike" and many reporters pressed the Education Minister to create such a law.
Blais refused to take the bait, saying it was not time to discuss rules regarding student protests.
"That's not at all the issue right now. It's safety," said Blais.
"There is no right to strike for students. They can refuse the gift [of education]. That's all."